Police Discretion with Young Offenders

IV.  Organizational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

2.0  Centralization

In organizational theory, the terms centralization and decentralization refer both to function and to decision-making authority. Functional decentralization refers to the allocation of tasks among subunits in such a way that each subunit carries out all, or almost all, of the functions of the organization, but within a restricted domain. For example, a manufacturing business which has geographically dispersed units may be decentralized, so that each unit operates like an independent manufacturer, subject only to the control and coordination of the headquarters. Or it may be functionally centralized, with each geographical unit doing only one part of the business, and therefore unable to carry on business without the integrated cooperation of the other subunits. Decentralized decision-making refers to the delegation of decision-making authority to subunits, under the overall coordination of headquarters; whereas centralized authority denotes the retention of decision-making authority in the hands of headquarters. Local discretion is increased, by definition, by decentralization of decision-making; and may also be increased by functional decentralization, since the necessity for headquarters to coordinate the operations of subunits is drastically reduced in a functionally decentralized organization (Hall, 2002: 73-74; Mackenzie, 1978: 195-242; Weber, 1947: 404). No organization of any appreciable size is perfectly centralized or decentralized: the key question is the "choice of which functions or activities are to be performed or controlled by a 'headquarters' unit" and which are to be delegated to subunits (Mackenzie, 1978: 201).

The concepts of centralization and decentralization can be applied at different levels to policing in Canada. At the national level, policing in Canada can be seen as relatively decentralized, since responsibility for policing is dispersed among ten provincial and a large number of municipal governments, with some participation by the federal government. Thus, there are a large number of entirely independent units, or police agencies, each providing a complete policing service to its geographical jurisdiction. This can be contrasted with the much more centralized form in Europe, where the national government exerts close control over policing (Grosman, 1975: 56). On the other hand, there is considerable centralization, in the form of the provision of policing services to many jurisdictions in Canada by three large police agencies: the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ontario Provincial Police, and the Sûreté du Québec. These three agencies offer the interesting paradox that although their involvement in municipal and rural policing represents a centralizing tendency, nevertheless they themselves have adopted, probably by necessity, a relatively decentralized approach to municipal and rural policing (see below).

However, under the pressures of modernization and professionalization, and the trend toward amalgamation of municipal services and municipalities in general, the broad structure of Canadian policing is becoming more centralized, as small, local police services are replaced by regional or provincial police agencies (Grosman, 1975; Murphy, 1991).[58]

At the municipal or regional level, the majority of Canadian metropolitan areas have one police force, which is responsible for the entire geographical area of that city or region (e.g. Toronto Police Service, Niagara Regional Police Service). Within its jurisdiction, the police force is organized into geographical divisions that have jurisdiction over a particular area of the city. However, other metropolitan areas have several autonomous police departments within the larger geographical city or region (e.g. Vancouver). It is difficult to determine the effect of this kind of geographical or jurisdictional centralization/decentralization on the use of discretion, although Conly suggests the possibility of a shift from one model to another having a "significant implication for youth policing" (1978: 56).

Our own research suggests that Conly's use of geographical jurisdiction as the criterion of centralization is less useful than a consideration of the internal structure of individual police services. Internally centralized and decentralized police agencies are responsible for entire geographic areas of a city or region, and for parts of a metropolitan area. We define a centralized police service as one which is characterized by close control exerted by headquarters over all policing activities within that agency's jurisdiction. A centralized service may have several geographic divisions within its region; however, they are not autonomous, and all operations, policy, procedure, and programming are closely controlled by the central administration. In a decentralized police service, the geographic divisions, and even the neighbourhood sub-units, have considerably more autonomy (Seagrave, 1997: 208). Our hypothesis, derived from the organizational literature, is that decentralization increases the exercise of discretion by police officers. For example, Brown (1981b: 259) argues that decentralization has the effect of placing "…decision-making processes at the lowest possible or optimum levels," while freeing top management to concentrate on setting objectives, defining strategies, and allocating resources.

Although police agencies in Canada, like most other organizations, fall along a continuum with respect to their degree of centralization, we classified our sample into two categories - centralized and decentralized - in order to analyze the impact, if any, of the degree of centralization on the exercise of discretion with youth. For example, we consider the RCMP contract provincial and municipal policing services to be a decentralized police agency. General direction is issued from Ottawa and the regional and provincial Divisional headquarters; however, much of the day-to-day procedure and crime prevention programming is determined at the detachment level. Similarly, the Toronto Police Service, which was classified as a centralized department by Conly (1978), is now decentralized under our definition, since our information suggests that each geographic division currently has considerable autonomy. In contrast, the Vancouver Police Department (classified as decentralized by Conly) is centralized in our classification, as the various divisions are all under fairly close control by head office.

Using this classification scheme, 48% of the police agencies in our sample are centralized and 52% are decentralized. However, 100% of RCMP and OPP detachments are classified as decentralized; whereas, only 20% of independent municipal forces are so classified. The relationship between the size of the police service and decentralization is curvilinear (Figure IV.3). The reason for this is that the smaller police services tend to be detachments of the RCMP and OPP, which are all classified as decentralized; and resumably the largest police services (with 500 or more officers) tend to decentralize because it is not feasible for headquarters to manage the volume of information and decision-making generated in such large organizations (Mackenzie, 1978: 213). Leaving aside the RCMP and OPP, no independent municipal services with less than 100 officers, and only 7% of those with 100 to 499 officers, are decentralized. Decentralized police agencies are found in all types of communities, as is shown in Figure IV.4.

Figure IV.3 Proportion of decentralized police agencies, by size of police service

Figure IV.3 Proportion of decentralized police agencies, 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.


Figure IV.4 Proportion of decentralized police agencies, by type of community

Figure IV.4 Proportion of decentralized police agencies, 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.


These two groups do differ somewhat in their decision-making processes with young offenders.

Decentralized police agencies are more likely to say that they use informal action (89%) than centralized ones (64%). In choosing modes of informal action, decentralized agencies are also more likely to take a young person home (85%) than centralized agencies (64%). No differences were evident for other forms of informal action.

No difference was found between the proportion of apprehended young persons who were charged (according to UCR data for 1998-2000) by centralized and decentralized agencies, when other related factors, such as the type of policing and type of community were controlled. Due to small numbers, the only comparison which could be made using UCR2 data was between centralized and decentralized municipal police services in Ontario - and even this must be interpreted with caution, since only four of each type of agency reported to the UCR2 in 2001. The four centralized agencies charged, on average, 80% of apprehended youth and used informal action with 18%. The four decentralized agencies charged 72%, and used informal action with 26%, of apprehended youth.

According to the interviews, the use of pre-charge alternative measures involving community based restorative justice is more prevalent among decentralized agencies (35%) than centralized ones (16%).

Differences in methods of compelling appearance are also evident. Decentralized police services are twice as likely to say that they "rarely" use an appearance notice (42% versus 20%) but are more likely to say that they use a summons with minor offences (50% versus 30%).

When officers arrest and bring a youth back to the police station, those in decentralized agencies are more likely to release the young person on a promise to appear (56%) than centralized services (36%). Similarly, 75% of the decentralized agencies gave "release without detention" as a reason to use a PTA, compared to 45% of the centralized police services. Decentralized agencies are also more likely to mention using a PTA "with a minor offence" (21% versus 9%) and/or with an OIC undertaking (71% versus 50%). Decentralized agencies are twice as likely as centralized ones to attach the conditions of no go, no association, keep the peace and be of good behaviour, no alcohol or drugs, and a curfew.

These findings are not due to a systematic difference in the type of community in which these two types of agencies work, as decentralized agencies exist in all types of communities (see Figure IV.4). What these findings, and our discussions with officers, suggest is that decentralization may permit decision-making which is informed by the nature and "needs" of the community (cf. Normandeau & Leighton, 1990). In a decentralized agency, officers on the street have more influence on the formulation and interpretation of policies and protocol. This can result in decision-making processes that reflect the types of youth-related incidents these officers encounter and not a prescribed formula for the use of formal action.

Therefore, it is at first puzzling that 42% of the decentralized agencies in our sample "almost always" arrest and detain "due to departmental policy" compared to one-quarter (27%) of the centralized agencies. The reason for this anomaly is that a substantial number of the police services which we have classified as decentralized are detachments of the OPP (see above). The OPP presents an interesting combination of centralization and decentralization, which to some extent defies our simple dichotomous classification. Policy and protocol are developed by, and implemented from, OPP Headquarters in Orillia. However, OPP detachments police rural areas and small towns across the province, and each detachment tends to develop programming in response to the nature of the local community. Our interviews with OPP officers (who came mainly from detachments in Northern Ontario) suggest that, on the whole, OPP detachments have enough operating autonomy and responsiveness to the community in their decision-making with young offenders to be classified as "decentralized" agencies. Nevertheless, in the particular matter of which youth-related offences "almost always" result in arrest and detention, their decisions are determined by policy issued by Headquarters.

There are some small differences between centralized and decentralized agencies in the reasons given for detention for a JIR hearing. Decentralized police agencies are more likely to say that they "follow the law" when detaining young offenders (92% versus 73%). Similarly, they are also more likely to say that they will detain a youth who has multiple breaches of probation, OIC undertakings, and bail conditions (46% versus 27%). They are twice as likely as centralized agencies to say that they will detain a repeat offender (63% versus 32%).

These findings suggest that this aspect of organizational structure does have an influence on police decision-making with young offenders. However, the degree of influence cannot be measured precisely with these data. What we concluded from discussions of this issue with police is that centralization may limit the opportunities for adaptation to local conditions, and the exercise of police discretion with youth. This is consistent with the organizational literature: according to Mackenzie (1978: 203), writing about decentralization in business organizations, "…Each division knows its own markets and conditions better than headquarters"; and Hall (1972: 228) writes, "…delegation and decentralization…allow increased flexibility and discretion".

[58] This is particularly true in the Province of Québec; see Ministère de la Sécurité publique du Québec, 2002a, 2002b.