Police discretion and existence of its abuse

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Policing the Police is a thesis paper submitted to the faculty in December 1994 by Michael Kaufman. The purpose of the paper is to discuss the question of police discretion and existence of its abuse. Therefore, the main goal of the paper is to research improper use of discretion, unethical behaviour as a result of it, and role of the management in the problem of exercising discretion by police officers. In the end of the paper, author managed to prove this hypothesis. The focus of the research is to recognize the existence of unethical behaviour and provide the possible solutions for it. The author outlines that the solutions for the problem of the unethical behaviour are found in the closer consideration of training, education, community outreach, and supervision. Each of those components is important.

The author puts the great emphasis on the understanding of discretion power, its origin, and use. Traditionally, the use of discretion has been widely unsupervised. The author sees the reason for it in the nature of police work itself. Most of his or her time an officer spends on patrol alone and unsupervised, therefore the use of discretionary power is unsupervised as well. That it is the main contribution to the unethical behaviour. Supervisors and different rank managers are those people who have to remind constantly a police officer his or he duties. In spite of the importance of supervision of police behaviour and discretion, the officer's conscience is important as well. Thus, in the end the ethical decision depends on officer's moral judgment. However, the improper supervision and lack of competent management contribute to the existence of unethical behaviour among police officers as well. The origin of discretionary power comes from the reality of life itself. A police officer is expected to enforce the law. However, it is impossible to enforce all laws. Therefore, it is in a power of a police officer to choose what laws to enforce and use his or her discretion.

One of the concepts the reader has to understand is the author's idea of ethical behaviour, which he presents as a behaviour consistent with "universal social values." Therefore, the author concludes that ethical behaviour will be considered moral if society considers it moral. Thus, the morality of the society in general is the base for ethics.

Because of the "close" character of the police subculture, it is always hard to see the whole picture of misuse of discretionary police authority and track it. There are no official statistical documents. Police departments try not to show their problems outside. However, the author of the paper is sure that the unethical behaviour does exist among the police officers. The examples of this would be the existence of racism, graft, corruption, cover-ups, and police brutality. In addition, racism includes not only biases against the offenders but also against non-white police officers.

In order to understand the roots and causes of ethical and unethical behaviour the author uses Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development. The main component of the Theory of Moral Development is an idea that different people function on the different levels of moral development, on the various stages of conventional development. Every person from the childhood to the adulthood goes through moral levels of development. Those levels are: Pre-Conventional, Conventional, and Post-Conventional; each of them has two sublevels. On the first stage, person's moral decision is based on the principle of how it is going to affect him or her personally. On the second stage, a person is making ethical decision based on social rules and beliefs of right and wrong. On the third level, the moral judgment is done from the altruistic position, concerning rights of others. Kohlberg argues that the majority of people, including many police officers, are functioning on the lower levels of moral development, which is simply based on the idea of reward and punishment. Only insignificant number of people is staying on the higher levels of morality, on so-called post-conventional level, where complete understanding of morality according to the given society is possible. Thus, the majority of police officers function on middle level of moral development that makes the unethical behaviour possible. Therefore, using Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development as a guide, the authors makes a conclusion that there is a correlation between personal understanding of morality and legal issues. Kaufman thinks that Kohlberg's model should be used during psychological evaluation of a recruits.

In order to better to understand where the unethical behaviour is coming from, the author researches the origins of discretion as well. The author makes an emphasis that a police officer has a burden to choose, which laws he or she will be enforcing because it is impossible to enforce all of them. In addition, there are always different circumstances, which should be accounted by a police officer as well. Therefore, a moral development of a police officer is an important factor and a correlation link between morality and law. In this case, an officer has to follow the rules of the society, as a part of it. Society, therefore, determines what behaviour is ethical and which one is not. Therefore, the following the conclusion can be made concerning ethics. Ethics and the rules of the moral behaviour are the product of group thinking. Consequently, group can influence ethical and unethical behaviour. Kaufman, in this light, gives a good example of Rodney King's beating, which proves the group think and group ethics. There were many officers on the scene, who did not participate in the beating but they did not stop it either. Those officers were part of the group, which represents the police subculture. The only person who was trying to stop the beating was a female police officer. She did not belong to a "men's club," but she was a member of a different sub-group. Thus, author makes a conclusion that group think can be bad sometimes. Therefore, the police officers need to try to develop themselves to the higher stages of moral development.

One of the most important ideas in the paper is an admission that in spite of hardness to track an unethical behaviour, it still exists. The author is trying to find the reasons for it outside of moral development as well. One of them, Kaufman thinks, is a perception by police officers of every day job as a "war on crime" and themselves as the "warriors." Many police officers think that they are in a constant war against evil, which has to be destructed but not "apprehended." Another reason can be the nature of police job itself. In a regular course of job, police officers usually see the worst side of humanity over and over again. Consequently, they start generalize some parts of community, its members, and their behaviour. Eventually, a schema builds up.

Kaufman presents the possible solution for the problem of unethical behaviour among police officers. The main components of the solution, according to Kaufman, are training, education, community outreach, and supervision. The author thinks that the misuse of police authority comes partly from lack of training. He thinks that the problems of use of discretionary power do not address enough during the training in police academy and on the field. The training with emphasis on the decision-making process will help to develop better police behaviour. One of the reasons why ethical behaviour is not widely addressed during the training is that managers originally suppose the higher level of moral development by a police officer. Kaufman also argues that higher education should play a significant role during the recruitment process, because at present situation the educational standards are low. The reason for that is that police force presumed more as a military camp. Community outreach needs to be developed through community policing and establishing the ties between police officers and members of the community. Finally, supervision and management participation will provide the guidelines for the ethical behaviour.

However, the author realizes that each of the parts of the possible solution to decrease unethical behaviour has downsides as well. For example, the requirement of higher education will shrink the pull of applicants, the close contact with community might result in favours to some members of it, and too much management will reduce the ability of an officer to self-supervision. Therefore, supervision needs not to prevent discretion.

In addition, the author shortly describes the history of policing in the United States, starting from 1930. What reader needs to understand and take into consideration is that Policing the Police was written in 1994, at the time when the main ideas of Community Policing were just adopted and not as widely popular as they are now.

The author makes the following conclusion. First of all, Kaufman proves his hypothesis there is a presence of discretionary power and its abuse among some of police officers; bribes, corruption, brutality are the proofs of it. Kaufman indicates that supervision by the higher rank managers is a key factor to control the use of discretion by police officers. However, the moral development if a police officer is important factor as well. Using the example of Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development, the author argues that the ethical behaviour is learned and guided by the rules of the given society. Therefore, a police officer who falls into Post-Conventional stage of moral development would be a better officer. Consequently, personal conscience combined with training, education, community outreach, and supervision will make a good police officer who would exercise the power of discretion properly. Kaufman argues the present to his time Code of Ethics for police officers was vague and unrealistic. He thinks that one of the first tasks for any police department would be the development of "customized code," which would consider the goals of that particular department.