Policing style varies based on the type of community the officer serves. Highly legalized communities require “no frills” policing in which punishment is applied equally to everyone. Some communities expect officers to function with a high level of discretion, while other communities expect the officers to use a combination of discretion and law. According to a study conducted by James .Q. Wilson, only three styles of policing exist within the law enforcement organizational structure.
- Police departments operating under a legalistic style operate according to the “letter of the law.” Police conduct themselves in a professional manner. Citizen contact occurs in a formal and neutral process, applying the law to everyone across the board. Procedures are “by the book” with little to no discretion because citizens in a legalistic-style community view police discretion as unethical. Departments employing this style tend to have high performance rates concerning job duties often displayed in arrest and ticketing rates. Decision making tends to occur from the top-down with little input from subordinates.
- Watchman style focuses on maintaining order. This type of policing generally occurs in heavily populated communities that generate a high number of calls for police assistance. Watchman style departments employ discretion as a means of keeping the peace. Officers tend to ignore minor infractions such as traffic violations and minor offense misdemeanors. Officers in this type of department try to resolve minor issues, absent of the commission of a serious crime, without involving other agencies. All police departments display some form of watchman style, but in some departments, this style is the primary operating style.
- Service style policing occurs in middle- and upper-class societies. Service police departments place a high emphasis on community opinion and public relations. Service-oriented policing places less emphasis on minor infractions and more focus on crimes that violate a citizen’s privacy, such as burglary and robbery. Officers tend to make arrests only when necessary. Police strive to keep communities safe from outsiders, while protecting the welfare of citizens within community boundaries. These types of departments run with abundant financial resources and current technological equipment due to the financial status of the citizens.
Examples of Police Discretion
- Traffic Violation – Failed to stop at red light – An officer can use discretion on a driver who failed to stop at a red light. The driver might have missed the sign by accident or be unfamiliar with the area. As long as the officer detects no alcohol or narcotics, he or she can choose to let the driver off with a warning. This is a reasonable use of officer discretion as people do make mistakes and the officer realizes this.
- Traffic Violation – Driving Under Influence (DUI) – An officer can choose to make an arrest in this situation or have the person call another person for a ride home and have the vehicle towed. This discretion is limited in a way, as the officer is understandably not allowed to let a person continue to drive home while intoxicated. This discretion is reasonable, as with both choices the threat someone will die that day or night has ended.
- Domestic Violence – Police officers have some discretion when it comes to domestic violence. The choices are if the officer can see a visible mark on one of the two or more parties, the other person is arrested and in most states, it is a law. If both parties are equally involved in the violence then both parties are either arrested or told to separate for a time to allow the anger to dissipate.
If children are involved, one parent (usually the aggressor in the situation) will be removed for the time being, so that the children will not be handed over to Department of Human Resources (DHR) or Department of Children and Families (DCF).
In closing, the discretion an officer chooses to show a person is one he or she makes based on previous experience and made in a split second after some careful thinking. These decisions are not taking lightly, nor should they be. The power that a police officer wields is a great power and should never be used for personal gain or because of personal feelings. A police officer must always remember the reason he or she became a police officer to begin with and keep that reason alive in their minds at all times.
source: Police Discretion