Criminologist: Police find it difficult to apply one law to all cases

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Police officers use discretion in handling incidents, despite the presence of mandated rules and regulations governing how officers are supposed to respond, according to a Penn State researcher. Joongyeup Lee, assistant professor of criminal justice in the Penn State Harrisburg School of Public Affairs, analyzed domestic violence cases handled by the Houston police department.

Lee said that the public expects police to enforce laws uniformly in all cases because those laws are arrived at by a consensus of society. For example, police would be less likely to make an arrest if an incident involved simple assault as opposed to aggravated assault, and would be more likely to make an arrest if there was a restraining order against the assailant.

However, he noted, "there are extra-legal factors, in addition to legal factors, that constitute the incident and ultimately matter to police officers.”

For instance, officers were less likely to make an arrest in a neighborhood with a high-crime rate, compared to a more upscale neighborhood. Also, some of the situational contexts, such as age, gender and race of assailants, as well as time of the day, day of the week and location of the incident, were associated with the odds of making an arrest.

Of course, Lee said, there is no such law that advises officers to make an arrest based on who the suspect is or where and when the crime occurs.

“The most important point is, it doesn’t necessarily mean (police officers) are ignoring the social consensus,” Lee said. “It is the fabric of our society with a wide range of subcultures that brings a question to the validity of social consensus.

“Among different income levels, generations, ethnicities and so forth, are we sure we have one uniform consensus? When a case moves from one context to another, consensus on the topic changes as well, this is why police find it difficult to apply one law to all cases.”

Police officers on the street deal with an array of subcultures, each of which can place the same criminal act in a different context. For example, a police officer in a high-crime, urban neighborhood may decide not to arrest someone for smoking marijuana because the act is so socially negligible that making an arrest would not be appreciated by the residents. In contrast, the same officer may arrest someone for smoking marijuana in a suburban neighborhood, where marijuana smoking is rare and not tolerated by the residents.

“Police officers generally have a decent understanding of subcultural diversity in their jurisdiction,” Lee said. “In this perspective, the police may actually be honoring social consensus under each subcultural context by using reasonable and rational discretion. My job as a police researcher is to educate the public why police cannot be robot cops. On the other hand, I help police understand the pattern of their own behaviors. Ultimately, the police should work hard to identify and cater to the general consensus in each community.”

Lee, primarily a criminologist who studies social and psychological factors of crime and delinquency, holds a doctorate from Sam Houston State University in Houston. While at Sam Houston, he studied police response to domestic violence incidents in the city of Houston.

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Last Updated April 04, 2014