Police Discretion with Young Offenders

V. Situational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

15.0 Summary

Table V.17 and Figure V.19 show the relative importance, averaged over all respondents, of the factors discussed in this chapter. The factors have been ranked by the percentage of respondents who said that this was a factor or major factor in their decision-making.

Table V.17 Overall ranking of situational factors affecting police decision-making with youth
Rank Factor % factor or major factor[a] Mean score[b] N[c] Partial eta square[d]
1 Seriousness 100 2.98 128 0.046
2 Harm done 100 2.88 116 0.000
3 Presence of weapon 98 2.87 116 0.003
4 Prior record 97 2.83 127 0.061
5 Demeanour 71 2.10 124  
6 Victim preference 56 1.68 120  
7 Parental involvement 48 1.56 125  
8 Home/school situations 42 1.26 120  
9 Gang related crime 39 1.01 75  
10 Age 28 0.93 120 0.019
11 Gang affiliation 22 0.82 94  
12 Group vs. lone offender 14 0.71 123 0.008
13 Location/time of day 13 0.50 115  
14 Use of alcohol/drugs 11 0.50 119  
15 Victim-offender relationship 10 0.49 93 0.001
16 Adult co-offender 9 0.49 95  
17 Type of victim (person/business) 3 0.22 95  
18 Gender 1 0.07 124 0.000
19 Race 0 0.04 122 0.002
  • [a]Percent of respondents who said this is a factor or major factor.
  • [b] Average score for respondents’ views of the impact of this factor, where: not a factor=0; minor factor=1; factor=2; major factor=3.
  • [c] Number of respondents who expressed a view on the impact of this factor.
  • [d]This statistic summarizes the contribution of a variable to explaining variations in the charging of youth, when the other variables are controlled.

Exactly the same ranking results from calculating the average “score” for each factor, where the answers were scored: “not a factor” = 0; “minor/secondary factor” = 1; “factor” = 2; “major factor” = 3 [106]. Values of the partial eta squared statistic are shown for factors which were included in the multiple regression analysis of UCR2 data. This statistic summarizes the contribution of each independent variable, while holding all other variables constant, to explaining variations in the dependent variable - whether or not the youth was charged.

Figure V.19 Overall ranking of situational factors affecting police decision-making with youth

Figure V.19 Overall ranking of situational factors affecting police decision-making with youth - 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

It is evident from Table V.17 and Figure V.19 that the factors fall into six clusters:

  • The “legal” factors of offence seriousness - with its subsidiary indicators of presence of a weapon and harm done – and prior record, which practically everyone said are major factors (as indicated by their average scores close to 3). The value of the eta squared statistic for prior apprehensions (0.061) is the highest for any variable, indicating that the number of prior apprehensions plays a larger role than any other variable in explaining the charging of apprehended youth in the police services reporting to the UCR2. The next highest value of eta squared is for the type of offence. Values of eta squared for the presence and type of weapon and for injury to a victim are smaller, because much of their impact is mediated by the classification of the offence.
  • The youth’s demeanour, chosen as a factor or major factor by almost three-quarters of respondents, and with an average score of 2.1 (i.e. slightly above the score for “factor”).
  • Four factors identified as factors or major factors by approximately half of the respondents: victim preference, parental involvement, home and school situations, and whether the crime is gang-related;
  • The youth’s age and any gang affiliation, identified as factor or major factors by approximately one-quarter of respondents, and with average scores near 1.0 (i.e. the score for “minor or secondary factor”). According to the value of the eta squared statistic, the youth’s age has an impact on whether or not a youth is charged, when other factors are controlled, which is exceeded only by the type of offence and his or her record of prior apprehensions.
  • Five factors which few (9-14%) respondents identified as factors or major factors, and which have average scores between 0.5 and 0.7, i.e. between the scores for “not a factor” and “minor/secondary factor”: group vs. lone offender, location/time of day, use of alcohol or drugs by the apprehended youth, the relationship, if any, between the victim and the youth, and an adult co-offender. According to the multiple regression analysis, whether the youth was apprehended alone or with accomplices has a substantial impact on whether the youth is charged: those apprehended alone are more likely to be charged, even when other factors, such as the type of offence, are controlled.
  • Factors which practically no-one identified as a factor in decision-making: whether the victim is a person or business, and the gender and race of the apprehended youth. While the unimportance of the youth’s gender is confirmed by the multiple regression analysis, the youth’s race appears to play a role in explaining variations in the charging of apprehended youth.

With the exception of prior record, the three factors which our respondents rank highest – legal seriousness (including weapon and harm), the youth’s demeanour, and the victim’s preference – are the factors identified by the classic study of Black & Reiss (1970) as most important in the patrol officer’s arrest decision.[107] This is somewhat remarkable, since Black & Reiss’s study was done more than 30 years ago, in a supposedly less legalistic policing and juvenile justice environment, in cities in the USA, and involved observation of patrol officers’ decision-making concerning the arrest decision; whereas, our study asked the opinions of a sample of police officers of all ranks and duty assignments, working in every type of community and geographical area of modern Canada. It is equally striking that our four top-ranked factors - the three factors identified above, plus the victim’s preference – are the same four factors identified by Doob (1983: 161) as most important in his study of decision-making by Youth Bureau officers in a southern Ontario police service in the late 1970’s, when the Juvenile Delinquents Act was in force. [108] Plus ça change!

Apart from the circumstances which practically all, or practically no, respondents identified as a factor in their decision-making (i.e. the first and last groups above), the weight given by respondents to each of the other factors varied fairly systematically along several dimensions. The variations pertaining to each factor have been noted in the individual sections of this chapter. In order to summarize these variations, we constructed tables of rankings of factors, like Table V.17, but for specific categories of police agencies and officers which had appeared repeatedly as dimensions along which opinions varied. The results of this analysis are shown in Table V.18.

The most striking thing about Table V.18 is the consistency of views among different categories of police officers. Very few of the factors are ranked more than one or two places above or below the overall rankings by any group. Many of the variations noted in the individual sections of this chapter in the weight given to particular factors by certain categories of officers are differences in emphasis, rather than differences in the overall rankings of factors. However, there are some significant variations in rankings, which are consistent with the more detailed differences in percentages which are discussed above.

Officers in metropolitan agencies, and in communities with perceived high levels of youth crime and identified problems with serious property or violent youth crime, or gang-, or drug-related youth crime, are more likely to take into account factors such as whether the crime was gang-related and any gang affiliation of the apprehended youth, and whether there was an adult co-offender. They are less influenced by the victim’s dispositional preference, whether the youth was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or the youth’s age or home and school situations. These results suggest an offence-orientation, and possibly, an orientation toward crime control, rather than toward the offender or victim. This in turn is reminiscent of the claim by Weisheit et al. (1999: 110) that “the larger the community the more likely citizens were to believe that police should limit their role to enforcing criminal laws”. However, we emphasize that these are only relative tendencies, in comparison with officers in other types of communities, not absolute characterizations.

Table V.18 Rankings of situational factors affecting police decision-making with youth, for sub-groups of officers 
Factor Rank Region Level of youth crime Type of community Policing aboriginals Type of youth problem Location of officer
  All Territories BC Prairies Ont Que Atlantic A lot Normal amount Not
very
much
Metro
politan
Suburban
Exurban
Rural/
small town
Off
reserve
On
reserve
Serious
property
Serious
violent
Gang Drug Prostitution Youth
squad
SLO
  128 8 12 22 29 13 7 30 49 12 36 16 39 35 22 69 30 26 81 9 15 14
Seriousness 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Harm done 2 3 2 2 3 3 3 3 2 2 2 2 3 3 3 2 3 3 2 2 3 3
Presence of weapon 3 2 4 3 2 2 2 2 3 4 4 4 2 2 2 3 2 2 3 5 2 2
Prior record 4 4 3 4 4 4 4 4 4 3 3 3 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 3 4 4
Demeanour 5 5 5 5 7 9 5 5 6 6 5 5 6 5 5 5 5 6 5 4 5 5
Victim preference 6 7 6 7 5 5 6 10 5 5 7 7 5 6 6 8 8 9 6 8 11 6
Parental involvement 7 10 13 6 8 7 10 6 7 9 8 6 8 7 7 6 7 7 7 6 8 9
Home/school situations 8 9 8 9 9 8 9 8 9 7 10 8 7 9 8 9 10 10 9 7 7 10
Gang related crime 9   9 8 6 6   7 8 10 6 11 10 8 9 7 6 5 8 9 6 7
Age 10 6 14 11 11   7 11 10 8 11 12 9 11 10 11 12 11 11 13 12 12
Gang affiliation 11   12 10 10 11   9 11 11 9 13 13 10 11 10 9 8 10 11 10 8
Group crime 12   10 13 13 12   14 13 12 17 9 11 15 12 12 11 12 13 12 14 11
Location/time of day 13   7 16 12     13 12 15 12 14 15 13 14 13 15 13 12 10 9 14
Use of alcohol/drugs 14 8     16   8 15 15 13 14 17 14 12 13 15 17   14 15 13  
Victim-youth relationship 15 11   14 14     16 14   15 16 12 14 15 16 16 16 16   16  
Adult co-offender 16   11 12 17 10   12 16 14 13 10 16 16 16 14 14 14 15 14 15 13
Type of victim 17     15 15     17 17 16 15         17 13 15 17      
Gender 18     17         18 18               17 18     15
Race 19               19 19                 19      

Notes: The first row shows the number of officers in this group who commented on the importance of at least one, but not necessarily, all, of the factors. Cells which are blank indicate factors which could not be ranked, because none of the respondents in this group considered them to be a factor or major factor, i.e. their score is 0%, and they are tied for last place in the ranking.

Generally, officers in rural and small town communities, and communities with low perceived levels of youth crime and few or no problems with particular types of serious youth crime, are more likely to take into account factors such as: the victim’s dispositional preference, the youth’s home or school situation and age, whether the youth was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and any relationship between a victim and the apprehended youth. The greater attention to these factors suggests an orientation toward offenders and victims – i.e. people – rather than toward the characteristics of the offence; and this in turn suggests a more community-oriented and particularistic style of policing, and, possibly, an ability and willingness to take secondary factors into account because these officers are not overloaded with a high volume of youth crime, or significant amounts of serious youth crime.

Officers in suburban and exurban jurisdictions differ somewhat from both metropolitan and rural police. They are more concerned with crime committed by a group (not gang crime), whether there was an adult co-offender, and the type of victim (person or business); and less concerned than officers in other types of communities with whether crime is gang-related, and with the youth’s age or use of alcohol or drugs.

Officers in police agencies in communities with a youth prostitution problem have a profile of factor rankings which is somewhat different from that of officers in communities with other kinds of youth crime problems. They tend to be more influenced by the location and time of day of an incident, and by an adult co-offender – both of which have an obvious relevance to street prostitution; and they are less concerned than other officers with the use weapons, victim preference, and – surprisingly – the youth’s age.

Each of the regions of Canada appears to have its own pattern of variations from the overall rankings of factors, but there is considerable similarity between the profiles for officers in the Atlantic provinces and the Territories. Officers in both regions tend to be influenced more than other officers by the youth’s age, use of alcohol or drugs, and any relationship between the victim and the youth – suggesting the people-oriented approach noted above as characteristic of rural/small town and low-crime jurisdictions, although the Territories are certainly not a low-crime region.

Officers in agencies whose jurisdiction includes a First Nations reserve[109] are more likely to consider the harm done to a victim and the victim’s dispositional preference – suggesting a style of policing more oriented to community policing and/or Restorative Justice. They are also more likely to take into account the youth’s demeanour, age, and home or school situation, and less likely to consider the youth’s prior record as a major factor – suggesting an approach to youth crime which is (relatively) more offender- than offence-oriented.

Officers in communities with a significant number of off-reserve aboriginals are more likely to consider gang-related crime and any gang affiliation of the youth, and the involvement of alcohol or drugs in the crime, possibly reflecting the characteristic social problems of aboriginal youth living off-reserve.

Officers in youth squads are more likely to consider factors such as the youth’s demeanour and home or school situation, whether the crime was gang-related and the youth’s gang affiliation, and the location and time of day of the incident; and are less likely to consider the victim’s dispositional preference, or whether it was a group crime or an adult co-offender involved. This suggests the strong offender-orientation of officers in this assignment.

School Liaison Officers also tend to be influenced by whether the crime was gang-related and the youth’s gang affiliation, but also by an adult co-offender; and they are less concerned than other officers with the level of parental involvement, and the youth’s age and home or (surprisingly) school situation. Thus, the profile of factors which influence their decision-making is considerably different from that of youth squad officers.

Female officers are more likely than males to consider the victim’s dispositional preference, whether the incident was gang-related, the youth’s demeanour and the level of involvement of the parents; and less likely than males to consider the youth’s age or whether the crime was committed by a group.

Officers with more experience are more likely to consider alcohol or drug involvement, and the youth’s demeanour and age, and less likely to consider the victim’s dispositional preference.


  • [106] Although it is natural to score "not a factor" as 0, is no paticular reason to assign scores of 1,2, and 3 to the other answers. Therefore, we experimented with other scoring systems, assigning more weight to "major factor" and/or "factor". All of the scoring schemes produced the same ranking that is shown, except that some scoring schemes ranked "adult co-offender" before "victim-offender relationship".
  • [107] Black & Reiss (1970) identified a fourth factor as important - the presence of situational evidence, which was important to his patrol officers because they could not, or did not want to, arrest youths unless they had readily avaialble evidence of guilt. The availability of evidence was not an issue in our study, and we did not ask about it, because the question of charging verus AM versus informal action presupposes that there is sufficient evidence to charge.
  • [108] Doob treated the youth's "attitude" and "action when apprehended" as two separate factors; our respondents included them both in their answers to our question about "demeanour".
  • [109] The following comments are based on percentage diffeerences noted in the body of this chapter, since the factor rankings shown In Table V.18 for officers who police a reserve do not differ substantially from the overall rankings.

Date modified: