Citation In Lieu of Arrest

Citation In Lieu of Arrest

With community-police relations in the spotlight and key policy groups recommending the increased use of citation, now is an important moment to consider the use and impact of citation policies, to measure their effectiveness in maximizing public and officer safety and minimizing recidivism, to weigh the costs and benefits of citation usage against those of custodial arrest, and to examine officer safety issues. In short, we need to know if and when citation in lieu of arrest works best and how to implement citation policies to achieve these outcomes. In 2016, the IACP conducted the first study of citation in lieu of arrest and continues to examine this issue with the hope of gaining a better understanding in how the use of citation can improve policing practices.


Citation in lieu of arrest is a widely used law enforcement tool, however, the practice has rarely been studied in depth to substantiate many of the perceived benefits and challenges citation creates. The IACP, with the support of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, studied how police departments approach the use of citation in lieu of arrest, with a goal to provide the law enforcement community and other criminal justice stakeholders with a reference point for information about citation practices across the United States.

Scope of Project

Literature Review. The IACP undertook a comprehensive review of academic literature surrounding citation use dating back 40 years. This literature review provided the IACP with information about the historical use of and legal authority for issuing citations, as well as some jurisdiction-specific data about its impact on the criminal justice system. The literature review also identified gaps in the research on how the use of citation, when compared to arrest, affects law enforcement efficiency and effectiveness, criminal justice system costs, individual case outcomes, and public safety.

Nationwide Survey. The IACP worked with an independent research organization to conduct a national survey of law enforcement agencies in order to determine their level of citation use, assess their perspectives on the practice, and identify data sets for further research in the area.

Focus Group Discussions. In order to assess current law enforcement attitudes about the use of citation, the IACP held a series of focus groups with a diverse cross-section of agencies and officer ranks. The focus groups considered how departments view the link between citation and pretrial release policies and practices, how they use data to make citation decisions and evaluate citation use outcomes, and how they leverage existing diversion programs to provide support to those cited.

Key Findings

Citation in Lieu of Arrest Has Been Widely Embraced as a Law Enforcement Tool. The use of citation in lieu of arrest is a widespread and long¬standing tool in American law enforcement, with nearly 87% of agencies engaged in the practice; over 80% of those for ten years or more. Law enforcement agencies are using citation for nearly a third of all incidents, most often for disorderly con¬duct, theft, trespassing, driving under suspension, and possession of marijuana. Nearly two-thirds of law enforcement officials have a positive view of citation. Very few respondents (fewer than 2%) indicated a negative view of the practice.

Citation Offers Potential Time Savings and Increased Law Enforcement Efficiency. Citations take significantly less time to process than do arrests (85.8 minutes vs. 24.2 minutes), saving just over an hour per incident.

Officers Are Given Broad Discretion to Determine Whether to Cite or Arrest in Individual Cases. The legal authority to cite for a particular offense comes from a variety of sources, including state statutes, local ordinances and regulations, and departmental policy. While certain offenses may be eligible for citation, nearly 81% of agencies give officers final discretion to determine whether an individual involved in a particular incident is suitable for citation vs. arrest.

In Exercising Their Discretion, Officers Would Benefit from Comprehensive Data Availability in the Field. While the majority of officers reported having access to data on arrest, warrant, conviction, and failure to appear, there are still gaps in the information available to officers when deciding whether to cite or arrest. Law enforcement officers would benefit from more complete information across the board, including the ability to access fingerprint information and use risk assessment scores.

Although Many Benefits of Citation Have Been Posited, There is Little Existing Research to Evaluate Those Claims. Academics and policymakers have suggested many potential benefits for using citation in lieu of arrest in appropriate cases, including increased officer efficiency, enhanced community-police relations, increased officer and public safety, reduced criminal justice system costs, reductions in jail overcrowding, and diminished burdens on low-level offenders, who avoid arrest records and potential pretrial detention. More rigorous study is needed to establish how citation can be used to achieve these advantages, so that evidence-based practices can be standardized into model citation protocols.

Further Research is Needed to Assess the Validity of Concerns Surrounding the Increased Use of Citation and How Best to Alleviate Any Challenges. Academics and law enforcement professionals have raised concerns about the increased use of citation, and many unanswered questions remain about its impact on law enforcement efficiency, public safety, and individual case outcomes. Does citation in¬crease failure to appear rates and, if so, how can this be remedied? How can the potential for officer bias in making discretionary decisions about whether to cite or arrest be alleviated? What information do officers need in the field to best exercise their discretion? How can law enforcement best communicate its policies to a public that may consider citation to be too lenient of a response to crime? How does citation vs. arrest affect pretrial public safety? Additional research is needed to understand the true impact of citation policies in order to develop best practices that balance the interests of public safety, law enforcement, and those cited.

Although Most Agencies are Collecting Citation Data, Few are Tracking, Monitoring, or Analyzing this Information. Eighty-six percent of responding agencies maintain electronic information about citation issuance, and nearly 70% maintain paper records. Yet fewer than 20% of respondents monitor, track, study, or evaluate the use of citation in lieu of arrest. In order to determine the effectiveness and outcomes of citation use, agencies would benefit from more complete data collection and robust evaluation of that data. In addition, standardized procedures for citation data collection would support future research in the field, allowing researchers to compare and analyze information across jurisdictions and systems.


Citation in lieu of arrest potentially offers numerous benefits for law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and those cited. Yet the impact of the practice has not been significantly studied. The IACP’s three-pronged assessment of citation in lieu of arrest—has provided a baseline of information and generated numerous questions that provide a path forward for researchers, illuminating the need for more evidence gathering to support effective policies for the criminal justice system, officers, and citizens.

Image of Infographic Flyer

To download this resource please click here.

Please sign in to read and get access to more member only content.

IACP - Loader Animation IACP - Loader Animation IACP - Loader Animation