Discretion and setting targets

Every officer is taught the fundamentals of law in particular what constitutes a criminal offence and what authority under the law they have for investigating a criminal allegation and apprehending an offender.

Officers performing specialist duties will have a greater knowledge of the law relating to their role i.e. traffic officers will know more about traffic law than most officers, custody sergeants will know more about the detention of prisoners and CID officers will know more about criminal law.

Knowing the law is an integral part of the job and you can’t be a copper unless you have a reasonable understanding of the law. Implementing the law, however, requires more than knowledge. It requires people skills and for some officers learning how to speak to people is harder to learn than the acts and sections of legislation that makes up the law.

When was the last time you broke the law? Never, some will say. ‘I never break the law.’ Perhaps we should think again. Ever done 35 in a 30 mile an hour zone? It can be hard to drive at 30 when the road is clear and the car always seems to drive smoother at speed. Ever parked in a no waiting zone? Squeezed through the lights just as they change? Walked on the grass? Thrown litter?

The reality is that many law-abiding people occasionally break the law and an officer could issue a ticket for many minor offences if they choose to do so. Few officers do because they use “Discretion”. They have the freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation and that element of policing is just as important as knowing the law and should be encouraged and cultivated. We must never forget that we police by consent and that the purpose of the law is to make life safer and better for society as a whole.

When senior officers set performance targets they are reducing an officer’s ability to use ‘Discretion’ and risk alienating the very people who permit us to police by consent.

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