Police Discretion with Young Offenders

IV. Organizational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

8.0 Summary

In this chapter, we have examined several aspects of the organizational structure and orientation of police services, and attempted to ascertain to what extent they affect the exercise of discretion by officers. Therefore, the findings from this chapter may shed some light on what kinds of organizational change might produce results that are consistent with the intent of the YCJA.

Table IV.6 Summary of relationships between organizational variables and the proportion of apprehended young persons who were charged
Factor % charged
Size (number of officers) 1-24 69%
25-49 63%
50-99 56%
100-499 67%
500+ 66%
Specialization Youth squad 65%
No youth squad 75%
SLO's - special cars 62%
SLO's - investigative 62%
SLO's - crime prevention presentations only 64%
No SLO's 73%
Policy and protocols for youth-related incidents Yes -3%
No +2%
Authority and responsibility to decide re laying a charge Autonomy, with youth specialization 60%
Review, generalist model 62%
Review, with youth specialization 69%
Autonomy, generalist model 76%
Support for community policing Not supportive 56-78%
Supportive - policy only 47-75%
Supportive with resources 35-75%
Involvement in crime prevention programs (in high crime communities) A little +4%
Some ±0%
A lot -6%
Adoption of POP Front-line officers only +4%
CSO's only -9%
Front-line officers and CSO's +3%
All ranks -4%

We have correlated information about the organization from the interviews with officers, and from documentation which was supplied to us, with information about the use of informal action, diversion, charging, and methods of compelling appearance. We have also, where possible, correlated organizational variables with statistical data on the charging of apprehended youth, taken from the UCR and UCR2 Surveys. Table IV.6 summarizes the findings from the analyses of UCR data. It is difficult to determine from the available data the precise strength of the effect of each of these organizational variables on police decision-making - partly because of the limitations of the data, and partly because the variables are all interrelated. Nevertheless, we have found relationships, of varying degrees of strength, between each of these variables (except the size of the organization) and aspects of officers' decision-making with youth-related incidents.

The size of police services in the sample varied from 2 to 5,028 officers. It is difficult to isolate its effect on aspects of organizational functioning, because it is so strongly correlated with the size of the community which the police agency serves. Thus, any aspects of the police service which are related to its size are equally related to the size of its community, and are more plausibly attributed to the nature of the policing environment than to the size of the organization itself. Furthermore, there is no straightforward relationship between the size of the police service and the proportion of apprehended youth which it charges, according to the UCR Survey. Fortunately, size is the one aspect of the police organization over which management has little or no control, so its salience in a plan of organization redesign to accommodate the requirements of the YCJA is low.

The degree of centralization of a police organization refers to the extent to which central management retains control of day-to-day decision-making by its divisions. In principle, decentralization should increase the opportunities for the exercise of discretion by individual officers. Our interview data suggest that decentralized police agencies use more informal action, more pre-charge diversion, more Promise to Appears (PTA's), more conditions on release Undertakings, and more detention for JIR hearings. Analysis of UCR data found no differences between centralized and decentralized agencies in the level of charging of apprehended youth, when other related variables, such as the type of policing and community, were controlled.

We measured the degree of hierarchy of a police agency by counting the number of ranks in the police service or individual detachment. This varied between 1 and 12 ranks. As with the size of the organization, it is very difficult in the case of police organizations to isolate the impact of the degree of hierarchy on organizational functioning, because it is so strongly related to the size of the organization, and, ultimately, to the size of the community being served. Analysis of UCR data revealed no significant differences in charging related to the degree of hierarchy, but the analysis was hampered by missing data and the confounding effects of correlated variables. The only finding from the interview data is that agencies with more ranks tend to use more pre-charge diversion and more PTA's "as a higher consequence" for the youth, but both of these findings could be due to the type of community rather than the degree of hierarchy per se.

We examined three aspects of youth-related specialization in police forces: whether there is a youth squad, whether there are School Liaison Officers (SLO's), and if so, what duties they have, and whether the organization has written policies and protocols for handling youth-related incidents.

Only 17 of the 92 police agencies in the sample have youth squads or dedicated youth officers. These are all independent municipal police services, and 14 of them have more than 100 officers. They are mainly located in metropolitan areas, especially in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia. It is difficult for smaller police services and detachments to dedicate one or more officers exclusively to handling youth crime. Some of these smaller agencies have officers who specialize in youth-related incidents, but who also do other kinds of police work. It appears that the use of youth squads and dedicated youth officers by Canadian police services has diminished considerably since their heyday in the 1970's, and that this is probably largely due to financial stringencies during the 1990's.

Our data suggest that police services with youth sections and/or dedicated youth officers respond differently to youth-related incidents. It appears from the interview data that police services with youth sections or dedicated youth officers make more use of parental involvement, referrals to external agencies and pre-charge diversion, and less use of formal charges. Analysis of UCR data confirms that the overall use of formal charges is lower (Table IV.6), and the limited information from the UCR2 Survey suggests that the use of informal action is greater. They are more likely to use the less intrusive methods of compelling appearance, except that they tend to use more restrictive conditions with OIC undertakings and are more likely to use detention, like the conditions of release, as a means of addressing what they see as the criminogenic conditions of the youth's life. Many innovative programs are developed by youth officers, and they are able to involve themselves proactively with youth in the community within a primary, secondary or tertiary capacity. Youth officers acting as follow-up and as a resource to patrol officers facilitate the gathering of intelligence and an increased knowledge of alternatives to formal youth court. In a sense, the existence of a youth squad - just like the existence of a homicide or armed robbery unit - is an indication that the police service recognizes the unique nature of this particular kind of crime, and places priority on developing specialist expertise in responding to it.

83% of police agencies in the sample have School Liaison Officers (SLO's), but only 40% assign enforcement duties (response, investigation and disposition) to their SLO's - in the other police services, the role of the SLO is restricted to making crime prevention presentations in schools. SLO's, especially with enforcement duties, are more common in larger police services, presumably because of resource considerations. UCR data on the proportion of apprehended youth who were charged in 1998 to 2000 suggest that the presence of SLOs, especially investigative or hybrid SLOs, slightly reduces the use of charging with young offenders. The interview data suggest that police agencies which have school liaison officers, especially investigative SLOs or special cars, appear to use less intrusive means of dealing with youth crime: they are more likely to use informal action, less likely to lay charges, bring the youth home or to the police station for questioning, more likely to make referrals to external agencies, more likely to use pre-charge diversion, and more likely to use appearance notices to compel attendance at court.

About half of the sample was able to provide documentation on policies and protocols for handling youth-related incidents and young offenders. However, only 13% of officers found their organizations' policies and protocols "helpful", and only 2% found them to be "realistic". Analysis of UCR data shows that police services which have youth-related policies and protocols charge, on average, 5% fewer apprehended youth. The interview and documentary data indicate that police services which have youth-related policies and protocols tend to make more use of pre-charge diversion, and of appearance notices. Many differences appear between officers who do and do not find these policies and procedures helpful and/or realistic. Those who find them helpful or realistic are more likely to use various forms of informal action, referrals to external agencies, pre-charge diversion, and appearance notices; and to "follow the law" and not to invoke social welfare considerations, in making detention and release decisions.

In examining what officers had the authority and responsibility to lay a charge (or recommend a charge, in Crown screening provinces) against a young person, we found four models, of which only two occur with any frequency. These are: front-line autonomy, and front-line initial decision with review by another officer(s). Analysis of UCR data suggests that the impact of the procedural model for charging varies, depending on whether the police service has a youth squad or not. The model which is associated with the lowest charge rates is front-line autonomy in a police service which has youth specialists. The model associated with the highest charge rate is front-line autonomy with no youth specialization. The implication is that front-line autonomy results in greater use of discretion not to charge young persons if the front-line officer has training to deal with youth, or if the police service is committed to using discretion with youth, as indicated by its establishment of a youth squad. If there is no youth specialization, or commitment to special treatment for youth, then autonomy appears to result in front-line officers using their discretion to lay charges against youth. Thus, in a police agency without youth specialization, it is the review by another officer, whether supervisor or GIS, which appears to moderate the tendency of front-line officers to lay charges. The interview data suggest three themes. First, the likelihood of police officers using informal action with young offenders is higher in police services where front-line officers are autonomous, and where there is a commitment to the use of discretion with youth. Second, agencies in which there are no dedicated youth officers, and front-line officers decide alone on the disposition of youth-related cases, tend to use referrals to external agencies and pre-charge diversion less, and lay charges more, than agencies in which a supervisor or youth specialist is involved in the decision. Finally, autonomous patrol officers appear to use less intrusive measures to compel the attendance of a young person in court. In cases where they do detain a young person they tend to do so as a result of stipulations within departmental policy.

We assessed the impact of proactive versus reactive policing in relation to individual officers, rather than trying to characterize an entire police service. 40% of officers said their work was mostly reactive, 9% said it was mostly proactive, and 51% said that their work involved "a bit of both". Officers whose work is mostly proactive are more likely to use informal action, less likely to use formal charges, less likely to detain youth for a JIR hearing, but more likely to use more intrusive conditions on release Undertakings. We did not analyze UCR data in connection with this variable, since the UCR data are measured only at the level of the entire police service, not the individual officer.

Community policing can be seen as having four dimensions: philosophical, strategic, tactical, and organizational. We attempted to assess the impact on decision-making of the extent of adoption of the strategic and tactical dimensions.

The strategic dimension of community policing comprises the adoption and public promulgation of written policies and protocols for all aspects of policing, and the allocation of significant resources to community policing. According to the officers whom we interviewed, 22% of the police services in the sample have implemented the strategic dimension by allocating significant resources to community policing. This is considerably less than "virtually every" police force in Canada, which, according to Horne (1992) had adopted the rhetoric of community policing. Analysis of UCR data suggests that police services which have allocated resources to community policing have lower charge rates than those which have not. Analysis of the interview data suggests that police services which have allocated resources to community policing use more informal action, make more referrals to external agencies, use more pre-charge alternative measures, and more PTA's to avoid detaining the youth, or "as a higher consequence" for the youth.

The tactical dimension of community policing includes involvement in crime prevention programs and the adoption of the problem-oriented policing (POP) model. Every police agency in the sample is involved in crime prevention programs, but the degree of involvement varies considerably. Analysis of UCR data suggests that agencies with a higher level of involvement in crime prevention programs tend to have a lower rate of charging, especially in communities with high levels of youth crime. The interview data suggest that more involvement in crime prevention programs is associated with more use of informal action. Adoption of the problem-oriented policing (POP) model does not appear to have a large impact on decision-making with youth. Analysis of the interview data suggests that if the POP model is used by front-line officers (i.e. is not "ghettoized" by assigning it only to Community Service Officers), then there is more use of informal action; however, if POP is used only by CSO's, then there is more use of pre-charge diversion. Results of analysis of UCR data suggest that charge rates are lower in police agencies in which the POP model is used by CSO's only, or by all ranks; however, the UCR data are not illuminating for variables which have an effect in one direction for informal action and in the other direction for pre-charge diversion, since the UCR combines the two phenomena, and in doing so, conflates their opposite effects.

The data which we have analyzed in this chapter suggest that police services which want to increase their use of informal action and of pre-charge diversion, and to reduce the use of intrusive methods of compelling appearance, might consider any of the following measures: wholehearted adoption of the community policing model, in all its dimensions, including a fundamental organizational redesign and philosophical reorientation, the allocation of significant resources to community policing, increased involvement in crime prevention programs, especially in high-crime communities, and the adoption of the POP model by all ranks; creation of a youth squad, or at least one or more officers who specialize in youth crime; adoption of explicit policies and protocols for handling youth crime and young offenders; provision of training in handling youth crime to all front-line officers, and then allowing them to have autonomy in deciding how to dispose of youth-related incidents; assigning investigative and enforcement functions to SLO's who currently are limited to making presentations in schools; increasing the use of proactive policing; and decentralizing decision-making in the organization.

Date modified: