Pathways to Attrition: A Qualitative Comparative Analysis of Justifications for Police Designations of Sexual Assault Complaints

Article excerpt

The present analysis is a reframing of an earlier study conducted by the author to compensate for perceived deficiencies in previous studies on police decisions in sexual assault complaints. Specifically, qualitative comparative analysis was employed at the micro-social level to reveal justification scenarios, employed by investigating officers, which resulted in attrition at the police level. It was found that police employed the legal model in justifying "unfounded" designations while police employed both legal and extralegal models in justifying designations of "departmental discretion." Further research, expanding the database through interviews and participant observation, is necessary to fully explore justification scenarios for police designations of sexual assault complaints. Key Words: Qualitative Comparative Analysis, QCA, Sexual Assault, and Police Decision-Making

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It is well-established that the progress of any reported case through the criminal justice system reflects a highly selective process of elimination, often referred to as "attrition" (Goff, 1997; Griffiths & Verdun-Jones, 1994) or "filtering" (Clark & Lewis, 1977; Gunn & Minch, 1988; Minch, Linden, & Johnson, 1987). This has been especially well-documented for sexual assault cases reported to North American police (Chandler & Torney, 1981; Clark & Lewis; Gunn & Minch; Minch et al., 1987; Stanley, 1985).

The police play an important role in this filtering process. In Canada, as well as in many states throughout the U.S., once an initial complaint is reported the police become involved in a number of important decisions (Griffiths & Verdun-Jones, 1994) that may affect whether a complaint results in a charge, and hence proceeds to prosecution, or whether a complaint remains at the police level with no further action taken. In this sense, then, the police act as the "gateway" to the criminal justice system (Kerstetter, 1990) and the fate of any reported complaint, in terms of its movement through the criminal justice system, essentially lay in the hands of the police who exercise substantial discretionary power (Cromwell & Dunham, 1997; Goff, 1997; Griffiths & Verdun-Jones; Pepinsky, 1984; Smith, 1987).

While discretion exists at every stage of the criminal justice system (Cromwell & Dunham, 1997; Goff, 1997) it is particularly important at the police level, given that police act as initial gatekeepers. Police use discretion throughout the variety of their day-to-day tasks (Goldstein, 1977; Smith, 1987) and discretion forms the basis of their decisions: decisions about whether to enforce the law (Cromwell & Dunham), whether to arrest a suspect (Goldstein; Roberg & Kuykendall, 1993; Stansfield, 1996), whether to use force in an encounter (Goldstein; Griffiths & Verdun-Jones, 1994), whether to devote resources to an investigation (Stansfield), and whether to lay a charge in any particular circumstance (Griffiths & Verdun-Jones).

In the policing literature, there is a considerable amount of research on the decision-making of police patrol officers (see Bittner, 1970; Ericson, 1982; Fleming, 1981; Manning & Van Maanen, 1978; Roberg & Keykendall, 1993; Smith, 1987; Stalans & Finn, 1995; Stansfield, 1996). Less common, however, are probes into the decision-making of investigating officers. While in many jurisdictions, patrol and investigating officers are one in the same (Goff, 1997; Griffiths & Verdun-Jones, 1994), the decisions made at the patrol level and the investigation level may be somewhat different in substance and outcome. Patrol officers make decisions in the initial encounter, many of which do not end up in official police reports. Investigating officers make decisions regarding the investigation of complaints and these decisions inevitably end up, in some form, in official investigation reports. Thus, it would be interesting to probe the decision-making process of investigating officers, in particular, the decisions that do not lead to the prosecution of complaints, but rather to their stagnation at the police level. …