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Issues with Police Discretion and the Need for Community Policing.

Traditionally, the police have always been given the authority to handle situations in the manner they see fit if in accordance to the scheme of law. "Officers are free to make decisions on whether to intervene in situations and how to intervene (Peak, 2009, p. 153); however, officer discretion is considered to be such a gray area. Questions to why police intervene in some circumstances and not others, in addition to how they intervene, continues to be the center point for most of the controversy surrounding its practice. Those opposed to police discretion believe that because of its potential to be abused there should be more laws in place to regulate and supervise police decision making. Others, who support police discretion, see it as an inevitable practice given the variety of situations and threats law enforcement face requiring the use of their own judgment and quick decision making. It can be argued that both points of view are a necessity, one cannot operate effectively without the other. “Police work by its very nature is discretionary in the sense that it involves the exercise of choice or judgement…officers“on the beat” “very frequently have to make relatively unsupervised discretionary decisions” (Bronitt, S. and Stenning, 2011, p. 320); however, there must be accountability. Discretion does not mean they “can do whatever they want”, but simply that they have options; “they cannot just go out and freely make choices without consequences…they are bound by laws, rules, norms and guidelines when exercising discretion” (Halliday, 2015, p. 3).


The shift in policing, from less interaction with the community to considerably more, has led to more scrutiny of police practices, most notably police discretion.There is overwhelming evidence that supports the effect of multiculturalism on police discretion. "Several studies have found that not only a citizen's demeanor but also his or her social class, sex, age, and race influence the decisions made by patrol officers; this discrimination on the part of the officers points out that the police-like other citizens-are subject to stereotypes and biases that will affect their behavior" (Peak, p. 155). This is detrimental in that it reveals police discretion can be manipulated by outside factors inconsiderate of the law, which intentionally or unintentionally lead to the unfair treatment of certain diverse groups. This revelation supports that efforts to maintain accountability be heightened. Police officers can hinder the efforts of police goals when officers abuse their discretionary authority, resulting in discriminatory behavior. It is important there be a system of check and balances; that discretion be regulated through legislation or the law enforcement department itself. "Law enforcement leaders must be committed to setting an organizational tone that does not permit racism or discriminatory acts and must act swiftly against those who violate these policies" (Shusta, Levine, Wong, Olson, and Harris, 2011, p. 76).


There are varying key issues in law enforcement regarding its interaction with minorities; most notably African Americans, Latinos/Hispanic Americans, and Arab Americans. Issues like racism hinder law enforcement’s effort to build firm relationships with minorities. History points to discrimination, brutality, and racism as being embedded into the foundation of American Police departments. The presence of racism, discrimination, and communication barriers complicate police encounters with minority communities and widen the gap between building trust, as well as, hinder efforts to procure lasting positive relationships. Lurigio, Greenleaf, and Flexon (2009) identify race as “one of the most powerful variables explaining public attitudes towards police” (p. 20). African Americans, Latinos/Hispanic Americans, and Arab Americans share similar sentiments of distrust toward the police; these three groups have experienced some of the most egregious forms of discrimination, maltreatment, misconduct, and negative encounters with the police, occurring in America or within their native country, shaping an often pessimistic and critical perspective of law enforcement. Williams and Murphy (1990) posit that “slavery segregation, discrimination, and racism have affected the development of American police departments—and these factors have affected the quality of policing in the Nation’s minority communities” (p. 1).

The historical background of African Americans reveals a tumultuous and strained relationship with American society and more specifically law enforcement. African Americans are different from other immigrants who chose to come to the United States or refugees who fled from their native countries in order to avoid oppression and persecution (Shusta et al, 2011). Their lineage points back to West Africa. Blacks did not voluntary come to the United States but were forced/kidnapped and sold into slavery. According to Shusta et al (2011) “slavery is the centerpiece of many of the societal dynamics we see today among blacks and whites; law enforcement bears a particular burden because of the role it has played in the treatment of African Americans” (p. 167). Law enforcement interaction with African Americans is riddled with historical baggage, many of the problems associated with the police and African Americans can be traced back to slavery days in which law enforcement was given the task of returning runaway slaves, dealing out punishment, and “enforcing deeply biased, highly discriminatory laws” (Shusta et al, 2011, p. 169).

The roots of racism that fueled slavery are still present today in modern policing. Discrimination and maltreatment of African Americans are still practiced by some members of law enforcement. There is a huge disconnect and distrust of police, especially among minorities, considerably so. Historically, minorities have more negative experiences with police than positive. The recent media attention revolving around the deaths of many unarmed African Americans at the hands of police have not only left the African American community divided, but society in regard to whether or not law enforcement has too much discretion, especially when it comes to the use of deadly force. It has also fueled the debate over racism, bias, and prejudice, within law enforcement; how it interferes with their ability to exercise sound judgement. Although there are no specific “bright and shinning lines” to police discretion, except to say that police should not exercise their discretionary authority without first giving thought to the law and ethics, evaluating their personal bias and prejudices, and the possible consequences of their actions; because it can be so easily abused and influenced by the personal beliefs or prejudices of an officer toward diverse groups, the degree to which police officers are free to make discretionary decisions should be tempered with justice, fairness and “common sense” (Bronitt &Stenning, 2011; Chihan and Wells, 2011).


There is now more effort by police organizations to rectify the damages of the past and build better relationships with minority communities. It is indeed a monumental task that involves addressing key issues in law enforcement synonymous with police interactions with blacks. Differential treatment, racial profiling in the African American community, reactions to and perceptions of authority, and excessive force and brutality are just some of the primary issues that challenge the efforts toward a positive relationship between police and the black community. Research by Lurigio, Greenleaf, and Flexon (2009) on the effects of race on relationships with the police found that African Americans hold unfavorable attitudes toward the police; they are “more likely than members of other racial groups to be victims of crime…they are also more likely to have negative contacts with the police, to be stopped disproportionately by police, and to report incidents of police harassment and mistreatment” (p. 30); because of this, there is a necessity for differential treatment, and a greater effort is required on behalf of law enforcement to change African American attitudes toward police—community relations in order to create more positive experiences or contact with African Americans by individual officers (Shusta et al, 2011).


Over the past twenty years there has been a shift from traditional policing to community policing. Law enforcement is now focused on building partnerships with the community in order to better meet policing initiatives. There is an awareness of the vital role that the community plays in problem solving and addressing crime. Law enforcement and the community are interdependent upon one another, collaborating together to control and prevent crime effectively. The basic principles of community policing involve redefining the role of law enforcement and the community, embracing community partnerships and community policing strategies to protect and create a safer society. However, there are many challenges regarding the implementation of community policing; communities and police agencies struggle with issues pertaining to diversity. Nevertheless, police officers recognize the need for active support and assistance from the community to be effective in addressing and preventing crime. Community policing is one of the few options we have to build better relations with the police and communities. One effective way to develop positive relationships with diverse cultures within the community and law enforcement is through community outreach programs. Community outreach programs help educate the public on crime trends, the culture of law enforcement and their role in protecting and serving the community, in addition to giving the community an opportunity to voice their concerns. Community policing depends upon the partnerships formed with the community and community involvement in order to more effectively control and prevent crime; therefore law enforcement should work within to accept diversity and recruit law enforcement personnel that reflect the changing face of society; “through increased awareness, cultural knowledge, and skills, law enforcement as a profession can increase its cultural competence” (Shusta et al, 2011, p. 5) and better serve and protect multicultural communities. Law enforcement must be active in improving community relations and public perceptions of law enforcement.



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Bronitt, S. and Stenning, P. (2011). Understanding discretion in modern policing. Criminal Law Journal, 37, 319-332.


Halliday, G. (2015). LEAJ Issue Paper: Police Discretion. www.wiu.edu/coehs/leja/cacj/.../haliday.doc


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Shusta, R.M, Levine, D. R., Wong, Z. H., Olson, T. A., and Harris, R. P. (2008). Multicultural law enforcement: Strategies for peacekeeping in a diverse society, (5th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


Williams, H., and Murphy, V. P. (1990). The Evolving Strategy of Police: Minority View. National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, 13, 1-16.


U.S. Department of Justice, Community Oriented Police Services (COPS). (2014). Community Policing Defined. http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/vets-to-cops/e030917193-CP-Defined.pdf

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