Police Discretion with Young Offenders

III. Environmental Factors Affecting Police Discretion

Chapters III to V of this report explore the reasons for variations in the exercise of police discretion which were identified in Chapter II. Chapter III considers aspects of the environment in which police agencies work. We draw from information provided to us by police agencies in interviews and documentation, and statistical data from the UCR and UCR2 Surveys.

Since this report was commissioned by the Department of Justice in support of the implementation and evaluation of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), it is worth considering the relevance to that initiative of the policing environment. The police have little or no control over the environment in which they work. Nor can any federal or provincial government agency expect to have much immediate impact on some salient aspects of the policing environment, such as the degree of urbanization, socio-demographic characteristics, or the level and type of crime of the communities which police serve. However, it is certainly within the power of provincial governments to affect other aspects of the policing environment which affect the exercise of police discretion, namely the relationship of Crown prosecutors with the police (Section 2.2), and, above all, the availability of programs to which youth can be referred as an alternative to being charged (and, on occasion, held in police detention) (Sections 2.1 and 3).

In Chapters III, IV and V, variations in the exercise of police discretion are the "dependent" variables - phenomena to be explained - and environment and organizational characteristics of police agencies are the "independent" variables, which provide the explanation. Some of the dependent variables used in this part of the report are measured at the level of the individual officer [24] because we felt that they represented the views of the persons interviewed, rather than "facts" about the police agency in which they worked. These individual-level variables include answers to our questions about offences which "almost always" involve informal action, whether the use of alternative measures is seen as effective, whether feedback on alternative measures is seen as useful, and whether there are any offences that "almost always" involve alternative measures or laying charges. Analyses of these variables have the officer, or interview, as the unit of analysis.

Most of the dependent variables were measured at the level of police agency. These include the use of informal action in general, and specific forms such as informal warnings, formal warnings, parental involvement, taking the youth home or to the police station, questioning the youth at home or at the police station, referrals to external agencies, internal referrals, tracking of informal warnings, use of pre-charge and post-charge alternative measures, and the various means of compelling appearance. These are normally analysed with the police agency as the unit of analysis. Occasionally, they are analysed at the level of the individual officer (interview), because the independent variable was measured at the level of the officer.

The way in which any organization functions is strongly influenced by its environment. According to Terreberry,

...environments are becoming more "turbulent," in that there are accelerating rates and new directions of change. In order to survive, organizations must be able to adapt to this turbulence…(cited in Hall, 1972: 297-298).

Most police officers - from patrol constable to upper management - would probably agree with this assessment. As Grosman put it, in his study of police leadership in Canada,

The police organization today finds itself located in a dynamic and changing environment. The growth of the police role in society is closely related to increasing problems of adapting to and managing change. (1975: 139)

Police agencies operate within a complex environment, consisting of, among other things, the nature of the local community, federal and provincial legislation, policies, procedures, and programs, local public and private resources, and public opinion. The impact of these factors on police decision-making with young offenders is analysed in this chapter.


[24] In contrast, all offenders (regardless of offence) are eligible for alternative measures in Quebec (Kowalski, 1999).

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