Police Discretion with Young Offenders

IV.  Organizational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

In this chapter, we discuss factors related to the police force as an organization, drawing on organizational theory in general, and, in particular, its application to police organizations. We have deliberately avoided applying broad classificatory schemes such as Wilson's (1968) classic typology of watchman, legalistic, and service styles of policing. Our purpose in this report is not to develop a scheme for classifying Canadian police forces, but to identify specific aspects of their structure, operations, and orientation which affect the ways in which their members exercise their discretion in dealing with youth crime. Therefore, we present a list of organizational characteristics and discuss to what extent each of these appears to influence police decision-making.

This report was commissioned by the Department of Justice in support of the implementation and evaluation of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA). An understanding of the organizational factors affecting police discretion with youth is relevant to the implementation of the YCJA because almost all of these aspects of police organization are mutable. Police forces which want to modify the ways in which their members exercise their discretion with young offenders, in order to conform to the specific provisions and general intent of the YCJA, can effect change to most of the aspects of police organization and culture which are identified here as affecting the exercise of discretion - although organizational change can be difficult and fraught with risks and unanticipated consequences (Cordner & Sheehan, 1999; Grosman, 1975). Presumably, federal and provincial policy-makers in the areas of policing and youth justice can play a role in encouraging such changes.

The internal structure, processes, and orientation of an organization have a large effect on the behaviour of its members (Hall, 2002). In relation to the exercise of individual discretion, it is generally (though not universally) accepted that the more formalized, or bureaucratic, an organization is, the less opportunity, and perhaps motivation, its members will have to use their own judgment in carrying out their duties. Indeed, bureaucracy - by which we mean the application of rationality to organizational design and action through the formalization, standardization, and depersonalization of organizational roles and decision-making (Weber, 1947) - can be seen as a mechanism by which the organization exerts coordination and control over the decision-making of its members (Perrow, 1972: 56). In relation to policing, Grosman characterizes bureaucracy as:

…a refined organizational mechanism for the most efficient implementation of goals and the provision of services. (1975: 31)

In the extreme case, bureaucratization can eliminate individual discretion and initiative:

…Impersonal rules delimit, in great detail, all the functions of every individual within the organization. They prescribe the behaviour to be followed in all possible events. (Crozier, quoted in Hall, 2002: 168).

Bureaucratization is seen as one aspect of the modernization of policing (Murphy, 1991). The formal structures of police organizations, and their relationships with the performance of individual officers, have been studied by several researchers (Alpert & Dunham, 1992; Crank, 1990; Fisk, 1974; Franz & Jones, 1987; Harrison & Pelletier, 1987; Klinger, 1997; Morash, 1984; Riksheim & Chermak, 1993; Walker, 1992). Research has demonstrated that organizational factors do influence arrest rates for all offence categories to varying degrees (Crank, 1990, 1992; Slovak, 1986; Wilson, 1968). Aspects of police organizational structure which have been associated by researchers with police behaviour include: bureaucracy, professionalization, size, stability of assignment, and supervisor's span of control (Seagrave, 1997: 143-144).

In addition to the structure of the police service, officers are influenced by its orientation. The emerging role of the front-line officer involves prevention, diversion, and enforcement (Hornick et al., 1996). The basic organizational structure of a police department is built with these duties or functions as the cornerstones. Reiss (1974) contends that the exercise of discretion depends upon the task organization of law enforcement agencies. One concern is the minimization of organizationally induced role conflict. The organization can apply differential levels of stress, depending on the types of activities that management supports and encourages within the occupational environment (Skolnick, 1967). The management style of a police force may support or discourage the use of police discretion. If there is a lack of congruency between what police officers are officially supposed to do (use their discretion) and what they are in fact rewarded for, then there will be a high degree of role conflict, and the possibility of a higher reliance on formal action.

Wilson (1968) began the investigations into the jurisdictional variations in arrest rates from an organizational standpoint. He attributed policy style to the characteristics of the organization in relation to discretion. His research indicated three models of management styles: legalistic, service, and watchman. These, in turn, are strongly related to the structure of the police force, and to the environment in which it operates. In the legalistic model, there is an emphasis on the strict enforcement of laws, resulting in a limited use of discretion by officers. Under this law enforcement approach, universal standards are applied to all communities within a given jurisdiction. Further, departments that operate under this model lean towards a highly specialized division of labour involving a high supervision of front-line officers. Departments that exhibit high arrest rates are seen as using a more aggressive 'legalistic' police style (Crank, 1990; Slovak, 1986). Departments that adopt a 'service' management style are characterized by a decentralization of authority, a high emphasis on community relations, and front-line officers taking a broad view of their role through the exercise of initiative, independence and discretion (Wilson, 1968). Within the service orientation, community-based interventions are seen as viable alternatives to charging with less serious offences (Conly, 1978). Finally, departments who have adopted a 'watchman' model emphasize the maintenance of order and the status quo thereby limiting opportunities of initiative and the decentralization of authority and responsibility (Wilson, 1968). These organizational distinctions are determined by one or more factors that include either internal departmental policy, municipal government police policy, provincial child welfare and juvenile justice legislation, federal juvenile justice legislation, and resource allocations from these sources (Conly, 1978).

The distinction in management style appears most frequently when comparing urban and rural police forces. Crank suggested that the legalistic management and policing style is "a latent function of organizational survival in turbulent urban environments" (1992: 403) and that rural communities are in a better position to adopt a service model. Organizational variables consistently explained more variance than environmental variables within urban departments (Crank, 1990; Swanson, 1978). Research conducted in British Columbia compared RCMP and municipal police officers and found differences in the constraints which their respective organizations place on the individual officer - with the RCMP being more bureaucratic and hierarchical (Seagrave, 1997). In short, these authors suggest that structural variation and its influence on police behaviour are likely to emanate from the organizational dynamics inherent within the management styles adopted.

According to Seagrave (1997: 144), there is practically no Canadian research on the relationship between organizational aspects of police services and the exercise of police discretion. In this chapter, we discuss the aspects of the police organization which emerged in the course of the interviews as possible influences on the exercise of discretion with young persons. Structural attributes include: the size of the police service, indexed by the number of officers; the degree of centralization, or horizontal differentiation into semi-autonomous divisions; the degree of hierarchy, or vertical differentiation into ranks and positions; the extent of functional specialization related to youth crime, and the locus of authority and responsibility to lay a charge against a young person - or to recommend charging, if the decision is made outside the police service. Aspects of the police agency's orientation which we examine are: the degree of proactive versus reactive policing; the level of support for community policing; the adoption of problem-oriented policing; and the level and types of involvement in crime prevention initiatives.

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