Police Discretion

Police Discretion in Europe

Police Discretion: a Focus on the Belgian Context

Fien Gilleir, from the University College Ghent, made a contribution to the 2012 Annual Conference of the European Society of Criminology, in the category “Criminal Justice and Human Rights,” under the title “Police Discretion: a Focus on the Belgian Context”. Here is the abstract: Current research focuses on the way in which decisions at the level of frontline police officers take place within the Belgian context. Police are legal actors sensitive to legal factors (Klinger, 1997; Black and Reiss, 1970). However, based on an empirical study with regard to policy implementation in two Belgian police departments, the formal outcome of the decision-making process of individual police officers can be seen as the result of a complex interaction between extralegal (such as situational, personal and to some extent organizational) elements on the one hand and legal factors on the other hand (Gilleir, 2012). After an explorative field study, mainly based on interviews and observations, the existence of this 'police discretion' has been studied with regard to one specific decision, namely the possibility to take a suspect into custody. Findings of different studies showed that police officers often strive for own motives with regard to an arrest (LaFave, 1965). In order to check whether other than legal factors can affect the decision to deprive someone's liberty, we've confronted a pool of police officers with vignettes, descriptions of fictive situations in which the possibility of making an arrest could be the case. As a result, a qualitative analysis of this data showed that there was a lot of inter-individual variation with regard to the way in which police officers interpret the scene on the one hand and the way in which personal values and norms influenced the outcome of a certain situation in terms of arrest or not, on the other hand. This latent ability to influence the outcome of arrest-decisions gives raise to important questions with regard to democratic control about some fundamental human rights, such as the right on freedom, etc.

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Further Reading

  • “Police Discretion: a Focus on the Belgian Context”, by Fien Gilleir (Proceedings)

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