Chapter 7: Discretion, Supervision, and Leadership

7.2 Discretion and Supervision

Police officers who believe they are professional will more likely act in a professional manner and therefore act with accountability and ethics. In his qualitative study, Rowe (2007) observed that when discretionary powers are reduced, officers report a feeling of frustration due to the perception that superiors do not view them as trustworthy enough to make decisions. One could logically infer from this that when discretion increases so too does the feeling of professionalism. Therefore, discretion, when professionally instructed, will lead to ethical decision making and ultimately an ethical police service (Neyroud, 2008). The alternative is having a police service where trust is not shown to the lower ranks, which results in officers who do not view themselves as professionals and who likely would not conduct themselves so. Neyroud (2008) concludes that although police do possess a large amount of discretion, unfortunately, the legal framework under which they operate sharply limits their discretion and therefore their professionalism.

Professionalism in policing is also problematic due to the military hierarchical nature of policing structures previously outlined. This means that the military organizational model of the police is not compatible with a profession that uses discretion as much as it is used by the police (Hughes and Newton, 2010).

In policing, to further complicate matters, the position of sergeant in the past was that of an operational police officer with some supervisory duties whose principal responsibility included mentoring and training constables to ensure their welfare, discipline, team leadership, and ultimately controlling  subordinates (Butterfield, Edwards, and Woodall, 2005). Currently, there is a devolving of the duties and responsibilities of the executive rank to those of the sergeant rank (Butterfield, Edwards, and Woodall, 2005). While sergeants were once seen as mentors and experienced practitioners on whom constables relied, they essentially have become office managers who are concerned with budgets and target-setting and are unable to spend time monitoring their subordinates (Butterfield, Edwards, and Woodall, 2005). The lessening of the direct supervisory role of the sergeant has had a negative impact on the ability of the police service to rely on the discretion of the individual officer in his or her operational decisions, and it is in these conditions that discretion is likely to be misused, thus highlighting the need for more control.

Discretion among the lower ranks in policing organizations makes control by the organization imperative so that the operational decisions represent the organization’s values. Panzarella (2003) suggests that organizational control of police discretion is a facade because police officers are an uncontrollable entity and that an increase in police discretion will further erode such control and more unethical practices will ensue. Additionally, Punch (2003) suggests that systemic failures within policing organizations result in corruption: the outcome of a lack of control by managers who, he asserts, are all too willing to let rules be bent or broken. At issue then, according to Panzarella (2003) and Punch (2003), is the inability of police management to monitor and control the inevitability of police discretion.

While police managers have access to technology that enables them to closely monitor the discretion exercised by police officers at all times (Alderson, 2003), a manager watching an officer’s every move is a superficial solution, which suggests a lack of trust in the ethics and values of the officer. Managers must instead act in ways that promote values that reflect the organization’s goals; they must also pass these values on to their subordinates so that they too will use their discretion in a similar fashion. The goal is to lead officers in enabling the effective use of discretion rather than merely overseeing their every operational decision.


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Ethics in Law Enforcement Copyright © 2015 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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