Police culture and the
use of discretion
This chapter examines the connected issues of police discretion and police culture. It seeks to establish whether routine decisionmaking by police is invariably to the detriment of Indigenous people, and to examine the factors which might explain adverse decision-making. It also considers how police utilise discretion in relation to Indigenous people and examines decision-making in regard to young people as a specific example. The problems of police discretion and Indigenous young people are particularly apparent in relationship to new schemes such as ‘family group conferencing’ which seek to provide alternatives to more orthodox criminal justice interventions.
Clearly, police decision-making does not occur within a vacuum. Decisions are made within a broader context of training, knowledge and values. What is referred to as ‘police culture’ provides the framework within which knowledge is developed and decisions are made. To understand the relationship between Indigenous people and police it is important to consider what is specific about police culture that might directly impinge on how police deal with Indigenous people.
The intersection between broader social attitudes towards Indigenous people, police culture and the use of discretion is examined through the specific issue of police custody. I have referred to this as ‘the normalisation of Indigenous imprisonment’. Finally, the adverse use of police discretion is discussed as a human rights issue because it results in the unnecessary arrest and detention of Indigenous people—contrary to a number of international standards to which Australia is a party.
What is police discretion? ‘Discretion’ simply refers to the judgement or choice which police make in selecting a particular course of action. Discretion includes substantive choices over whether to invoke the criminal law against particular behaviour,