Professional Discretion and Ethical Boundaries in Law-enforcement


The prevalence of misconduct in the police force can be traced to the fast-paced work of the police profession and the amount of discretion given to the officers. The police profession relies heavily on the individual decision-making capabilities, moral integrity and doing the right thing basing on the personal values. Hence, when faced with the ethical dilemma in the line of duty the officers are supposed to be governed by their personal decision-making capabilities to make the right decision according to the situation at hand. Thus, through this discretionary power, most of them get the opportunity of bending the laws and rules through committing unethical behavior. As a result, the professional discretion crosses the ethical boundaries and harms the people they are mandated to protect and serve.

Values, Ethics and Professionalism in Policing  

Values are actions, ideas and behaviors which are important to a person or a society at large. The values of an individual or a group influence decision making in their personal and their professional lives. Hence, the values which impact professional ethics are the group or societal values which are collectively held by a community. Conti and Nolan (2005) view ethics as “making a moral choice between right and wrong behavior; ethics is the theory of right conduct and the good life and morals is the practice of these things”. In brief, ethics or an ethical behavior is doing the right thing based on the values of the society. 

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Thus, every society has certain expectations of the ideal ethical behavior from different professionals. For instance, Stout (2011) point out that the police are expected to have these core dimensions of ethics, integrity, and honesty while carrying out their law enforcement duties. Integrity and honesty are the major building blocks of the police profession and will help guide the police towards the ideal ethical behavior and decision making which is ethical. Thus, when the police fail to do what is right they also fail to earn the trust of the community. As a result, the law enforcement agents will degrade their abilities to carry out their mandate in the community. Therefore, adherence by the enforcement agents to the appropriate ethical standards of integrity and honesty is significant to the achievement of the overall goal of policing. 

Ethical Boundaries 

On the other hand, when the law enforcement agents act in contrary to the appropriate standards of ethics they cross the ethical boundaries. The goal of policing is achieved through the operational decision making by the police. Hence, the decision-making process by the police officers is realized by the decision between the right and the wrong during routine operations of law enforcement.  Consequently, police departments in the U.S are struggling to professionalize the police agencies. McMains, (2009), notes that they are doing this through endeavors to present the image of integrity and honesty in they are trying to justify their work in the public’s perspective. 

However, the different views of the public towards the police are caused by a number of factors but the most rampant is the misconduct within the police force (Kääriäinen et al., 2008). According to Wolfe and Piquero (2011), misconducts are “…actions that resulted in the filing of a formal complaint, an internal affairs investigation, or departmental disciplinary charges against the officer”. These misconducts cause an ethical bridge on the professionalism of the police and are caused by the discretionary powers granted to the police.


Discretion is the lawful authority for the officers to make decisions which are operated under the acceptable constraints of the profession. Hence, discretion concerns decisions made in a legal setting and in good faith. Discretion is significant to the functioning of the police department as well as the relationship between the police departments and the public they are serving (McCartney & Parent, 2015). Reiner (2000) asserts that discretion is a common and at the same time unavoidable aspect of the police work. Thus, Professionalism in the police work is measured on the level of discretion and a shift to more discretion produces a more professional police force which would offer satisfaction to members of the public. 

In the context of law enforcement, professionalism can relate to the freedom of the police in making discretionary decisions during operation. So, it is the ability of the police in exercising a higher degree of autonomous discretion. Moreover, when discretion is not included in the police work the level of professionalism decreases.  Hence, the police departments should move towards professionalism through granting discretion during operational decision making and still strive to control the members of the police force. 

Discretion and Human Rights 

However, (McCartney & Parent, 2015) record that the police department’s management has difficulties in controlling discretion among its members because of a few reasons. He argues that discretion is capable of causing police officers to fabricate the present evidence of a case/incident. Discretion may cause them to look for guilt in a case instead of focusing on the truth and they can also opt on summarizing statements in a case with a lot of bias. Finally, discretion gives the opportunity for the police officers to handle exhibits in a poor manner which cause the evidence not be disclosed.

The major objective of the discretion of the police is to increase the justice system’s flexibility because the punishment for crimes cannot be the only solution to crimes committed by members of the public. Wolfe and Piquero (2011) suggest that “Police officers — as the gatekeepers of formal social control — are not only responsible for enforcing laws and protecting the public but are also entrusted to represent order and justice in society”. However, discretion has increased the cases of officers doing what is ethically wrong to the society such as the use of excessive force, abuse of power, misuse of the public office and some simple things such as speeding. Discretion of the police force allows the police to decide on the suitable solution to a situation but they are going against the values of the public which entrusted them to protect and serve them.

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Factors Contributing to Breach of Human Rights   

Some of the common issues representing the instances when the police have crossed the ethical boundaries include domestic violence, traffic, and drugs offenses. In addition, widespread mistreatment and discrimination against the racial minorities and inappropriate handling of riots and peaceful protests (Roufa, 2017) are instances where police have crossed the ethical boundaries. Misuse of discretion may cause an officer to overlook the crime committed for example by offering a warning which can be inappropriate for the situation at hand. 

Moreover, the police officers are in an environment where they are constantly in contact with the criminals in the society. This would likely provide an opportunity for the police officers to engage in criminal activities such as taking bribes from those criminal elements. What is more, the environment in which the police officers work under can contribute to their abuse of the discretionary powers. For instance, in a place where a larger portion of the population abuse drugs and are into gang activities, the police are likely to engage in corruption as the flow of untaxed money is high. 

Furthermore, the police have treated domestic violence as a private situation requiring services of a counselor and a period and space for cooling off. They have used discretion only when the two parties are perceived to have equally participated in the violence. The common solution by the police is informally settling the dispute between the partners. However, the solutions to this problem could range from being arrested or asked to take some time or separate to cool off the anger before engaging each other (McCartney & Parent 2015). Moreover, the police act discretionary in traffic by allowing a driver who has defied the traffic rules such as failing to stop at the stop sign/red light. A police officer can let the driver go scot-free for the reason that it is normal to make mistakes while driving. In addition, the police can use discretion on the drivers who are found driving while drunk or high on drugs by calling a tow vehicle to pull them. 

Secrecy is another contributing factor to abuse of the discretionary powers by the police. The universal secrecy blue code and solidarity between the police officers bind them together and forces them to protect one another despite the different behaviors portrayed during operation (Westmarland, 2005). As a result, many of the officers decide to follow a bad behavior or ignore their colleagues’ misconducts. 

Desired Outcomes of Discretion 

The desire to provide protection and carry out their mandate will lead to inefficiency in dealing with different situations arising. Making arrests and investigations of numerous cases is made impossible due to limited resources. Discretion may come handy in such circumstances as it will filter the offenses to present the most important for investigations. However, this discretion can be misused by the need for efficiency causing the public to become dissatisfied with the police services (McCartney & Parent 2015).  

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A problem arises when the police officers focus more on efficiency than on the rightful and ethical decisions concerning justice and rights of the citizens. Efficiency cannot deliver justice alone but in collaboration with discretion. Hence discretion can never be used as a way of achieving efficiency but a way of promoting a counterbalance to the unjust laws present in the justice system. Thus, the outcome of the discretion mandate should not be efficiency at the expense of ethical policing, justice and the human rights.  

Therefore, the problem of goal ambiguity can cause discretion to override the right of individuals. The goals of the organization are likely to be ambiguous to the rights of the citizens and provision of efficiency. Thus, goal ambiguous often leads to an officer placing the citizens right as the least in the degree of importance. An example is the domestic assault policy which requires that offender to be charged where there is the presence of evidence. It does not consider the appropriateness of the charge and the goals of the victim for instance if the victim is not interested in pursuant to charges. Moreover, while complying with policy an officer might decide to perform poorly so as to compromise ongoing investigations. As a result, the charge the officer was to make will be subverted (McCartney & Parent 2015).

Limiting Discretion 

According to statistics on the discretionary action by the law enforcement officers indicate that the level of bad discretionary actions has reduced since early two thousand. The percentage of the officers engaging in corruption is sixty-two meaning that three out of five officers are committing unlawful acts in the name of discretion. Almost two hundred and forty-five officers are investigated every month in the U.S on allegations of abuse of discretionary powers (Lewis, 2011). 

McCartney & Parent (2015) state that “the need for a high degree of control through supervision is critical in allowing discretion to be effective; without such control, officers will make decisions that are self-promoting and in opposition to organizational goals”. The cause of discretionary acts by the police officers is the authority to decide on how to deal with different situations. The police are accorded with high levels of autonomy and discretion but they lack supervision which would be helpful in controlling the junior officers during operations. This forces the junior officers to conduct their operations and to exercise discretion without the close supervision and wisdom from experienced seniors. The supervision of the junior officers on duty is vital as it provides control to their actions and the mistakes are easily noticed and corrected. 

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Policies such as the positive arrest legislation are formulated with intention of limiting discretion by the police while advocating the arrest of offenders. Thus, through limiting discretion, the officers are held responsible for the non-arrest of the offers while at the same time providing them with autonomy. For instance, some legislation and policies have been put in place to minimize the discretionary mistakes made during operation by the police. Thus, the officers are urged to charge the offenders instead of resolving the problem informally. In Columbia, a policy referred to as violence against women in relationships was introduced to guide the officers while solving the domestic violence problems. The officers were provided with clear protocols, operational procedures, roles and the responsibilities in which they should follow while dealing with domestic violence (McCartney & Parent 2015). 

However, such legislation and policies were proving to be problematic as the officers perceived that they were forced to arrest offenders. This is because if they would not arrest they were held accountable for any decision made. Thus they feared their decisions would go against charges stated by the positive arrest policy (Rowe 2007). Moreover, the policies resulted in greater workload and worsened the situation because of the many arrests and reduced professionalism while following procedures.


The frequent interactions of the members of the public with the police help in the formulation of the general perception of the police concerning effectiveness and their satisfaction with the behavior of the police. The lack of confidence in the law enforcement forces leads the citizens to turn down cooperation with the officers which in turn weaken the efforts for community policing. Thus, curtailing discretion is not the solution to misuse of powers and infringement of the citizens’ rights. The better solution is providing greater discretionary powers to the officers during the operational decision-making process which leads to greater ethics and professionalism as well as efficiency. 

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  1. Conti, N., & Nolan III, J. J. (2005). Policing the Platonic Cave: Ethics and Efficacy in Police Training. Policing & Society, 15, 166-186.
  2. Kääriäinen, J., Lintonen, T., Laitinen, A., & Pollock, J. (2008). The ‘code of silence’: Are Self-Report Surveys a Viable Means for Studying Police Misconduct? Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology & Crime Prevention, 9(2), 86-96.
  3. Lewis, M. A. (2011). Peel’s Legacy. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 80(12), 8-11.
  4. McCartney, S. & Parent, R. (2015). Ethics in Law Enforcement. Victoria, BC: BC campus. 
  5. McMains, M. J. (2009). Becoming a Professional: More Thoughts on Ethics. Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations, 9, 101-104.
  6. Reiner, R. (2000). The politics of the police. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. Stout, B. (2011). Professional Ethics and Academic Integrity in Police Education. Policing, 5, 300-309.
  8. Rowe, M. (2007). Rendering Visible the Invisible: Police Discretion, Professionalism, and Decision-making. Policing & Society, 17, 279-294.
  9. Roufa, T. (2017). Ethics in Law Enforcement and Policing. Retrieved from
  10. Westmarland, L. (2005). Police Ethics and Integrity: Breaking the Blue Code of Silence. Policing & Society, 15, 145-165.
  11. Wolfe, S. E., & Piquero, A. R. (2011). Organizational Justice and Police Misconduct. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 38, 332-353.
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