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Police officers exercise a tremendous amount of discretion in carrying out their functions. That is, they make many choices from a range of possible actions or inactions available to them, and their choices are not specifically prescribed by law, policy, procedure, or rule. This simple notion, which seems self-evident to some and controversial to others, lies at the heart of many issues of policing in democratic societies.
That the police do exercise discretion was only recognized and openly acknowledged beginning in the 1960s (J. Goldstein 1960; H. Goldstein 1963; LaFave 1965; Davis 1969). The conventional view prior to that time, and persisting among some long thereafter, was that the police function was entirely a ministerial one: that the police only took actions that were specifically authorized or mandated by legislative bodies. Under this view, policing was understood to be simply a matter of enforcing the laws on the books. But a number of pioneering research studies of policing in action found that the law was silent on many important matters involving police action and ambiguous on others, and police officers did not always adhere to what the law prescribed, even where the law was clear and specific (Banton 1965; Skolnick 1966; Wilson 1968; Westley 1970; Reiss 1971; Brown 1981).
The exercise of discretion is nearly inevitable in policing (H. Goldstein 1977). Some laws are practically unenforceable because they are outdated, or widely unpopular, or unconstitutional, or lack enforceable sanctions. Legislatures pass laws, and fail to abolish others, for a variety of purposes, only one of which is to establish clear expectations and guidelines for enforcement through police action. Moreover, the police seek to achieve various objectives in carrying out their duties, and at times, those objectives conflict with one another. In such instances, the police must decide which objectives take precedence over others. For example, during a public demonstration held in the streets, the police may find that the objective of keeping traffic avenues clear conflicts with the objective of safeguarding citizens’ rights to peaceful protest.
Even absent conflicting objectives, police and other criminal justice resources are far too limited to allow the police to enforce all laws exhaustively. Most communities would not tolerate full enforcement of the law, even if resources would allow it, preferring a degree of police tolerance, especially for minor legal transgressions. The very capacity of the criminal justice system to continue functioning in many communities depends to a great extent on the police not fully enforcing the law. Sudden increases in police arrest activity can seriously challenge the capacity of the legal system to process the resultant cases.
Discretion is exercised in policing at all levels of the police hierarchy. In contrast with other occupations and professions, the greatest amount of discretion in policing is exercised at the line level by patrol officers and detectives, but super-visors and policy makers also exercise large amounts of discretion.
Fundamentals Of Police Discretion
Perhaps the most profound types of discretionary decisions made in policing are the decisions to use force and to arrest. In regard to the use of force, Bittner (1970: 46) famously described the core of the police role as “the distribution of nonnegotiably coercive force employed in accordance with the dictates of an intuitive grasp of situational exigencies.” What Bittner meant is that the police are regularly called to the scenes of trouble and sometimes find it on their own. These situations are often confusing, if not chaotic. In these situations, police officers are authorized to use reasonable force, if necessary, in order to quell the trouble. The decision about whether the use of force is necessary, and if so, how much force to use, is discretionary. The decision is made by the officer or officers on the scene, based on their “intuitive grasp” of the circumstances (the “situational exigencies”) as they unfold.
Police decisions about whether to arrest are discretionary too. Generally, the police are authorized to arrest (1) with a warrant issued by a court, (2) whenever a person commits any crime in their presence, and (3) whenever they have probable cause to believe that a felony (serious) crime has been committed and that a particular person has committed it, even if the probable cause is based on secondhand or third hand information. In regard to warrantless arrests (types 2 and 3 above), which are the most commonplace arrest situations, law and official policy rarely say that the police must arrest. Most often the law says, or is interpreted as meaning, that the police may arrest, leaving discretion in the hands of ordinary police officers.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous discretionary situations encountered by the police are the decisions whether to stop drivers who violate traffic laws and, when traffic stops are made, whether to cite the drivers and, further, to search the vehicle for evidence or contraband. Many observed traffic violations are minor in nature (such as driving 1 mile over the speed limit) and therefore frequently ignored by the police or, at most, addressed with a warning. By the same token, poor driving causes many deaths and injuries every year and a huge amount of property loss, so traffic policing, and its associated discretionary decision making, should not be dismissed as a trivial matter. As well, when officers decide to issue citations to drivers, fines are routinely in the hundreds of dollars today and can result in the loss of driving privileges, which in turn can have serious consequences for employment and income. Moreover, the police commonly engage in traffic enforcement as a method of more serious crime control: to locate illegal guns and drugs, to locate persons with outstanding arrest warrants, to disrupt illegal drug and prostitution markets, to deter burglars and thieves from prowling neighborhoods, and so forth.
There exists some research data about the frequency of these three major discretionary situations – use of force, arrests, and traffic enforcement. Clearly, the police frequently choose not to use force, or have no justification to do so – estimates are that the police use physical force (beyond handcuffing) in only about 20 % of all arrests (Terrill et al. 2008), in only 2–3 % of all encounters with the public (Friedrich 1980), and in less than 1 % of all traffic stops (Eith and Durose 2011). Similarly, the police often choose not to arrest – one study estimated that the police make arrests in about one-half of situations when it would be lawful to do so (Black 1980), and another study found that arrests are made in only 5 % of total police encounters with the public (Whitaker 1982). This still results in a large number of arrests though – 13 million in 2010, of which 2.2 million were for violent or property offenses, 1.6 million for drug offenses, and 1.4 million for drunken driving (FBI 2011). The picture is similar regarding traffic enforcement, with just over half (55 %) of 18 million drivers stopped in 2008 reporting that they were given a citation (Eith and Durose 2011).
Beyond use of force, custodial arrests, and traffic citations, the police make many other types of discretionary decisions, including decisions about which laws to invoke when an arrest or other form of detention is made (e.g., whether to add a charge of resisting arrest when an offender does not come along peacefully); whether to refer matters to other agencies; what tactics to adopt in mounting proactive operations; what conduct to investigate, what investigative techniques to apply, and how intrusive those techniques are; what level of resources to commit to various activities, places, and problems; whether to secure prior authorization for certain actions (e.g., whether to apply for search warrants or other court orders); what level of urgency to give to various duties; whether to grant permission for certain activities to take place (e.g., where the police are responsible for issuing parade permits); and so forth. Many of these discretionary decisions are made by patrol officers and detectives, but some are also made by supervisors and commanders.
Variations In Discretion
The range of choices open to police officers varies in different types of situations, as does the degree of latitude that they have in making those choices. So, for example, if an officer is dealing with a person experiencing a mental health crisis, it matters if there is a specialized unit that can respond and take over, or if there is a mental health crisis center to which the person can be taken, or a psychiatric unit within the local hospital. If none of those options is available, then the number of choices open to the officer is more limited – to perhaps not much more than curbside counseling or an arrest for disorderly conduct.
In some jurisdictions, while the law may authorize the police to arrest for certain offenses, that option may not really be available. For example, the county jail may be completely full, causing the jail administrator or sheriff to advise local agencies not to make any arrests except in extreme cases. In this situation, police officers may still have the option to issue a citation to an offender, but the option of physical or custodial arrest would be severely curtailed. In another scenario, it is common for prosecutors to inform police departments that, because of heavy caseloads facing the court, arrests should not be made for particular categories of minor offenses. This situation would discourage even the issuance of a citation, unless the accused had the option of paying a fine in lieu of trial, thus preventing any additional workload burden on the court.
Another real-world constraint on police discretion is the number of police officers available to handle other police matters should an officer take some action that removes him or her from the streets for an extended period. Whether in small agencies where there is only one police officer on duty or in larger agencies where police reinforcements are a long distance away, an officer might have to weigh the benefits of making an arrest against the costs of being tied up for several hours processing the arrestee, leaving no or few other officers to police the area. Both the public’s and any remaining officers’ safety must be taken into account. An added dimension could be that the county jail, hospital, or other facility is many miles away, building even more processing time into the detention and literally taking the officer out of the jurisdiction. These kinds of practical constraints may narrow the real range of choices available to officers when handling various situations, thereby further constraining their discretion.
In regard to the use of force, not all police officers and police departments have the same equipment available to them, which can affect their range of options in some situations. For example, conducted energy devices (e.g., Tasers) have become commonplace, but some officers do not have them and thus do not have one of the more effective less-lethal weapon options in confrontations with combative subjects. Similarly, when a high-speed pursuit is underway, the range of options is affected by whether the officers out ahead of the pursued vehicle have stop sticks or similar technology. Likewise, in a hostage or barricaded-person scenario, some police officers might have sophisticated communications, eavesdropping, or breaching technology available, while others might not, affecting the tactical choices open to them.
From a comparative perspective, the 18,000 chief police executives in the United States probably have broader discretion than their counterparts in most other countries, because of the highly decentralized structure of American policing. A US police chief has the authority to choose the type of pursuit-driving policy to implement, whether to place a higher priority on drug enforcement or traffic enforcement, whether to require applicants to have a college degree, how to address various types of policing incidents and problems, and so forth. In a country with a unitary (national) police system, these and other decisions are usually made at the national level, leaving much less discretion in the hands of local commanders. Sheriffs in the United States may have the broadest executive-level discretion of all, since they are locally elected and are primarily accountable to the electorate rather than to other government executives.
Differing legal systems may also affect police discretion. Within the United States, local and state police officers generally exercise wider discretion than do federal law enforcement officers, whose investigations, in particular, are guided to a larger degree by prosecutors (US attorneys) than is common at the state and local levels. Similarly, in countries that have civil law or inquisitorial legal systems, judges and/or prosecutors often direct investigations, reducing the degree of discretion available to police. In some countries, frontline police personnel (the equivalent of patrol officers in the United States or constables in the UK) do not have the same broad authority or discretion in the use of force, arrest, and investigation described in the previous section. The actual legal authority of ordinary police officers is more restricted, or organizational rules and procedures require them to get permission from superior officers before taking significant actions. Of course, it is also true that in some countries the authority of the police to detain, search, and interrogate is even broader (under the law or simply in practice) than discussed here, effectively increasing the amount of discretion available to those permitted to exercise the authority, whether it is frontline police personnel or superior officers.
Factors That Affect Police Use Of Discretion
An important theme in police research has been the study of police decision making. Besides documenting the existence of discretion, as described above, many studies have looked for patterns and correlations in police decisions to use force, stop vehicles and pedestrians, make arrests, issue citations, and conduct searches. Factors affecting police decision making and the use of discretion by police officers fall into four general categories: situational characteristics, police officer characteristics, police organization characteristics, and neighborhood/jurisdiction characteristics.
Consistent with the finding that the police exercise broad discretion and also consistent with Bittner’s (1970) argument that police behavior is guided by “situational exigencies,” characteristics of the situations in which the police encounter the public have been found to have the greatest influence on police decisions to arrest, cite, and use force (Skogan and Frydl 2004). Among these, studies have found that the most influential are legal factors – the seriousness of the offense committed by the suspect, the suspect’s previous offending history, the amount of evidence available, and the degree of threat posed by the suspect toward the officer. This finding – that police use of discretion is affected more by legal factors than any others – is reassuring. A related quasi-legal factor that also has some influence is the stated preference of the victim, especially when the victim asks the officer not to arrest the suspect.
Compared to these legal factors, a variety of extralegal situational factors have been found to have mixed and inconsistent effects on police use of discretion. These extralegal factors include the demeanor of the suspect and the suspect’s race, sex, and social class. Each of these factors has been found to influence police decision making in some studies, but not always in the same direction, plus many other studies have found no effects. Of these factors, the one that has gotten the most empirical support, especially in more recent studies, is race (Kochel et al. 2011). Studies of so-called racial profiling consistently find that people of color are disproportionately stopped by the police, whether as drivers or as pedestrians, and once stopped are more likely to be searched. The key question, of course, is whether these police decisions to stop and search people of color are made based on the extralegal factor of the race of the person, or whether they are based on legal factors such as the seriousness of the person’s behavior and the amount of evidence that is available. Unfortunately, research on racial profiling has not generally been able to answer that key question.
Police decision making and use of discretion might also be influenced by the personal characteristics of the police officer, such as his or her race, sex, and level of education. However, the cumulative findings from many studies indicate that these factors do not have large or consistent effects on police officer behavior. Similarly, neither police officers’ general orientations toward their role nor their levels of authoritarianism, cynicism, or job satisfaction have been found to have any consistent influence on their use of discretion.
A third set of factors that might affect police officer decision making is organization-level characteristics. For example, officers in small police departments might use their discretion differently than officers in larger departments, officer decision making might vary between different types of agencies (e.g., municipal police departments versus sheriff’s offices), or decision making might be influenced by the degree to which a police organization is centralized, specialized, or formalized. The internal climate or culture of a police organization might also lead to variations in police behavior, including decision making. While a good case can be made that organizational characteristics such as these ought to affect the use of discretion by organization members, the kinds of multiorganization studies that would be needed to verify such effects have simply not been conducted.
It has also been argued that police use of discretion varies according to characteristics external to the police, such as between rural, suburban, and urban communities, or between poor neighborhoods and affluent ones. Once again, a theoretical case can be made that community characteristics should influence police behavior, including decision making in discretionary situations, but relatively few studies have been able to incorporate multiple neighborhoods and/or multiple jurisdictions, and the results from those few studies have not been consistent (Varano et al. 2009). As was true for officer characteristics and organizational characteristics, community characteristics have not been found to have as much impact on police officers’ use of discretion as situational characteristics, and within the latter, legal factors seem to have the greatest influence.
Consequences Of Police Discretion
As discussed above, police discretion seems inevitable given the broad mandate of the police, the incredible variety of situations that the police encounter, the tendency of legislatures to pass laws that no one expects will be fully enforced, the limited capacity of jails and courts, and numerous other philosophical and practical considerations. So the police have broad discretion, though more in some situations than others. Also as noted, studies indicate that situational legal factors affect police officers’ decisions more than any other factors, although future studies using better methodologies may reveal that extralegal factors (such as the race of the suspect) and the characteristics of police organizations and communities have more influence than can presently be demonstrated.
Given the existence of police discretion, what are its consequences? The most obvious immediate result is that the police often choose not to enforce the law, thus softening the impact of the criminal law on people’s lives. With discretion, officers get to choose how to handle various situations, and at least half the time when an arrest could be made or a citation issued, they choose under-enforcement or some other version of leniency. Because of discretion, officers’ actions can be affected by sympathy and empathy, and officers have the opportunity to choose what they consider to be the most fair or just resolution of the situation, even if that entails not enforcing the law. Discretion enables the police to treat people as people, taking into consideration a person’s circumstances, motives, intent, remorse, and promises – many would say that discretion allows the police to humanize the application of the criminal law.
This phenomenon of under-enforcement enabled by discretion might be a cause for more serious concern if it reduced the deterrent effect of arrest and punishment, emboldening potential offenders and creating a sense of impunity within society. Such a concern is less warranted though, since the police exercise their discretion mainly in response to minor crimes and disorders. It is generally the person caught drinking in public, driving 10 miles over the speed limit, or shoplifting a small item who benefits from an officer’s decision to handle a matter informally, not the burglar, robber, or murderer. With that said, however, it is also true that detectives and prosecutors have discretion in making “deals” even with serious crime suspects, as when they offer to reduce or drop charges in return for confessions, incriminating evidence or testimony against codefendants, and other types of cooperation. The exercise of discretion by detectives has not been studied as closely as the discretionary arrest and use of force decisions made by patrol officers.
Concern about the consequences of underenforcement and leniency cannot be ignored, despite the evidence that the police have been making lots and lots of arrests. “Zero tolerance” campaigns remain very popular, at least in the United States. It is not usually necessary to declare zero tolerance for murder or robbery – rather, zero tolerance campaigns usually target such lesser offenses as street prostitution and panhandling, or else they define a specific geographic area within which all criminal laws will be enforced, no matter how minor. In the public forum and in police strategy circles, zero tolerance is most commonly presented as a strict crime-control policy, leading to debates about whether it is fair, sustainable, and effective in reducing crime. However, zero tolerance is also a direct assault on police discretion. A zero tolerance policy takes discretion away from police officers since it eliminates every option other than enforcement.
In light of the concern that police discretion might result in too much leniency, it is ironic to note that, at least in the United States over the last 20 years, jails and prisons have been full, if not overflowing. In other words, the police have had broad discretion, and the evidence indicates that they have regularly used it to avoid making arrests – and yet, court dockets are crowded and jails are full. One might wonder what the situation would be if not for police discretion.
There is one aspect and consequence of this discretion/leniency phenomenon that deserves special consideration. Police discretion sometimes extends to deciding whether a reported event counts as a crime, whether to record it as a serious crime or a lesser crime, whether to thoroughly investigate it, and whether to recommend it for prosecution (Lum 2011). If the victim of a reported crime is perceived by an officer as unworthy of serious concern, the crime might be discounted or ignored. For example, this might occur to a woman domestic violence victim or sexual assault victim if the police officer identifies more with the other party involved, or if the officer believes that the victim somehow contributed to her own misfortune. Similarly, an officer might fail to act in response to a reported crime if the victim is someone whose status is not fully respected, such as a recent immigrant or a person whose sexual orientation is considered deviant by the officer. In these examples, discretion allows the police to act leniently toward offenders in situations in which their victims are held in low regard. It can be argued that these are simply more examples of discretion enabling the police to pursue justice and fairness rather than mandatory enforcement, but it is at least equally possible that, in these types of cases, discretion allows officers to act on the basis of their own stereotypes and biases to the disadvantage of deserving victims.
Another potential problem with discretion and under-enforcement/leniency arises if the police are more lenient toward majority groups and higher status individuals than others. The police might seem lenient if they only arrest 30 % of the people they stop for drinking in public, or if they only conduct searches in conjunction with 10 % of their traffic stops. Analyses often indicate, however, that members of minority groups are disproportionately arrested for minor offenses and disproportionately subject to searches following traffic stops. In other words, the overall picture is one of under-enforcement, but often the enforcement that is undertaken is differentially applied to persons of color. As explained above, this pattern of police discretionary decision making, often called racial profiling, might still be accounted for by situational legal factors, but it might also be a reflection of conscious or unconscious bias.
The inherent and most fundamental challenge associated with discretion is simply inconsistency. Discretion gives police officers leeway in deciding how to handle encounters and confrontations based on an “intuitive grasp” of each situation. Ultimately, some people caught with a marijuana cigarette get arrested and some do not; some drivers who fail to signal their turns get citations and some do not. This brings into focus two competing conceptions of justice and fairness – one perspective says that fairness is treating every rule breaker the same, while the other perspective says that fairness is treating each person as a person, according to their unique circumstances. Many of us subscribe to the first viewpoint as long as it is applied to others, but want the second approach taken when we are the ones against whom the rules and laws might be applied.
Guiding And Controlling Police Discretion
While police discretion may be inevitable, it is widely accepted that it should not be unfettered: that it needs to be guided and controlled in order to avoid the kinds of negative consequences discussed above, including inconsistency, undue leniency, and discrimination. State statutes and local laws can and do guide police discretion to a certain degree. For example, some legislatures have sought to restrict police discretion in specific types of cases, notably in the realm of domestic violence through laws mandating arrest of offenders (Phillips and Sobol 2010). Such efforts sometimes merely shift the locus of discretion, however. If the law requires the police to arrest whenever they have probable cause to believe that a domestic assault has occurred, but officers in some situations do not think that arrest is the best response, they may become more likely to decide that the evidence falls short of probable cause, or that no crime has occurred at all. In some cases this kind of decision making may also be driven by a victim’s stated preference for no arrest or by knowledge that the prosecutor is only willing to take certain kinds of cases into court. This is not to say that mandatory laws have no impact on police discretion and decision making, but it is important to recognize that the police and other criminal justice decision makers tend to react in ways that preserve their discretion (Green and Kelso 2010).
The supervising authority of the courts, including specific court rulings and the risk of civil liability, also has the potential to influence the exercise of police discretion, at least at the margins. The US Supreme Court’s Tennessee v. Garner (1985) decision is a case in point. Prior to Garner, the police had the discretion to use deadly force in situations in which a fleeing or escaping felon could be captured only by shooting them as they fled. The Supreme Court ruled that this authority was too broad and effectively revoked the “fleeing felon rule,” thus narrowing police discretion in the use of deadly force.
By themselves, however, laws and court decisions are generally inadequate for guiding and controlling police discretion. As noted, often they merely shift the locus of discretion to another point in the process. Also, court decisions typically resolve one specific issue but leave others unaddressed. The Garner case, for example, eliminated one ancient common law justification for police use of deadly force, but did not posit a new rule in its place or seek to clarify other justifications for police use of deadly force. Moreover, one of the key legal principles underlying police use of force, including deadly force, is “reasonableness” – the police can use any level of force that is reasonable to defend themselves or others from serious threats of bodily harm or to carry out their other lawful responsibilities, such as enforcing the law. While the Garner case ruled that deadly force was unreasonable in one particular set of circumstances, the reasonableness standard remains and it is inherently vague and subjective. An inevitable consequence is that the police have significant discretion in deciding whether to use force and how much force to use.
In large part because of these limitations of the law, written policies and procedures are increasingly used by police agencies to set out the parameters of officers’ discretion in certain types of cases and to provide contextual guidance for the proper exercise of it. In the case of domestic violence, for example, police department policies often reinforce and tighten legal requirements by (1) articulating limited exceptions to mandatory enforcement, (2) requiring written justification whenever nonenforcement is chosen in an applicable situation, (3) identifying decisions that require supervisory approval, and (4) specifying penalties for failing to adhere to legal and policy mandates. Similarly, in the case of deadly force, police department policies frequently define an even narrower range of justifications than anything found in the law, they usually caution officers about the sanctity of human life, and they invariably specify elaborate processes that must be followed in the aftermath of any incident in which the police exercise force that could lead to death, regardless of whether anyone dies or is even injured. In neither case, domestic violence nor use of force, do written policies completely eliminate discretion, but they constrain and guide it more thoroughly than is accomplished by law alone.
Somewhat less common, but no less important, are written policies that provide guidance for the exercise of discretion in general. One example policy identifies factors that officers should and should not take into consideration when deciding whether to make an arrest (Scott 1995):
In general, police officers, using sound professional judgment, may take the following factors into consideration when deciding whether or not to arrest a citizen: (a) the seriousness and nature of the offense (generally, the more serious the offense, the more likely arrest is the preferred course of action); (b) the potential that arrest will effectively resolve a conflict; (c) the availability of legal alternatives to arrest that would adequately resolve the conflict or problem; (d) the likelihood that the citizen will be deterred from future violations by warning and education; (e) the officer’s belief that the citizen made an honest mistake in violation of the law; (f) the victim-witness’s interest in prosecution; (g) the likelihood of formal prosecution of the offense; (h) the potential that arrest will create more serious breaches of the peace or other problems (e.g., inciting riot); (i) legitimate competing priorities for police resources.
The following factors are among those that are improper for a police officer to consider in deciding whether or not to make an arrest: (a) the citizen’s economic status, race, ethnicity, gender, or other status for which the law prohibits legal discrimination; (b) the revenue likely to be generated by fines or penalties imposed upon conviction; (c) the personal or professional relationship that the citizen has to the police officer or to other influential citizens; (d) the personal advantage to the officer for processing or avoiding processing of the arrest (e.g., overtime compensation, desire to finish tour of duty, avoidance of paperwork, etc.).
Police organizations utilize several other methods of guiding officers in the exercise of discretion. Police agency accreditation standards, while not typically dictating the substance of most discretionary judgments, can help create an organizational structure that supports administrative rule making. Police training programs are essential for improving officers’ decision-making skills in the application of policies and procedures. The development of a body of professional and scientific knowledge, grounded in research and practice, about how the police can effectively and fairly address public safety problems also holds promise for shaping important discretionary decisions (Weisburd and Neyroud 2011; Center for Problem-Oriented Policing 2012). In addition, many police agencies are increasingly looking to citizens to provide them with guidance on a range of discretionary matters, from what public safety problems to focus on to what means to use in addressing them. Citizen input can be provided at the policy-making level as well as through systematic input to line officers (Livingston 1997).
Years ago, Jerome Skolnick (1966) observed that the police, like members of most organizations, are affected by the need to appear productive. Thus, officers’ discretionary decisions about whether to arrest or issue citations may be influenced by supervisory or command-level expectations about how much “activity” a productive officer should generate. While not new, these pressures seem to be greater today in the era of “metrics” and heightened accountability. Many police departments now use some form of Compstat, a system designed to help top-level executives use crime analysis and statistics to hold mid-level commanders accountable for targeting and reducing crime in their areas of responsibility. These mid-level commanders often press their subordinates to increase enforcement in order to show that they are doing everything possible to reduce crime. The net effect is to reduce discretion at the lowest levels in order to satisfy pressures from above. Another effect, perverse and unintended, may be to encourage officers to use their discretion to downgrade or ignore some reported crimes, thus making it appear that crime reduction is occurring even if it is not (Eterno and Silverman 2012).
Modern technology is also affecting police discretion. Thanks to mobile radios, cell phones, in-car computers, and automatic vehicle locator systems, today’s police supervisors and commanders can keep track of their subordinates more closely than was the case a decade or two ago. Even more intrusive are in-car cameras and body cameras (not to mention the ubiquitous cell phone cameras in the hands of the public) that record everything that police officers do, thus magnifying the potential for after-the-fact review. While these surveillance technologies may not directly narrow the discretion that officers have in making their decisions, they probably have a substantial indirect effect, since officers must give more consideration to how their decisions will look and be judged in retrospect. In the near future, this technological impact is likely to be magnified further when the feeds from in-car and body cameras go “live” back at police headquarters. When that time comes, supervisors and commanders will have a greatly expanded opportunity to direct officer decision making in the field. This is likely to shift the locus of some discretionary decision making away from police officers and onto the managers back in the electronic control room. This kind of technological breakthrough could produce a fundamental change to our traditional understanding of police work and the centrality of street-level police discretion. It will be quite interesting to see whether it actually does have this profound effect, or if, once again, it merely causes some shifting in the forms and locus of police discretion.
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