Chapter 7: Discretion, Supervision, and Leadership

7.3 Selective Enforcement

Law enforcement officers are given enormous discretion to choose which laws to enforce and when. While discretion enables them to decide when and what to investigate, issues arise when an officer’s decision may be questionable. Officers often refer to the “ways and means act” to explain selective enforcement that results in “legally” punishing poor behaviour in a way that may not be justified. An example is best used to illustrate this line of thinking.

A police officer who is accosted by a rude and obnoxious citizen may find an obsolete charge with which to charge the person to teach him or her a lesson. The charge is usually something minor, such as riding a bicycle without a bell. While technically the bylaw may require riders to have a bicycle bell, it may very rarely be used. In addition, the police officer may not have enforced this bylaw in the past and is aware that numerous people ride bicycles without bells.

While the officer has a legal right to charge the citizen, he or she should reflect on how this case will look if it is taken to court. The officer’s credibility will be questioned after the circumstances of the case are read in court. Typically, the citizen’s obnoxious behaviour, when recalled later on, will pale in comparison to what the court could rule as an abuse of authority by the police officer. Officers must be objective and treat everyone equally, regardless of the behaviour exhibited. When confronted with obnoxious citizens, officers must strive to remain unmoved, unnerved, and calm. Using discretion as a tool to charge a citizen with obsolete laws and bylaws should be avoided for the good of the officer, the agency, and society.

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7.3 Selective Enforcement by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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