Mothers arrested for questionable crimes: Where is police discretion?

Breaking a criminal law puts you at risk for arrest. But we all know police use their discretion in determining who gets cuffed and who gets a stern “talking to”. In several recent cases to cross national headlines, it seems we are living in a nation where the warnings are falling out of favor, and people are being arrested for the most benign events.

It isn’t clear if the officers involved in these arrests truly believe they are doing a public service and protecting society, or if they’re in it simply to amass arrest numbers behind their names.

shaneenShaneen Allen, a 27-year old single mother of two from Philly, took a course and went through the paperwork necessary to get a concealed-carry permit.

“One of my family members, he thought it was appropriate for me to get one because I’m a single mother and I have two children and I work two jobs and I work late and getting up at that time of night I got robbed twice last year and he felt the need for me to get my license to protect me and my kids,” said Allen.

She had a licensed handgun and her permit on the day she traveled to New Jersey with her children. According to Allen, she didn’t know her Pennsylvania-approved permit was no good in Jersey.

When pulled over for a traffic violation, she was upfront, letting the officer know in advance that she had a weapon and a permit with her. After all, she didn’t believe she had done anything wrong. But for her honesty, she was arrested and now faces a 3 year mandatory minimum prison sentence for a gun crime.

In South Carolina, another single mother, 46-year old Debra Harrell, worked at McDonald’s but didn’t make enough money to afford child care. Her 9-year old daughter, seemingly mature for her age, would often spend the day at a local park while her mother worked her shift down the street.

The park has restrooms, a free play area, a spray park, plenty of shade, and is within walking distance to a Walmart, where the girl would have her lunch.

After being seen in the park for three days, concerned adults called the police. North Augusta police arrested Harrell for “unlawful conduct towards a child” and took her daughter, who is now in the custody of the state.

It’s a common misconception that our children are at high risk of victimization, that playing in the park now is any more dangerous than it was 30 or even 50 years ago. The truth: crime is lower than ever and stranger abductions are extremely rare.

In both of these cases, police had an opportunity to exercise their discretion. They had an opportunity to use better judgment in determining whether the women posed a true risk to their children or society, or whether discussing alternatives to their decisions would have provided a better outcome.

Discretion can open the door to problems, says Dorothy Roberts professor at the University of Pennsylvania, according to She points out in the case of Debra Harrell that vague laws leave “a lot of room for discretion by social workers, police, judges, and prosecutors, to determine which/whose failures to supervise to pursue. This allows race, class, and gender biases to influence decisions in both the child welfare and criminal justice systems.”

For Allen, the incident drives home a further divide between community and those who are supposed to serve it.

“The judge tried to tell me that telling the truth messed me up, my life up and the cop said the same thing. Me opening my mouth and speaking out he said I’m one out of ten people that spoke up and was honest and that got me in trouble,” she said.

Police discretion allows cops to determine when to enforce laws and when to let violations go. It’s at the heart of controversies like racial profiling and programs like the NYPD “stop and frisk” campaign. But, applied correctly, it lends an air of integrity to officers and can help maintain and repair broken relationships between them and the communities they serve.

Both women, and others like them, were ultimately arrested for doing what they believed was the right thing for their given situation. Both mothers were raising children alone, gainfully employed, and had their intentions in the right place. Both cases seem like prime candidates for the use of police discretion. Unfortunately, they are now both evidence of a system where police are rewarded for arresting regardless of the details.

About David Matson