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Study Notes

Social Control: Police Discretion

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 11 Aug 2018

There are several sociological explanations for the nature of police discretion. Discretion is the idea that the police have some leeway as to when and how seriously they will enforce the law.

According to Reiner (1992) these are:


Individual discretion means that individual police officers will use their personal discretion (which may be discriminatory) and that this may not necessarily reflect the occupational culture of the police nor its structural role in society.


The canteen culture of the police has impact on discretion, meaning that they are more likely to be suspicious of and hostile to certain social groups. A canteen culture refers to the way in which people working in a particular workplace can develop a shared set of values and prejudices. In the context of the police force, a conservative canteen culture is sometimes suggested as an explanation for police discrimination and the lack of fairness sometimes displayed in police discretion.


Structural discretion is the classic Marxist version where the police directly represent the interests of the bourgeoisie and therefore enforce law and order in their interests and against the interests of the rest. As such they will overlook bourgeois crime as far as they are able and focus on controlling the behaviour of the proletariat.

The McPherson Report's conclusion that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist (which has been supported by subsequent studies, such as the BBC's "Secret Policeman" documentary about Greater Manchester Police) supports the idea of at least cultural, and probably structural, discretion. These conclusions have significant consequences for the social distribution of crime and deviance; evidence based on arrests and police records have to be viewed in the context of systemic discrimination.

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