Date of Award




Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Criminal Justice

Content Description

1 online resource (xi, 223 pages) : illustrations.

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

Robert E Worden

Committee Members

Alissa P Worden, Sarah J McLean, James Acker


Officer discretion, Police, Qualitative methodology, Supervision, Police discretion, Police training

Subject Categories

Law Enforcement and Corrections


The operational uncertainties for police work—e.g. isolation, ambiguity, contextually contingent decision-making—force police departments to push discretion down to its lowest level employees. Consequently, officers are expected to exercise independent thought and judgment in response to the challenges confronted. Yet public criticism of police often breeds from officers’ “poor” decisions and the inordinate amount of discretion they are granted. Police organizations rarely experience crises for failing to control crime, rather it is failure to control police discretion that most often threatens a department’s legitimacy. Consequently, police departments rely on supervision to limit, constrain or shape officers’ discretion so that it mirrors the organization’s mission, goals and policies. As the closest rank to the patrol officer, and a large component of his work environment, first-line supervisors have great potential to influence police discretion. Scholars describe first-line supervisors’ downward function through a range of behaviors, sprinkling expectations of patrol sergeants throughout policing literature. It is through these practices that supervisors are believed to play a pivotal role in influencing officers’ discretion. Despite these role prescriptions, little is known about sergeants’ practices in guiding or constraining officers’ discretion. This project strives to unearth how first-line supervision may impact officers’ discretionary activity, particularly through the downward function of control. Conducting semi-structured interviews of patrol sergeants employed by a municipal police department, I examine how supervisors conceptualize their managerial function, including the ways that they strive to control officers’ discretionary activity, noting if and where discrepancies between theory and practice may exist. Findings reveal that while supervisors share similar expectations of patrol work and perform many of the same practices, their motivation behind these actions, as well as how they perform them, turn on their approach towards officers’ autonomy. However, supervisory influence is recursive and study findings demonstrate the power of officers’ receptivity in determining the extent to which supervisors can influence officers’ discretion. The findings from this study will inform future inquiries by developing a theoretical foundation of first-line supervision and uncover supervisory practices that appear to succeed which law enforcement agencies may adopt, modify and test to identify those that work best for their organization.