Controlling Police On Decisions

Each and every day police officers respond to calls and are required to make the best decisions when reacting to the situation. There are many factors that control how the officers respond to calls. The first and most important part is the officer’s discretion. They also will refer to internal controls set by their department. They also look at external controls such as laws, court rulings and the way the community views the police. Law enforcement officers have to make split-second decisions at times but there are a lot of factors that determine how they make the call.

All of the controls are put in place to protect the police officers and the community members. This paper is going to explore some of the different controls on a police officer’s decision-making process.

Discretion is defined as the ability and authority to choose between different courses of action or inaction (Brown, 2014). Discretion plays a large role in law enforcement. It is used in all aspects of law enforcement but the discretion of police officers is more important for many reasons.

Police have to use their discretion each and every day. When on calls the officer decides how to react. They have guidelines to follow but in dire situations, the officers make whatever call they feel is necessary. They must decide how to respond to complaints, who to believe, and even who, if anyone, to arrest. Police officers have to use their discretion on all calls but it is specifically important when the situations become violent.

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The officers use their discretion when deciding if the use of force is necessary. Sometimes the officers only have a couple of seconds to decide whether force is necessary or not. After the police use force, they are subject to scrutiny from the community and investigations from their department. This is where internal, external, and community controls come in.

All police departments have internal control mechanisms. Internal control mechanisms are created by higher-ups in the department usually. There are several superior officers such as captains and chiefs, and also headquarters staff who enforce rules and control how officers act in the field. In smaller departments, there may not be a headquarters but the higher-ranking officers set and enforce rules for the subordinate officers. The higher-ranking individuals ensure the best decisions are made in the field by hiring only the best candidates for the job, conducting training exercises, and punishing officers who do not exercise their discretion properly (Breitel, n.d.). There are many different types of internal controls but some are more beneficial than others.

A very common but fairly new internal control mechanism is the use of body cameras. Police officers have gained a lot of media attention and their actions are being called into question. The testimonies witnesses give have been found to be inaccurate and the officers’ testimonies seem to be self-serving. To protect themselves from being wrongfully accused and to build better relationships with their communities, police departments throughout the country have begun to use body cameras worn by police officers. (Kampfe, 2015). These cameras are helping in some situations however the public look at them negatively in some cases. Community members feel that if the officers are able to use their discretion to decide when to turn the cameras on and off they will just shut their cameras off if there is an altercation or if they know they will be committing an unethical act.

South Carolina has had incidents where the officers tell a specific story but then the police camera footage showed otherwise. One case is when South Carolina state trooper Sean Groubert pulled Levar Jones over in 2014. In the dash-cam video, Groubert asked Jones for identification. When Jones reached into his truck to get out his license, Groubert shot Jones four times. The camera footage resulted in Groubert being dismissed from the South Carolina Highway Patrol and eventually he pled guilty to a felony charge. In cases like these, it is very important to have video proof of how the situation unfolded. This will not only protect the community but it will also protect the police officers from being falsely accused. By keeping the officers accountable for their actions, the relationship between the officers and the community members may become more peaceful.

Additional to the internal controls, there are many external controls on how police officers react to calls and interact with the public. The external controls include community members, court case rulings, and the laws set forth by the legislative branch. The police officers are held accountable by all of these external sources and also by the media and in some cases civilian review boards (Neild, R, n.d.). The police are always monitored by the public and outside agencies. The police officers do not necessarily like to be watched and scrutinized by outside people but they understand that it is inevitable. An important external control is the Legislative Branch. Investigating police actions from a legislative standpoint has many advantages. One advantage is that they are able to look at police practices from a broader perspective. Reviews done internally focus on individual complaints and investigate specific officers. Even in a legislative investigations, individual officers may cover for other officers but it is more common in internal reviews.

Another advantage of legislative investigations is greater police cooperation. The focus of legislative investigation is not to blame specific officers. Because of this there is a greater likelihood that officers will share what they know or will testify when they witness questionable behavior. The officer is also more likely to share their experiences because they are able provide their testimonies privately without being cross examined. Lastly, another advantage is that legislative investigations move forward fairly quickly. Unlike lawsuits that can take years to reach a verdict, an investigation can be completed in months, and legislation can follow soon after. Another important external control on police officers’ actions is the court system. The way the court rules on cases determines how future arrests and court cases will occur. There are many monumental court cases that in turn have changed laws or have changed how suspects are treated. If an individual feels their rights have been violated when they were arrested and convicted of a crime they will appeal their conviction. If the rights were indeed violated according to the Constitution, laws are changed or enforced. Most of the cases that change laws are heard by the United States Supreme Court.

A very well-known case that affected the way police respond to calls is Miranda v. Arizona. Ernesto Miranda was convicted of kidnapping and rape after he confessed to police officers conducting his interrogation. Miranda appealed the conviction, stating that due process had been violated because he had not been read his rights before his confession. The Court voted five to four to overturn Miranda’s conviction. The ruling mandated that in order for a testimony to be admissible in criminal trials, suspects must have been informed of the right to remain silent, that anything they do or say will be used against them in court, of the right to an attorney, and of the right to a court-appointed attorney if unable to afford one (Miranda V. Arizona, 2018). This affected all states with an exception of a few. A federal appeals court panel in Richmond, Virginia in February 1999 ruled that the Miranda rights did not have to be read to a suspect before questioning. The states this ruling affected were Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina. People who voluntarily confess in these states cannot be released because they were not first read their Miranda rights (Miranda V. Arizona, 2018).

Another case that changed the way officers may act when responding to calls was Terry v. Ohio. A Cleveland detective while walking his beat saw two men on a street corner. He watched them walk back and forth, pausing to stare in the same store window, a total of about twenty-four times. Each time after they finished the route they met up with a third man. The officer suspected the men of casing out the store to rob and he followed them. The officer approached the three, identified himself as a policeman, and asked their names. He then patted down one of the men’s outside clothing and found a pistol in his pocket. He then patted down the other two men and found a gun in one of the other men’s pocket. The three were taken to the police station. Two of the men were charged with carrying concealed weapons.

The defense moved to suppress the weapons. The court denied the motion and admitted the weapons into evidence on the ground that the officer had cause to believe that the men were acting suspiciously and that the officer had the right to pat down their outer clothing because he believed they might be armed. The court then established a difference between an investigatory ‘stop’ and an arrest, and between a ‘frisk’ of the outer clothing and a search of the person’s whole body for evidence that a crime was committed. The two men were found guilty (Terry v. Ohio, n.d.). The ruling in this case now allows officers to stop suspicious individuals and search their outer clothing. This “stop and frisk” technique may keep police officers and the public safer by stopping crimes before they occur.

One last Supreme Court case that affected police officers was Tennessee v. Garner. In 1973 Memphis police were responding to a burglary call. One of the officers went to the back of the house and saw the fleeing suspect, Edward Garner. The officer could see that Garner was most likely unarmed but when he did not stop when commanded to the officer shot and killed him. At the time Tennessee statute and the Memphis Police policy allowed a police officer to use deadly force against a fleeing suspect. Garner’s father filed a suit claiming Garner’s constitutional rights were violated. The District Court found that the officer’s actions were constitutional. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this decision and the United States Supreme Court agreed. It is now a violation of the Constitution to shoot a fleeing suspect. There are many cases that have affected and control the way police officers respond to calls and interact with suspects.

These controls are meant to keep both the police officers and community members safe and also to guarantee everyone is treated fairly under the Constitution. Another external control on law enforcement officers is the community. The way police officers are viewed by the community is very important. If the officers are not viewed favorably by the community they will not be treated with respect and the community members will not cooperate when the officers need them to. If the police do not feel appreciated or respected by their community they may not be as willing to do whatever it takes to keep their community safe. Community policing has become a very important method used by police departments. Community policing is a type of law enforcement that focuses on relationships between the police and the public. Community policing also uses joint efforts between the police and the public to control crime and disorder.  In the mid-twentieth century, the police sought to control crime by means of routine patrol, rapid response to emergency calls, and specialized investigative units dedicated to serious felonies. When these methods proved ineffective and crimes rates rose in the 1960s and following decades police departments searched for better methods.

By the early 1990s, the concept of community policing was embraced by most lawmakers. In 1994 President Clinton signed into effect the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This Act provided federal funding for police departments to hire a hundred thousand new police officers. In order for them to get the funding all of the newly hired officers must be involved in some form of community policing. As a result of the new legislation, COPS, or community-oriented policing strategies, was established to oversee the distribution of federal funds for police agencies and to encourage community policing. Within the first couple of years of its existence, COPS awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to police departments for hiring new officers that were involved in community policing programs. They continued to provide funding throughout the 1990s. By the year 2000 many urban police departments had begun using a community-policing program and were providing community policing training to new officers. Community policing is still utilized today and continues to change to better relationships between law enforcement officers and community members.

There was a study conducted to determine the effectiveness of community policing. The study focuses on a Houston police department that implemented community policing. This study compares the number of complaints against officers working in groups that implemented community policing with officers working in groups operating traditionally. The researchers looked at the complaints filed to the Internal Affairs Division of the police department to determine if there were more or fewer complaints filed against the officers implementing community policing styles (Kessler, 1999). The researchers concluded that community-oriented policing was beneficial. The police officers that worked in the stations implementing community policing received fewer complaints against them. It is known that community-oriented policing is very important. It will keep police officers safer and also develop better relationships between officers and members of the community. This, in turn, may make neighborhoods safer and encourage members to be more cooperative.

Another study was conducted to determine how police officers felt they were perceived by the public. They were asked three questions: how do you think you are perceived by the community, how do you think you are perceived by citizens in most non-enforcement situations, and how do you think you are perceived by the community in most non-custodial arrest enforcement situations. After reviewing the officers’ surveys, it was determined that officers believed they were not viewed favorably by the community in general and worse by members of the public when they are not enforcing any laws. They also believed that they were only tolerated in most non-custodial arrest situations. It is not only important for the community and police to work together but it is also important that the police feel appreciated by the community. The officers will work harder and serve the community better if they feel appreciated and needed. Community and police relationships are very important.

Departments are working every day to better these relationships whether it be by getting the officers involved in the community more or by changing policies. The way the community views and treats officers controls the way the officers react to calls and situations. It is important that the community and officers have good relationships in order to keep the community and officers safe. There are many factors that control the way an officer responds to a call or situation. There is his or her own discretion. There are internal controls such as rules and policies set forth by the department they work for. There are also external controls such as the legislative branch, court rulings, and the community. Each of these factors controls the way an officer makes their decisions. Some decisions are made very quickly and the officer may not have time to think through all of these things but each of these controls are put in place to keep the police officers and the community safe.

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Controlling Police On Decisions. (2021, Dec 20). Retrieved from

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