Officer Discretion As A Public Relations Tool

Oct. 11, 2023
Retired Lieutenant Frank Borelli discusses the power of officer discretion in misdemeanor cases and how it can be leveraged to impact perception of law enforcement professionals nationwide.

I was once paid a compliment by a citizen during the course of a conversation regarding statutory law in my home state. The citizen said, "Well, you sound like a peace officer; not a police officer." I know officers who would have been offended, but I understood what the man meant, and it was definitely a compliment. I had made a statement about the proper use of officer discretion in the enforcement of misdemeanor law. I had said, "I believe sometimes not making an arrest, using the officer's power of discretion, is a more effective enforcement tool simply because of the positive impact such judgment can have on the community served." In other words, instead of making an arrest for every violation I observe simply because I can, I measure the pros and cons and take what I believe to be the proper corrective action. In some cases, that does mean arresting the subject, but in others it may mean arbitrating a neighbor dispute or giving a referral for assistance.

Some of my brother officers accused me of being "too soft" during my career, and frequently I was told I should have been a social worker. Let me give you an example. (This was back in the 1990s.) I received a call for a shoplifting, and the perpetrator was being held by the store owner. When I arrived, I found the store owner sitting on the suspect, holding the stolen property: a box lunch meal valued at $2.69. On scene investigation revealed that the suspect was a 56-year-old honorably discharged disabled veteran. He had no family and had recently been evicted from his rental residence – not due to failure to pay rent, but because the property had been condemned and all occupants had to move out. More recently, that morning, he had been released from the local hospital having been treated for injuries he received when he was robbed the night before. He had no previous arrest record and not a penny in his pockets. Does this sound like he's having a fairly bad day?

His immediate problem was obvious: he was hungry. Beyond that, he was too prideful to accept "charity." Sure, I could solve that problem. If I arrested him, and if he was held on bond, he would be fed by the Department of Corrections. If he was released on personal recognizance, then he'd be back on the street five or six hours later, that much hungrier than he'd been when he'd stolen food the first time. Was a misdemeanor arrest going to solve this problem? The crime had been solved, but a problem still existed. Instead of arresting him, I made a couple phone calls and got him some assistance through the Department of Veteran Affairs and a local American Legion. Oh, yeah… and I paid for the boxed meal.

This is an extreme example, but I still caught criticism for it. "You don't owe him anything," I heard. "You just lost a stat," I was told. "He'll never learn anything that way," came from another officer. I won't argue whether or not "we," every American citizen, owe our service veterans anything. I think the answer is an obvious resounding, "YES." I don't think he'd learn anything in jail and I feel fairly certain that an arrest in this case would have negatively set him against all law enforcement officers for a long time.

As to the lost stat: Have we, the community of law enforcement officers, become so cold and hard hearted that we are more interested in a single misdemeanor arrest for our statistics than we are in helping those we serve? Make no mistake about it: whether we like it or not, those people who are not actively committing crimes are part of the population we are sworn to protect and serve.

I have heard a police officer's job described in many ways: protect and serve; keep the peace; enforce the law. Never in my 40 years of training and experience did I ever read or get told that my primary job function was to arrest at every opportunity for the purpose of making my resume or personnel folder look better. However, it seems to me that the strong focus on enforcement through arrest is becoming more prevalent in the law enforcement community, and it is happening alongside the nationwide rebirth of "Community Policing" which is supposed to be about solving problems.

I maintain that the judicious and sensible use of officer discretion will endear that officer to the community served, building the level of respect the officer receives, and improving the image of police officers everywhere. After all, our image is a matter of public perception, and the citizens carry their attitudes with them wherever they go. If they like the police in Maryland, they probably will in Texas or Montana; but if they don't like the police at home, how will they feel about police abroad? That answer is obvious if you watch broadcast news.

So, do your fellow officers a favor: while you enforce the law, exercise your discretion; help your citizens; serve your community; let compassion affect your judgment without allowing it to lower your awareness of officer safety issues. A little understanding goes a long way and has a way of coming back to you.

By the way, that disabled veteran? He got back on his feet, financially speaking, and he loved the police; not me, a single officer, but "the police." Why? Because we affected a positive change in his life while offering assistance and respecting his pride. I'll take that over a single misdemeanor arrest statistic every day of the week.

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