No one could dispute that it was an awkward situation. A Boston police officer pulls over a driver who has been drinking, and he turns out to be the police commissioner’s son.
Those who study policing, however, differ on the officer’s decision Monday night to drive Philip Davis, the son of Commissioner Edward F. Davis, home, rather than arrest him.
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the officer’s career is in the hands of the commissioner, making an already difficult policing decision even thornier.
“It’s not unequivocal that you have to make an arrest, but it’s close,’’ said O’Donnell. “Anything you say about this is colored by the fact that you were told who this young man is.’’
But several people said that driving home suspected drunk drivers is not as unusual as it may seem. Officers have wide latitude to decide whether to arrest.
They caution, however, that showing leniency in such cases can have unintended consequences.
Officers can be held liable if the driver they drop off at home or put in a taxi gets into a fight or gets behind the wheel of another car and kills someone.
In the case involving Davis, the officer’s decision has raised questions about whether the son received unusually favorable treatment.
Philip Davis was about to drive home from the TD Garden, where he had gone with his girlfriend. But a Boston police officer, who was told by a passerby that Davis appeared to be drunk as he got into his truck, stopped the young man as he drove his blue pickup out of a downtown parking garage.
According to a police report, the officer learned that Davis had been drinking, but was unsure he was impaired and gave the young man and his girlfriend a ride home. Davis left his truck in the garage.
Commissioner Davis, who has declined to comment, immediately asked his second in command, Superintendent in Chief Daniel Linskey, to investigate the incident.
The department is forwarding reports about the incident to Suffolk prosecutors.
Department spokeswoman Cheryl Fiandaca said it is up to an officer to decide whether to make an arrest in a case like this. When asked to produce reports on other cases handled in a similar way, she said that officers are not obligated to document such incidents, when no one is arrested.
But Monday’s stop may cause the public to question whether the officer would have used the same discretion with the average Joe, police observers say.
“People are entitled to wonder if they would have been afforded preferential treatment,’’ O’Donnell said.
Jack Levin, a professor of criminology and sociology at Northeastern University, said the officer’s judgment appeared sound.
“I think if he had just allowed the commissioner’s son to drive on, it would have been a lot worse, especially if he had had an accident,’’ said Levin. The officer “protected motorists; he protected the driver he stopped. The question is why didn’t; why did he not arrest him?’’
A law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation said the officer who stopped Davis did not believe the young man was drunk. Davis was polite and cooperative, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to discuss the case with reporters.
“It didn’t rise to the threshold of being arrested,’’ the official said.
The officer brought Davis and his girlfriend to his district station, where his supervisor, a lieutenant, observed Davis and agreed with the officer’s decision to drive him home, the official said.
The official said Boston police are trained to understand that they have discretion when it comes to making arrests.
“When it comes to borderline cases, when the officer is unsure [a person is impaired], we extend the courtesy to drive you home, park your car, or get a taxi,’’ the official said. “No one’s going to believe it, but we do. I’ve driven people home. I’ve put them in cabs.’’
Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant who now lectures part time on criminal justice at Tufts University, said he did the same when he was on the force.
“Typically if it’s a situation where there hasn’t been an accident, there is no one who has been injured, it’s not at all unusual to have [police] say: ‘Lock up your car. I’m going to give you a ride home,’ ’’ he said. “The police are trained [that] you use your discretion at your own personal risk because you’re assuming responsibility.’’
In large cities like Boston, police often make the call not to make a drunk driving arrest because they do not want to spend hours booking a suspect when they know they might need to respond to a shooting or armed robbery, Nolan said.
“There are more pressing issues . . . to deal with,’’ he said. Unlike smaller municipalities, in Boston, “you’re not sitting outside the local watering hole waiting for people to come out to their cars.’’
But the decision can cause regret. Nolan recalled allowing a driver he suspected was drunk to take a cab home.
A few minutes later, Nolan circled back to the area where the driver had left his car. The vehicle was gone.