Police Discretion with Young Offenders
V. Situational Factors Affecting Police Discretion
The concept of the “youth gang” is an excellent example of W. I. Thomas’s dictum (1923) that
“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. Although it is extraordinarily difficult to define a “gang” using objective indicators (Ball & Curry, 1995; Carrington, 2002; Doob & Cesaroni, 2002; Hobbs, 1997; Le Blanc & Fréchette, 1989), youth who perceive themselves, or are perceived by police, to be gang members may behave differently and be treated differently by police when they are apprehended. Involvement in a delinquent peer group, or “youth gang”, may result in elevated risk of both victimization and commission of crime (Hornick et al., 1996). Those youths who are male and belong to a predominantly male delinquent peer group have a much higher chance of arrest (Morash, 1984). Further, youth who commit crimes within peer groups have a higher visibility to police. Those peer groups
that are perceived as “gangs” are seen as threatening and tend to invoke formal social control responses (Morash, 1984). However, Carrington (1998a) found that a youth apprehended in a group of three or more was less likely to be charged than youths apprehended alone or in a pair. This indicates the need for a clarification of police perceptions of the peer groups they encounter. The discrepancy in findings may be the result of whether a police officer defines the co-offending group as a gang.
Our data suggest considerable variations in police officers’ opinions concerning peer groups and apparent gang affiliation when dealing with youth-related incidents. Figure V.13 summarizes our overall findings for this variable. Just over half of our respondents (58%) take a young person’s peer group and apparent gang affiliations into consideration in their decision-making, although it is only a minor factor for many of these officers.
Figure V.14 shows regional variations in officers’ views on the importance of a youth’s gang affiliation in their decision-making. The distribution mirrors almost perfectly the regional distribution of problems with gang-related youth crime, according to our informants (Figure III.14, above). Indeed, officers working in communities with an identified youth gang problem are much more likely to say that a youth’s gang affiliation is a factor or major factor in their decision-making (52% versus 13% of other officers).  Similarly, offices in communities with “a lot” of youth crime are more likely to take gang affiliation into account (45% said it is a factor, compared with 22% of officers in other communities), as are officers in communities with a problem of serious violent youth crime (46% versus 14%), drug-related youth crime (30% versus 11%), and youth prostitution (44% versus 20%). Officers who work in metropolitan areas are more likely (34%) to consider peer groups and gang affiliations to be a factor than those in suburban/exurban (16%) and rural/small town jurisdictions (10%). This finding is consistent with the prevalence of identified gang activity and more serious youth crime in metropolitan areas within our sample. Since most metropolitan police services are independent municipal police forces, they are more likely (26%) to consider peer groups and gang affiliation than officers in provincial police detachments (13%; including RCMP). Our data also suggest that police officers in communities with significant populations of aboriginals living off-reserve are twice as likely (36%) to consider gang affiliation a factor in their decision-making with youth than officers in other communities (18%). However, officers who police a First Nations reserve are no more likely than other officers to take gang affiliation into account.
Finally, police officers who have had previous experience working in a youth section differ from others on this issue. Officers with prior youth squad experience were more than twice as likely (58%) as other officers (25%) to consider a gang affiliation. None of the officers with previous experience chose “not a factor”, compared to 21% of those who do not have experience in a youth section. Officers suggested that working in a youth section helps the agency as a whole due to an increase in intelligence on youth activities within the jurisdiction. This is especially important within those police agencies that have adopted intelligence-led policing.
 The following analyses omit the responses of "major factor", since there were too few of these to support reliable analyses.
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