Do Cops Still Care? A Phenomenological Exploration of Narcotics (De)Criminalization and Officer Discretion in Southern California

Stephen Bell 1 * , Joshua Adams 2

AM J QUALITATIVE RES, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp. 159-181

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The purpose of this transcendental phenomenological study was to explore how law enforcement officers in Los Angeles County described their lived experiences of engaging in discretionary enforcement behaviors when policing narcotics crimes. Rational choice theory was utilized as the theoretical lens for the study. Convenience sampling was used to recruit 15 active law enforcement officers in Los Angeles County. Data were collected through open-ended surveys, semi-structured interviews, and reflexive memos. The data were coded utilizing thematic analysis with the assistance of NVivo 12 Plus. Three primary themes were evident from the data: (1) positive reinforcement-motivators, (2) justifications for reduced narcotics enforcement, and (3) methods of reduced enforcement. Findings revealed law enforcement officers, much like offenders’ criminal behaviors in rational choice theory, can be dissuaded from discretionary enforcement behaviors with adequate negative reinforcement. Implications of the study’s findings, limitations, and recommendations for future research are discussed.

Keywords: rational choice theory, discretion, narcotics, deterrence, Proposition 47, defelonization.