Police Discretion with Young Offenders

VI. Conclusions

3.0  Organizational factors influencing police discretion with youth

Analysis of the organizational characteristics of police agencies, and their influence on the exercise of discretion with youth is particularly germane to the objectives of this research, because almost all 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. Presumably, federal and provincial policy-makers in the areas of policing and youth justice can play a role in encouraging such changes.

Probably the most salient aspect of the police organization is whether or not it has a youth squad (or dedicated youth officers, i.e. officers assigned exclusively to youth-related duties). Only 17 of the 92 police services in our sample have a youth squad 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 smaller police services and detachments 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 suggest that the presence of SLO's, especially SLO's with enforcement duties, slightly reduces the use of charging with young offenders. The interview data suggest that police agencies which have school liaison officers, especially SLO's with enforcement duties, 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.

Community policing can be seen as having four dimensions: philosophical, strategic, tactical, and organizational. 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 significant 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 significant 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.

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 whom we interviewed 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 two common models: 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 as proactive or reactive. 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.

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.

The size (number of officers) and degree of hierarchy (number of ranks) of the police services and detachments in our sample varied substantially: from 2 to more than 5,000 officers, and between 1 and 12 ranks. In principle, size and vertical differentiation should have considerable impact on the way in which members do their work. However, we were unable to assess their impact on police decision-making, because we could not distinguish their effects from the effects of the size of the community, with which both variables are very strongly correlated.