Police Discretion with Young Offenders

IV.  Organizational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

3.0  Hierarchy

The degree of hierarchy in an organization can be measured in various ways (Hall, 2002). One simple approach is to count the number of vertically differentiated positions. In a police service, vertical differentiation has two manifestations: the functional position of authority, such "Officer in Charge of the GIS Division", and the rank. These two hierarchies are so closely correlated that they can be considered together. The typical authority/rank structure has three levels: (i) Executives/Upper Management (the ranks of Chief, Deputy Chief, Superintendent), (ii) Middle Management (Inspector, Staff Sergeant, Sergeant), and (iii) Front-line (Constable). Variations depend mainly on the size of the force. For example, some Ontario police services have nine ranks, with the addition of Staff Superintendent and Staff Inspector. Smaller police forces may exclude the rank of Superintendent, Inspector and Staff Sergeant. In comparison, a very large police force such as the RCMP, has ten ranks. On May 1, 2001, the RCMP had 20,866 members, classified as follows: Commissioner (1), Deputy Commissioner (6), Assistant Commissioner (25), Chief Superintendent (46), Superintendent (106), Inspector (284), Staff Sergeant (677), Sergeant (1,499), Corporal (2,770), and Constable (9,698) (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 2002).[59] Some police forces have eliminated the position of Inspector in order to flatten the hierarchy (e.g., Edmonton Police Service), and the RCMP has been reported to be considering reducing the numbers of officers in middle management (Seagrave, 1997: 39).

The literature on policing has drawn attention to the links between the degree of hierarchy in the department, and the exercise of police discretion. According to Brown (1981b: 259), Canadian police forces in the 1970's had too many levels of hierarchy: "…The resulting many-layered command structure precludes effective decentralization of services, and is dysfunctional from the point of view of attaining organizational goals." However, much research on this issue has been unable, or uninterested, to distinguish between the degree of hierarchy, the size of the police service, and the type (or size) of community which is being policed, all of which are highly correlated. Our own results, reported below, suffer from the same difficulty in distinguishing among these related phenomena.

Some research suggests that the probability of arrest increases as police departments become larger and more hierarchical, with increasing rank differentiation in middle and upper management (Smith & Klein, 1994).[60] Officers in larger departments with more ranks tend to have fewer constraints on their use of discretion by supervisors, and tend to make greater use of arrest. This illustrates the interesting anomaly that "the police department has the special property…that within it discretion increases as one moves down the hierarchy" (Wilson, 1968, cited in Reiner, 1997: 1009). On the other hand, in smaller departments with fewer ranks, officers spend more time on routine patrol in the community and are likely to be more lenient in their enforcement practices of charging (Brown, 1981a; Mastrofski, 1981). None of these studies examined the effects of rank structure specifically on the processing of youth.

In classifying our sample of police services by the number of ranks, we classified detachments of the RCMP and OPP according to the number of ranks present in that detachment, not in the overall organization. The number of ranks in police agencies in the sample varies between 1 and 12, with an average of 4.8 ranks, and a median number of 4 ranks. However, the most common number of ranks in the agencies in the sample is 3. The sample is distributed fairly evenly: 36% of agencies and detachments have one to three ranks, 37% have four to six ranks, and 27% have seven or more ranks. The amount of hierarchy is strongly related to community size and to the type of policing, as Figures IV.5 and IV.6 show.

According to the interview data, there is very little variation in the use of informal action by the number of ranks. However, agencies with one to three ranks are slightly more likely to use informal action (91%) than agencies with more vertical differentiation (81%).

Figure IV.5 Degree of hierarchy in police services, by type of community

Figure IV.5 Degree of hierarchy in police services, by type of community - If the following image is not accessible to you, please contact Youth Justice Policy at Youth-Jeunes@justice.gc.ca for an alternate format.

Description

Figure IV.6 Degree of hierarchy in police services, by size of police service

Figure IV.6 Degree of hierarchy in police services, by size of police service - If the following image is not accessible to you, please contact Youth Justice Policy at Youth-Jeunes@justice.gc.ca for an alternate format.

Description

Analysis of UCR data on the proportion of apprehended youth who were charged revealed no significant differences in charging related to the degree of hierarchy, but the analysis was hampered by missing data and the confounding effect of related variables, such as the type of policing and community, and the size of the police service.

Police agencies are more likely to use pre-charge diversion as the differentiation in ranks increases. 69% of agencies with seven or more ranks indicated they use pre-charge alternative measures compared to 50% of those agencies with four to six ranks and 43% of those with one to three ranks. We suspect that this may be as a result of a higher degree of specialization (e.g. Youth officers, School Resource officers) or the greater access of larger police agencies to external resources. There were no differences in the use of post-charge alternative measures. Police agencies with four or more ranks are more likely to find alternative measures "usually" effective (69%) than agencies with one to three ranks (35%). In addition, 50% of agencies with one to three ranks find alternative measures "occasionally" effective. This is consistent with the finding that agencies with one to three ranks are less likely to use alternative measures with minor offences. Again, several confounding factors may play a role. First, our data suggest a lack of available pre-charge diversion programs in rural and small town areas, which tend to have smaller police services or detachments, with one to three ranks. Second, police services in rural and small town areas are likely to be less formal in their enforcement practices (Brown, 1981a; Mastrofski, 1981).

There are no apparent differences in the use of summonses, appearance notices, or OIC undertakings, by degree of hierarchy. However, some interesting patterns emerge concerning the use of a Promise to Appear and the reasons given for detention for a judicial interim release hearing. Agencies with seven or more ranks are more likely to use a PTA as a "higher consequence" (38% versus 12%). This does not appear to be due to the type of community. Since police services in rural and small town areas are less likely to say that they detain youth because of repeat offending, it is not surprising the same relationship occurs for agencies with one to three ranks (38%), compared to agencies with four or more (70%). Only 14% of the agencies with one to three ranks suggested that they "almost always" arrest and detain repeat offenders, compared to 58% of the agencies with four or more ranks. Agencies with seven or more ranks are twice as likely to detain a young offender "if s/he is [already] before the courts" as agencies with fewer ranks (50% versus 24%).

Overall, what these findings suggest is some distinctiveness in decision-making with youth in agencies with three or fewer ranks, versus those with four or more; and also some differences within the latter group. The degree of hierarchy does appear to have an effect on the use of informal action and the use of detention with young offenders. However, as other researchers have found, it is difficult to disentangle the effects of vertical differentiation itself from the effects of agency and community size.


  • [59] The total 20,866 also includes 1 Corps Sergeant Major, 3 Sergeant Major, 89 Special Constables, 2,140 Civilian Members, and 3,521 Public Servants (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 2002).
  • [60] Smith & Klein (1994) used an index of bureaucratization which combined organization size, the number of ranks, and the number of occupational titles.

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