Police Officers Discretion

Application: Discretion

Imagine working for someone who shows you the basics of your job and then gives you the freedom to decide the best way to get your work done within a given set of rules. In effect, that is the nature of police work and police discretion. Police officers are tasked with keeping a community safe and enforcing the law. If a situation presents a danger to an officer or to others, he or she may use lethal force to enforce the law. If a situation involves a minor parking violation, he or she may use discretion to let someone off with a warning, perhaps with the intent of showing community members that officers are there to help and not simply write tickets or make arrests.

The police have the discretion to warn, cite, or arrest citizens. They are also human beings and prone to emotions such as sympathy and anger. Think of how an officer would respond to a situation in which he or she is confronted with a mother who has been abusing her child. An officer who is also a parent may react differently than one who is not. In practice, officers in situations like these must keep their emotional reactions in check. Officers need to use police discretion in a manner that is beneficial to society and the law, not based on personal feelings toward a given individual. In this assignment, you examine how police officers use police discretion.

To prepare for this assignment:

  • Review Chapter 3 of your course text, Policing America: Challenges and Best Practices. Pay attention to the definitions and application of discretion in the various types of police work.
  • Review the article “Discretion and Criminal Law: The Good, the Bad, and the Mundane.” Focus on how discretion is framed in the context of criminal law and how it functions under that law.
  • Review the article “Police Discretion Called ‘Cornerstone of Justice System.'” Pay attention to the importance of discretion in the justice system.
  • Review the assigned pages in the article “‘Broken Windows’ and Police Discretion.” Pay attention to the criteria for the exercise of police discretion.
  • Review the scenario below and think about how the police officer might use discretion.


At around 3:30 p.m., an on-duty officer on the Wednesday afternoon shift notices a young man speeding and switching lanes erratically. The officer is concerned because there is a school nearby with several crosswalks on the road next to it and she fears the driver may be intoxicated. The officer pulls the driver over. The young man explains that he is on his way to the hospital to see his ailing father. He received a call from a family member who said his father had suffered a heart attack and had been rushed to the emergency room.

The assignment (1–2 pages):

  • Explain three ways in which the police officer in the scenario might use her discretion. In your explanation, describe the potential outcomes of each example illustrating the use of discretion.
  • Explain at least two insights you had or conclusions you drew about police discretion, as a result of completing this assignment.

Support your Application Assignment with specific references to all resources used in its preparation. You are asked to provide a reference list only for those resources not included in the Learning Resources for this course.

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