You are a patrol sergeant lecturing to a college class about the patrol function. Someone raises her hand and asks, “Sergeant, your officers obviously can’t enforce all of the laws all of the time. Which laws are always enforced, and which ones are not? What factors determine how police discretion is used?” The concepts of police discretion and ethics are obviously intertwined because all ethical dilemmas involve making a choice. How would you respond (without saying something like “We enforce all of the laws, all of the time,” which of course would be untrue)? How would you fully explain police discretion to the citizens’ group? How do you explain the fostering of good ethical decision making and discretion? How do you explain which laws are enforced first and the discretion involved in that ethical decision making?
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he first step that should be identified is the possibility of serving the greater good (Arrigo & Williams, 2012) in law enforcement. When an officer observes an elderly lady travelling to the grocery store with a burned out taillight and a known criminal driving a vehicle who is known to not have a license, which person should the officer stop? Both are violations of the law, but does one serve the greater good?
One may argue that the officer should stop the criminal and make an arrest because for his greater violation. But, what if the elderly lady is struck and killed in a car accident because her taillight did not signal her turn? Did we serve the greater good in any form? The officer is faced with this decision on most days as they complete traffic stops and make choices about what type of enforcement activity they should be engaged in.
Discretion is the ability to make a decision in a moment when several options may provide differing results (Peak, 2012), many of which are positive. Ultimately the proper decision will bring about the most good for the most people. Law enforcement is often seen as decisions that are black and white, while really the grey predominates. The city should be reviewed and problems identified that need addressing. When these problems are encountered the police officer should make the decision that promotes the program to reduce the identified problems. This is an aspect of community policing that can result in positive policing and positive community interaction.
To speak in particular rather than generalities, there are certain laws that must be enforced when encountered by police. DUI’s, Domestic Violence Incidents, and Child Abuse cases require enforcement and reporting actions that dictate what the officer must do (Colorado District Attorney’s Council, 2013). But, when examined closely, there is still room for discretion based on the elements of the case.
When an officer examines a situation and is faced with an ethical decision regarding the proper actions to take, they must be ready to adapt as the information continues to arrive. The officer must first provide safety to those involved, prevent injury, preserve evidence, and preserve the integrity of witnesses. The decisions made every day by officers reflect the department and therefore must be based on knowledge and experience gained in their career (Gaines & Worrall, 2012). The training issues for the department again become a concern and ethical decision making should be of high importance in the training program. These should be founded on the direction of community policing in an effort to resolve community addressed problems and be seen as decisions for the greater good.
Arrigo, B. A., & Williams, C. R. (2012). Ethics, Crime, and Criminal Justice (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.
Colorado District Attorney’s Council. (2013). Colorado Revised Statutes. Denver: Bradford Publishing.
Gaines, L. K., & Worrall, J. L. (2012). Police Administration (3 ed.). (L. Main, Ed.) Clifton Park, New York: Delmar Cengage Learning.
Peak, K. J. (2012). Policing America: Challenges and Best Practices. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc