Police discretion definition

Updated February 21, 2017

There has long been a conflict in law enforcement between enforcing the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Should an officer enforce every little violation of the law he sees, or should his time be spent dealing with the crimes that society truly wants punished? This grey area is where the concept of police discretion comes in. Here are some important facts about police discretion.


Since no law or policy can truly envision every possible scenario the police may encounter in the field, officers have flexibility in dealing with situations they encounter. Police discretion is the judgment officers use in the field, whether it be letting someone go after a stern lecture, or taking someone to jail for a minor offence because they may be a danger to themselves or others.

Discretion: Not Absolute

Police officers do not have unfettered discretion when dealing with crimes. Obviously they are still bound by the law. An officer cannot just ignore a homicide for instance. As criminal justice professor Dr. Tom O.Connor notes in his article on police discretion, "discretion is bounded by norms (professional norms, community norms, legal norms, moral norms)." (See References.) Officers, while able to use their judgment, still have rules to follow.


It goes without saying that the police cannot pull over every speeding driver, otherwise everyone would get pulled over. Officers use discretion in regard to other crimes frequently as well. The most frequent include domestic violence, drunk driving, potential hate crimes and crimes involving the mentally ill.

Complex Variables

Officers will exercise discretion in situations where the facts or people involved don't necessarily line up with the law. A domestic situation between a couple who are otherwise law abiding citizens may be resolved with police escorting one party away, but not making an arrest. Officers may call a cab for a driver who is just barely over the legal limit for intoxication rather than taking them to jail.

Discretion in Less Serious Cases

Not surprisingly, discretion is exercised far more in speeding cases or simple vandalism than homicide and rape cases. Officers often feel minor offences are more about educating citizens, whereas serious offenders deserve the full punishment of the law.

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About the Author

Michael Scott is a freelance writer and professor of justice studies at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, and is a former prosecutor. Scott has a J.D. from Emory University and is a member of the Utah State Bar. He has been freelancing since June 2009, and his articles have been published on and