The Social Context of Police Discretion with Young Offenders: An Ecological Analysis

Article excerpt


Previous research has established the general importance of the effects of police discretion on official rates of delinquency. When the police lay a charge, they publicly define what kind of youth problems are official and what kind are absorbed back into the community. Essentially, discretion involves deciding whether a body of rules should be applied in a given situation. "Many encounters involve not a question of 'crime' and 'non-crime,' but whether the police officer finds it necessary to use the criminal law to handle trouble" (Ericson 1982: 38). Thus official rates of delinquency reflect the characteristics and dynamics of the departments and officers that produce them.

Criminologists have measured police response to crime in several ways. A considerable body of literature has investigated the situational characteristics of police-citizen encounters, such as age, sex, race, seriousness of offence, prior police contact, prior arrest record, demeanour, and the dispositional preference of complainants (Black and Reiss 1970; Cicourel 1968; Doob and Chan 1995; Ericson 1982; Lundman, Sykes, and Clark 1978; Meehan 1993; Morash 1984; Piliavin and Scott 1964; Schissel 1992; Wilson 1968). Other researchers have examined the effect of organizational constraints and demands on police use of formal and informal social control (Crank 1990, 1992; Fisk 1974; Jayewardene 1975, 1982; Klinger 1997; Riksheim and Chermak 1993; Wilson 1968). This organizational perspective emphasizes that a clear understanding of police behaviour must be situated within the social context where that behaviour occurs. Despite understanding that the police play an integral role in social control, there is very little research that explores the social context of discretion and police behaviour across physical space (Klinger).

Ecological studies offer a better understanding of the social context associated with rates of crime and delinquency. Social ecology theory posits that community and demographic characteristics are correlated with crime and arrest rates. However, "it is not agreed whether the neighbourhood itself has an independent effect on crime" (Ouimet 2000: 136). The objective of this study is to further our understanding of police operations in local communities by trying to determine whether community and police force characteristics affect police action (2) across Canada. Specifically, this research explores urbanization theory, social disorganization theory, opportunity theory, and the overload hypothesis as theoretical explanations of police behaviour. Previous ecological analyses of crime and delinquency analysed variation among neighbourhoods within a single metropolitan area (the classic approach of Shaw and McKay [1942/1969] in Chicago), or variation across several cities, states, or provinces. This study extends prior analyses by including most of the municipal police jurisdictions in Canada. The analysis that follows describes the four theoretical perspectives, the sample and data, the results from regression analyses, the theoretical conclusions, and areas for further research on social control.

Theoretical perspectives and related research

For many years criminological research has explored the association between community characteristics and crime (Hartnagel and Lee 1990). Despite this unifying focus, there are still considerable differences of opinion within ecological research and no theoretical consensus. The Durkheimian-Modernization perspective has influenced ecological research by offering explanations in terms of urbanization, industrialization, division of labour, social disorganization, and anomie (Neuman and Berger 1988: 282-283). Durkheim's work is a cornerstone of ecological theory; he suggested that "poorly integrated communities will have higher rates of crime as urbanization leads to a breakdown of informal and formal control" (Kennedy, Silverman, and Forde 1991: 399). …


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