Police Discretion & Autonomy

Suppose the police decide that they are not interested in enforcing certain laws, for whatever reason. Who has the ability to force them to enforce them? The mayor/council? How would they do this?

For that matter, suppose the rank and file cops are not interested in enforcing some law. How does the chief force the issue?

Discretion is an informal and optional thing not a right. A police officer cannot refuse to enforce a law if he is ordered to do so. If an officer (or officers) decided he was were going to make some political point by refusing to enforce some law, a superior could order him to enforce it and then bring him up on disciplinary charges if he still refused.

That’s if an individual officer announced to his superior that he will not enforce the law. I’m thinking of a situation in which the police generally are disinclined to enforce certain laws and just ignore the violations for the most part, and the civilian authorities who passed those laws are unhappy about it. What do they do?

My second question was based on the assumption that the civilians could lean on the police chief. But what can he do to force the rank and file?

Mostly gathered from watching cop shows . . . Really . . . Police often ignore criminal behavior when the said criminal is providing them information on another, bigger criminal. The threat of pursuing prosicution on the crimes they are ignoring is thier leverage to keep the narc supplying them information and possibly testifying in court. If it gets to court then the DA can assess wheter or not the deal is worth it. If his testimony isn’t worth the deal then I suppose that the DA may decide to bring up charges on the little guy (or may decide he is the big guy).

There are lots and lots of laws police do not enforce. Stand in the Loop in Chicago and watch people crossing against the light. Happens all the time, police might even be standing there, nothing ever happens about it.

I believe the mayor or the police chief can send word they want something enforced and it is a good idea to do what your bosses want if you want to keep your job.

The public could, in theory, agitate enough to get the mayor or police chief to do what they want (since the citizens are their bosses).

It’s part of a “greater need.” A cop that is in the park working on busting drug dealers isn’t going to go after someone who runs a stop sign. But most likely he WILL go after a guy who shoots another.

It’s a matter of what is more important. Crime, like anything is proportional and you have to get your priorities straight.

We used to employ off duty Chicago cops as weekend security in a hotel I worked in and one officer told me, he was almost late. He said, he pulled over a speeder that had a lot of marijuana on his front seat. He told me he didn’t feel like dealing with the added paper work, so he just lectured the guy and said, he dumped the marijuana down the sewer. In other words he “Couldn’t be bothered.”

I also noticed Chicago cops don’t enforce crossing against the light, but I’ve seen MANY people in San Francisco get tickets for jaywalking. I guess it depends on where you live :slight_smile:

If it’s not a big enough deal to get noticed, then it doesn’t get noticed. I figured the point of your question was what happened when people did notice what was happening.

In most American cities the mayor is, in essence, the civilian “commander in chief” of the police. If she, or the city council or board of aldermen, which is the legislative body of the city, decide that they really want a particular law enforced, they can pass the word down through the uniformed chain of command of the police department to the officers on the street. If the officers don’t want to enforce it, they could eventually be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including firing. Yes, the police have discretion in enforcing the law, and of course must prioritize as a day-to-day matter, but they don’t have the discretion to routinely refuse to enforce a law that they have been specifically ordered to enforce by someone with lawful authority to issue such an order. They have sworn oaths to preserve, protect and defend the U.S. and state constitution, to enforce the laws of their jurisdiction, and to obey the orders of their superiors.

In my city, police often give attention to an area or an issue when the councilman for that ward has received citizen complaints about it - IME the police are quite responsive to such requests.

So how does it work as a practical matter? I’m thinking of a situation in which the city council passes some quality-of-llife type law, and as a practical matter, cops as a group think they have other priorities or are otherwise distinterested, and the law is routinely flouted. The council members think the law should be enforced. What do they do? Call in the police chief? OK, let’s say he says he thinks there are other priorities? Do they fire him? And let’s say he says OK, he agrees and then does nothing?

IOW, I’m wondering how feasible it is for the council to force enforcement of a law if the police are disinclined to do so, not just whether they have technical authority.

The police chief is not an elected position. S/He is an employee of the city. If the police chief cannot get the police they oversee to do what the mayor/city council say should be done the city will find themselves a new police chief.

Of course these things do not happen in a vacuum. If there is some issue making enforcement difficult or the police will have to take attention from something else the police chief will communicate that to the city. They can help prioritize. In the end though the police chief needs to follow their directive. If it is something really fucked up the police chief can try and go to the press and make a big deal about it but that is a last resort as it does not endear you to your bosses. If the people do not like the new focus they can elect a new mayor or council members.

Agreed on all counts. It is very feasible for the mayor/safety director/commissioner or city council to compel enforcement even if police are reluctant. If the police officers on the street don’t want to enforce a law despite explicit orders to do so, they should - and quite possibly will - find another line of work.

If the police cheif is answerable to the council, he has to folow orders and face disciplinary action, up to being fired. If he’s elected, then impeachment of its equivalent is the alternative. If a police chief or any other police officer is refusing to enforce a law or obey orders, it’s legitimate grounds for losing their job.

No, but the Sheriff is (in most jurisdictions in the U.S.). And, contrary to what it says on many squad cars the Sheriff is not a department, but an office. A constitutional office at that. So a county executive or county board president has little to no say in what the Sheriff does. Though a county board could use budget rollbacks to punish a Sheriff, some of the money the Sheriff uses comes from state sources. And impeaching a Sheriff in many places is very difficult. Also, in most states the Sheriff is the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of the county he/she is Sheriff in. So they can, theoretically bully local law enforcement agencies on certain things.

So, a Sheriff that declared he/she wasn’t going to enforce something would probably get away with it at very least until the next election.

In fact I think you could say the Police Chief’s job is to implement the will of the mayor/city council and see that it is done.

The flip side is the Police Chief also needs to communicate the needs of the police department to fulfill the directives given to them. If the city council wants a 0% crime rate in a city of a million people the Police Chief will be the one to tell them they’ll need about 2 million police to achieve it.

The Police Chief is the interface between the government and the police officers. The Chief sees the police department gets the funding it needs to do its job and also directs the officers on how to do the job (broadly).

It’s kind of like greasing the squeaky wheel. There is this busy intersection where I used to work. Drivers have to make left and right turns in all directions, and there’s pedestrians all the time. A pedestrian got hit, so the police were out ticketing people and putting up signs that drivers cannot enter the crosswalk legally if there is a pedestrian there. Then, the pedestrians started walking at will, regardless of the light. Somebody else got hit, and then the police went out and handed out pamphlets about safety issues when crossing the street.

While they were doing one thing, they were ignoring the other. I think there’s so many violations they can’t enforce all of them all the time.


IIRC there were some cases recently where some Sheriffs refused to evict home owners because banks said so. The banks howled but the Sheriff had the law on their side (the banks, strictly speaking, were not in full comportment with the law but they were used to just getting their way). The banks tried to get others to put pressure on the Sheriff but there was little they could do (not to mention it was a popular move for the Sheriff…the political will did not exist).

I’ll look for the stories if you want. The banks seemed fit to chew nails but there was nothing they could do.

Absolutely. In fact, in the police academy (wayyyy back in 1982) we were told that the actual job of the police was to keep the peace and maintain order so the government administration could continue to function. I remember this being a test question. While this sounds cold, at least it’s more honest than the “customer service” and “we exist to serve the public” fluff some agencies are trying to sell now days.

I think generally police are on a specific assignment or detail, and how much discretion they have depends on their assignment, combined with any possible ‘backlash factor’.

For example, if you are on the narcotics squad, you probably have less discretion to ignore witnessing of drug use, but you can safely ignore other minor violations.

But if you are on traffic patrol, you probably just look out for traffic violations and don’t pay too much attention to the random minor law violation that isn’t car-based.

Sometimes you have top-down more specific instruction than your general assignment - hence the seasonal police stop points for DWI or seat belts or whatever.

But, no matter what your assignment, if you happen to encounter something truly police worthy (serious victim crime), you are likely to intervene, if not for your own moral guidance, then because if it’s something people are likely to complain about, then your ass will be in a sling if you don’t respond.

I believe also, a higher-up can specifically instruct the lower downs to not bother enforcing certain laws.

To summarize: if the head honcho of whatever sort wants a law enforced, it’s gonna be. If they don’t want it enforced, it’s not gonna be. If they don’t give instruction, then it depends on the specific assignment. And in general, no one gives a shit about blue laws, unless it lets them arrest someone who they suspect but can’t prove of another more important crime.

I am going to take a different tack than the other answers so far, although I generally agree with them to the extent they go.

I am going to say that it is not up to the police to enforce laws at all. It is up to the entire justice system, which is necessarily ambiguous. Even then, it is not the goal to actually enforce every single law in every single circumstance, but rather to function in a way that justice is done as seen both by the population at large, and by the elected officials that have direct and indirect authority as described by the others in this thread.

Thus, police exercising of discretion, or even outright refusal to pay attention to certain matters is more properly framed as an act in the overall delivery or availability of “justice to all”.

In some ways, justice can be decided at all levels of the overall justice system. It may not take a judge to decide if a particular instance of jaywalking needs to be dismissed or ignored in the interest of justice. When police do it, we call that discretion. When they overstep their discretion, they find themselves (in theory anyway) in the justice system themselves as defendants or in another line of work depending on the nature of the abrogation itself.

If an administration official says “enforce this law” and police fail to do so, then sooner or later one will be called to account - you were at the corner of Dick and Jane streets and did not ticket the jaywalker, according to councilman Crook". He gets a reprimand on his record. Too many reprimands and he’s fired.

If you try to push a group, say the police brotherhood, too far, it becomes a head-butting contest. If you make them write jaywalking tickets, they work to rule and write a thousand so there’s no time for anything else… A form of passive-aggressive response.

Some police in Canada IIRC went “work to rule” by refusing to hand out traffic tickets until their contract was settled- except in really serious offenses. The revenue loss was an incentive for the municipality to settle.

When it comes to a head-butting contest, both sides have something they can do to inconvenience the other; without compromise, it boils down to which side hurts the most and gives up. Firing is pretty drastic, but so is no traffic fines…