Factors That Affect Police Officers' Discretion

Police officers
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Police discretion is used for minor offenses such as traffic incidents or public urination. In these situations, the officer has a choice to fine/arrest the offender, or give them a written or verbal warning.There are multiple factors that can affect a police officer's discretion during a given incident.

Suspect's Demeanor

A suspect who is unruly, uncooperative or disrespectful is much more likely to be arrested than one who cooperates with the police officer. Individuals who show remorse for their actions and respect the officer's authority have more of a chance of getting only a warning. A 1964 study by Piliavin & Briar found that demeanor was the most important factor in police discretion with juvenile offenders.

Suspect's Record

The number of previous police contacts or convictions may heavily weigh in on the officer's decisions when dealing with a suspect, according to the Canadian Department of Justice. Multiple studies have shown that if the suspect has a long history of similar crimes, the punishment is likely to be more severe than if it were the first infraction.


A 1970 study by Black & Reiss found that if there has been a complaint that has alerted the officer to the situation, and the complaint expresses a clear preference, the officer's discretion may be influenced. It is important that the officer takes complaints very seriously when investigating an offense.

Attitude of Parents/Guardians

When the offender is a juvenile, the police's discretion may be heavily influenced by the attitude of the juvenile's parents or guardian, as evidenced by Bynum & Thompson's 2002 study. If the parents show an active interest and willingness to cooperate, the action taken may be much more informal than if the parents were uninvolved.

System Variables

In the textbook "Policing in America", author Larry K. Gaines points out the system of variables that inevitably affect police officer discretion. When court and correctional systems are backlogged, police tend to become more lenient. When a city needs revenue, police officer's become strict. Individual discretion is likely to be affected not only by the size and structure of the local police department, but by the social service resources available in the community that might allow the officer to use non-arrest options more often.

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