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Should deputies use discretion when making felony arrests? Memo sparks debate

August 14, 2010 | 11:46 am

A Los Angeles County sheriff's lieutenant recently sent an internal memo to deputies in Norwalk encouraging them to consider an individual's past and career potential before making a felony arrest.

In the memo, Lt. Bill Evans offers the hypothetical example of a student "who seems like a decent kid" from Biola, a nearby Christian university, being caught with an illegal folding pocket knife.

"Are you really going to put a felony on this guy," reads the e-mail. "Here is a kid that could have been planning on going into the military, being a cop or fireman, and/or just being a guy with a career."

The memo, obtained by The Times, offers an inside look at the challenges deputies face in balancing the need for efficient policing while avoiding bias in arrests, law enforcement experts said.

Merrick Bobb, an attorney who monitors the Sheriff's Department and has reviewed a copy of the memo, says he agrees with its general message that police do not have to cite every lawbreaker they come across. But he described discretion in police work as a "two-edged sword."

"What if the same kid was a black student with long dreadlocks at Dorsey High? What if the same kid was a Latino and undocumented? A single-parent with a young child at home?" Bobb said. "I would hope the same ability to empathize and exercise compassionate discretion would be triggered in those instances also."

Evans said he intended the memo to spur discussion on the issue.

-- Robert Faturechi