Think back to the last time you saw flashing police lights in your rearview mirror. Did you feel reassurance or a sense of doom?
Your personal adherence to the law is likely the largest factor in your reaction. But another variable is the discretion police officers have over how they charge different citizens.
I’ve heard stories of police encounters that range from officers allowing drunk drivers go with a warning, to police issuing underage tickets to minors who hadn’t consumed alcohol and were willing to submit to sobriety tests.
Recently, I was pulled over for a minor traffic violation on a completely empty road. The officer noted but dismissed a 2010 PBA card I had in my glove compartment. Despite being courteous to the officer and having put no people or property at risk, I was issued a ticket for over $150.
What would have happened if that was a 2013 PBA card? Would I have been free to go despite committing the same offense?
Three years ago, I committed a much more egregious traffic offense, but I was personally closer with the officer who gave me that 2010 PBA card. One phone call was all it took to change what would’ve been a hefty fine into a warning.
While these two anecdotes can’t be used to generalize the behavior of police officers everywhere, they do show the large amount of discretion that officers have when dealing with citizens. While I doubt that most officers use this power for harm, the power of discretion they possess allows for the potential of favoritism, racism and stereotyping.
If I ever find myself in front of a flashing police cruiser again, I shouldn’t have to worry about how my race, who I’m connected with or the mood of the officer will impact what I am charged with. Instead, whatever charges I’m issued should be a direct reflection on whether I broke the law or not.
Police officers aren’t the only public employees given discretion in handling their business. For example, DPW employees are responsible for snow removal. So should they be able to plow their families neighborhoods first? Should teachers be able to hand out homework passes to students whose families support teacher unions?
Police officers are professionals in charge of enforcing the law. While a certain amount of discretion is necessary to do this, officers must perpetually strive to uphold their professionalism and not let other extraneous factors affect their judgment.