Recent Research: Comparing the Decision to Arrest in Community versus Traditional Policing

Article excerpt

Novak, K.J., Frank, F., Smith, B.W., & Engel, R.S. (2002). Revisiting the Decision to Arrest: Comparing Beat and Community Officers. Crime and Delinquency, 48, 70-98.

It might be argued that with the increasing implementation of community-oriented policing initiatives, there is a parallel need to evaluate how these initiatives are being translated into practice - especially in terms of their specific impact on the decision-making and actions of police officers. To date, research on police officers with regard to understanding decision-making and discretion has been represented primarily by data collected prior to the implementation of community-oriented policing initiatives. This is an important point given the suggestion that officers who support the underlying concepts of community-oriented policing utilize decision-making structures that are different from traditional line-level police officers (referred to throughout the article as "beat" officers). As such, it appears that there is a clear need for more current investigations in the area since much of the prior research on an officer's decision to arrest cannot be easily generalized to the community-oriented policing era.

It was the recognition of this need for current research that prompted Novak, Frank, Smith and Engel to conduct their study. These authors attempted to enhance the empirical understanding of community-oriented policing by investigating the influence of various factors on arrest decisions. Specifically, Novak et al., sought to investigate whether assignment as a community-oriented police (COP) officer led to differential behavioural outcomes with regard to arrest decisions than did assignment to traditional beat officer. According to the authors, previous research indicated that the most significant elements related to the decision to make an arrest tended to be legal/situational factors (e.g., seriousness of the offence, amount of evidence, presence of a weapon) and community factors (e.g., levels of neighbourhood, informal social control, high levels of community disorganization). Based on this past research, and current theories regarding community policing, the authors hypothesized that community-oriented policing initiatives increase the frequency of officer-citizen encounters and that these interactions would result in differences when comparing arrest decisions between COP officers and more traditional beat officers.

In order to provide support for the above hypothesis, data was collected through the systemic social observations of COP officers and beat officers patrolling similar environments in Hamilton County, Ohio. During a one-year time span (April 1997 to April 1998) trained researchers recorded their observations during 442 shifts with COP officers and beat officers from the Cincinnati Police Division. Data was also collected from the U.S. Census to ensure that no significant structural or demographic differences existed in the communities patrolled by COP officers and beat officers. As stated above, this study focused primarily on the interaction between the police officer and a member of the public with particular attention paid to the effect of situational and community factors on the decision to arrest.

A review of the findings indicates some interesting patterns. First, and perhaps most surprisingly, the analysis revealed no significant relationship between officer assignment and the decision to arrest. In other words, there were no significant differences between COP and beat officers with regard to their decision to take someone into custody. This finding was in complete opposition to the hypothesis and conflicted with previous assumptions that COP officers would be more likely to use non-legal solutions during encounters and less likely to make arrests. According to Novak et al., this finding indicates that community policing does not alter the nature of policing, or more specifically, an officer's discretion to make an arrest. …