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Police discretion is defined as the freedom to choose how to respond to a given situation depending on the circumstances. That choice is extended by the law and it is to be exercised on one’s own discretion. However, police discretion has its limits. It is not a blanket cover under which the police can commit crimes and get away with perfect impunity.

Discretion is prescribed under the law and in certain circumstances only. Factors that generally limit discretion include the law and departmental policy.

Policemen do not exercise discretion in all kinds of circumstances. Discretion can be limited or eliminated due to law and departmental policy. For example, if a police officer becomes a witness to a crime, he is required by law to place the suspect under arrest. As per departmental policy, a police officer might also be required to issue citations for all instances of seat belt violations.

Generally policemen are faced with two or more decisions at a time, and it is upon an individual police officer to rely on what he/she he perceives as the best decision, given the unique circumstances of the case. He should be not be guided by ill motives but rather look for a solution that ultimately leads to the best outcome for all parties involved.

The Advantages of Police Discretion

The advantages of police discretion is the recognition that the police operate in an environment that understands the unpredictability of human beings, and as such not every situation can be laid down in law to determine the course of action to be followed. Police discretion, therefore, allows the police to make impromptu decisions, which should always be in the best interest of the society as a whole. The officers have flexibility to deal with all types of criminal acts (Goldstein, 2002).

Another advantage of police discretion is that it allows the police to decongest jails and prisons. For example, a policeman dealing with a traffic offender may have the discretion to imprison the offender or write a ticket. If the police officer is of the view that the person is not a menace to the society or is unlikely to repeat the offence again, he/she can write a ticket instead. This helps deal with the already crowded jail cells that the country has to contend with.

Disadvantages of Police Discretion

Disadvantages of police discretion are that there may be instances of favouritism or bias when enforcing the law. This is because all human beings are essentially a sum total of all the experiences that have shaped them. These experiences form the perception individuals have of certain aspects of their lives, thus leading to bias even when they are unaware of it. This is the basis of the problem of inconsistency in application of police discretion.  It is a tenet of the law that the law should be applied equally to all citizens. Therefore, police discretion may serve as a loophole for certain citizens to escape the full force of the law, while others may be unfairly punished.

As regards the question of whether police work is too complex to scrutinize and micromanage in every circumstance, it is clear that the community comprehends this truth, and hence the leeway which is police discretion. Police discretion is exercised within the constraints of the law. The law, on the other hand, is created by legislators who are representatives of their electorate; therefore, it is safe to assume that the community does understand the need for police discretion. However, the police must understand that discretion is not unlimited, and the community reserves the right to question some of their decisions. This will inspire a feeling of transparency and accountability in the police, which will ensure access to justice for all. 

Obviously, elimination of police discretion is not a feasible option. While certain biases and prejudices are ingrained into human nature, it would be possible to try and eliminate such through certain methods. Police discretion will, therefore, be highly successful, if properly regulated.

Methods that can be used include developing strict policies and guidelines that guide the force. For example, it has been noted that the New York City Police Department started a strict policy based on “defence of life.” Based on this policy, the officers were encouraged to to spare life at all time. One should shoot where all other options have been exhausted and proved futile. Because of this policy, the number of police shootings reduced by thirty pre cent. Because of the success of this policy, other police departments all over the state were encouraged to adopt it, and this led to a reduction in shooting incidents by 50% between 1970 and 1984 (Engel, 2003).

Police discretion can also be taught by emphasising ethics. It should be emphasised that policemen are servants of the people, and, therefore, should exercise conduct befitting such a noble mandate. They should also be encouraged to avoid bad habits and employ excellent reasoning.

Ethics education seeks to ensure that police officers are worthy of the public‘s trust. Police departments must produce a code of conduct for their officers. Every officer should be encouraged to act according to that code, and failure to abide by it would result in punishment.

There should also be routine trainings for police officers in a bid to eliminate any bias they may have. These should be conducted by experienced personnel who specialise in dealing with such problems.

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The trainings should also incorporate real-life dilemmas which police officers would ordinarily face in everyday world. Specialists conducting trainings should then seek to get the response of police officers with regard to those particular situations. This will help the specialist analyse the levels of bias that may be inherent in each of police officers. This will help supervisors determine which officer is most competent in dealing with troubling scenarios, thus eliminating instances of bias by sending the most competent to handle difficult situations.

The question of gratuities and gifts should also be tackled. Most officers do not earn extremely high salaries, hence the temptation to take gratuities and gifts from citizens. While it is not generally wrong to accept such gifts, they could cloud his/her judgement when dealing with a particular case. This will most likely lead to a situation where certain people feel biased against. While this may not necessarily be true, the underlying principle in law is that one must not only be fair but seen to be fair as well (Goldstein, 1977).

While it may not be possible to measure the exact level of reduced bias and prejudices in officers, it can be established by carrying out surveys. For example, in a neighbourhood where a lot of black people are often shot on suspicion of carrying a weapon, statistics can be gathered to compute the change after undergoing such trainings.

After analysing the results of surveys, specialists can compare the level of prejudice and bias in certain officers who repeatedly abused their authority to harass certain groups of people. This will help achieve either a decline or increase in the number of arrests made against persons of the same type. Based on this survey, one will be able to tell whether the tools and methods being used in an attempt to regularize police discretion are working or not. 

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