Police Discretion with Young Offenders
V. Situational Factors Affecting Police Discretion
Doob found that police dispositions of cases coming to a Youth Bureau were significantly affected by the youth’s
“action he took when he came in contact with the police”; e.g. whether s/he admitted the offence (1983: 161; Doob & Chan, 1982). Figure V.6 summarizes the results when we asked officers how much the young person’s demeanour affects their resolution of youth-related incidents.
Almost three-quarters of our respondents consider the demeanour of the young person to be a factor or a major factor in their decision-making. The majority of respondents indicated they have no choice but to take the demeanour of the young person into account in order to make a referral to alternative measures. A young person must take responsibility for his or her actions in order to qualify for AM, and many officers indicated that those with a “bad attitude” tend to deny their involvement in the crime. However, the notion that young people should accept responsibility for their actions, and, preferably, feel some remorse, was linked by officers not just to eligibility for AM, but to the intent of the YOA, which is that young persons should be held responsible for their actions: thus, if the apprehended youth showed that s/he held him/herself responsible, this made intervention by the police or courts less necessary, in the eyes of some of our respondents.
The weight assigned by officers to demeanour in their decision-making varies on several dimensions: by region of Canada, the type of community in which they work, the level and types of youth crime in the community, whether there is a First Nations reserve in the jurisdiction of the police service, and the gender, level in the hierarchy, location of service, and the number of years of service of the officer.
Officers’ views of the impact of youths’ demeanour is related to the perceived level of youth crime in the community: 90% of officers in communities where there was “a lot” of youth crime said that the youth’s demeanour was a factor or major factor in their decision-making, versus 63% of those in communities with “a normal amount” of youth crime, and 50% of those in communities with “not very much” youth crime. No such relationship was found with reported levels of serious violent youth crime (73% of officers in communities with a problem of serious violent youth crime said that demeanour was a factor or major factor, compared with 70% of officers in other communities), or significant youth gang problems (72% of officers in communities with a youth gang problem said that demeanour was a factor or major factor, compared with 71% of officers in other communities). However, officers in communities with a significant amount of serious property crime committed by youth are more likely to take demeanour into account (53% versus 39% of other officers said that demeanour is a major factor in their decision-making), as are those in communities with significant amounts of drug-related youth crime (75% versus 64% said demeanour is a factor or major factor), youth prostitution (100% versus 69%), and administration of justice offences involving youth (64% versus 37% of other officers said demeanour is a major factor).
Officers located in metropolitan areas are much more likely (63%) to consider demeanour a major factor than those in suburban/exurban (39%) or rural/small town jurisdictions (36%). This is inconsistent with findings discussed in previous sections, which suggested a more particularistic style of policing in smaller places; we speculate that demeanour may be more of an issue in cities, where youth may show more “attitude” than in smaller places. Another possibility is that demeanour is more of an issue in metropolitan areas because there is more youth crime there, and the level of youth crime affects the impact on police of youths’ demeanour (above). This hypothesis is explored in Figure V.7, which presents a very interesting picture. In communities with “a normal amount” of youth crime, the impact of the youth’s demeanour is related positively to the size of the community. But in communities with “a lot” of youth crime, demeanour is more of an issue for rural and small town (100%) and suburban/exurban officers (92%) than for officers in metropolitan police agencies (71%). A youth’s demeanour is an issue for officers in metropolitan police services, regardless of the level of youth crime; whereas, the likelihood of its becoming an issue for officers in other types of communities, especially rural areas and small towns, is related to the level of youth crime.
The regional distribution of views on this issue is shown in Figure V.8. We can only speculate as to why police in the two Crown-screening provinces report the lowest impact of the youth’s demeanour on their decision-making. This is puzzling, since, following Black & Reiss (1970), we would have expected that police who do not make the final decision to charge would be more affected by situational and “extralegal” factors, and less by the strictly legal aspects of the case. In particular, we would have expected this to be the case in Quebec, where officers reported a greater impact for other situational factors, such as the victim’s preference and whether the crime was gang-related (Section 4.1, above), and less impact of the “legal” variable, prior record (above).
The other interesting finding is that police in the Prairies and Territories report a higher impact of the youth’s demeanour on their decision-making. One possible explanation is that police in the Prairie provinces were much more likely to report “a lot” of youth crime and violence, and significant youth gang problems (Chapter III), so perhaps they face more problems with “bad attitudes” on the part of apprehended youth. However, police in the Territories did not report high levels of youth violence or gangs. The Territories have relatively high levels of substance abuse, which may contribute to problems of “demeanour”. They also have very high proportions of aboriginal peoples, so they may experience “attitude problems” on the part of aboriginal youth, who tend to resent and distrust the police (Griffiths & Verdun-Jones, 1994: 641-642).
We can test these hypotheses by looking at officers’ opinions of the impact of demeanour, broken down by the other variables. In Figure V.9, the regional impact of demeanour is broken down by the level of youth crime reported by officers working in that jurisdiction. The Prairies and Territories no longer stand out: in all regions except Ontario,  100% of officers who work in “high-youth-crime” jurisdictions report that demeanour is a factor or major factor in their decision-making, and in jurisdictions reporting a “normal level” of youth crime (except in Quebec), about two-thirds of officers find demeanour to be a factor or major factor. Thus, the higher impact of demeanour in the Prairies and Territories is almost entirely explained by the higher (perceived) levels of youth crime in those regions.
Officers working in police agencies with jurisdiction over a First Nations reserve were slightly more likely (76%) to say that the youth’s demeanour was a factor or major factor in their decision-making than officers in other police agencies (70%). Figure V.10 shows the regional variation in the impact of the youth’s demeanour, controlling for jurisdiction over a reserve. The impact of demeanour varies. In Ontario and the Territories, officers policing reserves are more likely to find demeanour to be a factor or major factor in their decision-making, but in British Columbia and the Prairies, they are less likely. Among officers who do not police a reserve, those in the Territories and the Prairies are still more likely than those in other regions to say that they find demeanour to be a factor or major factor. Thus, although the presence of a reserve is in the jurisdiction does increase the probability (by 6%) that the youth’s demeanour will affect police decision-making, this does not explain why demeanour is more of an issue in the Territories and Prairies.
In terms of hierarchy, supervisors are more likely to consider demeanour a factor or major factor (88%) than practitioners (71%), middle management (50%), or upper management (40%). School Liaison Officers (64%) and youth squad officers (47%) are more likely to consider demeanour a major factor than those in patrol (39%) or GIS (39%). SLO’s may be responding to the disruption in the school environment which can be caused by a young person displaying “attitude” in connection with a crime committed on school property. Most of the SLOs we interviewed were female; thus, it is not surprising that female officers are slightly more likely to consider demeanour a major factor (60%) than male officers (44%). It is surprising that patrol officers are the least likely to find demeanour to be a major factor, since one would expect that it is they who are most likely to suffer the brunt of a youth’s “attitude”. However, when we look at the proportions of officers who said that demeanour is either a factor or major factor, it is patrol officers who are most likely to say so (76%), followed by youth squad officers (73%), SLOs (71%), GIS (65%), and management (63%). This confirms the importance of the youth’s demeanour for patrol officers involved in “the encounter”. Finally, officers with six or more years of service were more likely to take demeanour into account (74%) than officers with five or fewer years of service (62%).
- And the Atlantic region, where no police services reported a high level of youth crime.
-  Percentages for communities with "not very much" youth crime are not reported, as the numbers were too small to be reliable.
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