In the end, what have we accomplished? After more than thirty years of intensive agitation, litigation, research, and reform, have we brought police discretion under control? A fair assessment would be that we have made a start. We have succeeded in imposing some control over some decisions. Many--even most--important decisions remain untouched. Nor can we say with absolute certainty that the rules that do exist work as intended (although the research on the deadly force rules is very persuasive). It would be easy to focus on how much has not been accomplished and to cite current headlines about police misconduct (the beating of Rodney King) as evidence that no improvements have been made. This would be a mistake. Rather, we should examine the positive gains that have been made and attempt to draw some lessons about the possibilities for further progress. The principal accomplishments and failures of the past thirty years can be summarized as follows.
First, and most important, we have brought the issue of police discretion into the open. It is now out of shadows and into the realm of public debate. This alone is an enormous accomplishment. Unlike thirty years ago, we now have a realistic understanding of what police officers do as well as a reasonable understanding of why they act the way they do and the problems that are associated with discretion. Although we are impressed with the difficulty of controlling discretion, this is an improvement over the blissful ignorance that prevailed thirty years ago.
Second, we have succeeded in establishing the principle of accountability. If we do not fully implement this principle in practice, at least we know what our ideal is. Police officers should be held accountable for their actions. There are things they must do and things they must not do. And we have a network of rules designed to implement those commands. The most important thing is that the principle of accountability is recognized by police officers, criminal suspects, and citizens alike. Every junior high school student knows that suspects are entitled to their "Miranda rights." They often have the details wrong, but the principle that there are limits on police officer behavior, and penalties for breaking those rules, is firmly established. To an extent that we understand only imperfectly at present, we may have succeeded in altering the context of the police subculture, establishing both the principle and the mechanics of accountability as facts of life in police work.
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Publication information: Book title: Taming the System:The Control of Discretion in Criminal Justice, 1950-1990. Contributors: Samuel Walker - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1993. Page number: 52.
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