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Police: Handling of Juveniles

Explaining Police Decision-making (outcomes) With Juveniles

A large volume of research has accumulated on police decision-making with suspects generally, with particular attention to how the arrest decision is shaped by the characteristics of the situation. Some of this research has addressed the effect of suspect age (i.e., are juveniles more likely to be arrested than adults?) (see, for example, Mastrofski, Worden, and Snipes; Smith and Visher). One might suppose that police decisionmaking with juvenile suspects turns on different factors than decisions regarding adults. Police might feel they have even more latitude with juveniles and they may, for example, rely less on situational factors of a legal nature to inform their decisions. Further, inasmuch as police make decisions based on their own sense of what ought to be done, they may be even more inclined to do so when the citizen with whom they interact is a juvenile.

Other research has looked strictly at police-juvenile interactions. There is currently a paucity of research on how the police behave and the choices they make while interacting with juveniles. Some research has examined specialized juvenile officers, either as they patrolled streets or as they made decisions after a juvenile had been referred to their unit (Piliavin and Briar; Hohenstein; McEachern and Bauzer; Terry; Wordes, Bynum, and Corley). These examinations mostly looked at officers' use of authority as police made decisions about arrest, detention, and referrals to other social service and social control agencies.

One might expect that the decision-making patterns of juvenile specialists might vary from those of patrol officers inasmuch as juvenile specialists make decisions in a situational context that differs from that of patrol officers. While patrol officers make decisions on the street with little information available and with added pressure to make a quick judgment, juvenile officers make their decisions after a case has been referred to them with possibly more information and more time available for assessment. For example, the juvenile specialist might be more able to obtain information on juveniles' family lives, the amount of parental supervision they receive, and their previous infractions of the law. Finally, juvenile specialists presumably have more training on handling juveniles, particularly on making decisions that are in the best interest of the youth.

Some research has examined patrol officers' encounters with juvenile suspects, employing a method of systematic social observation. Research on police that employs a method of systematic social observation reveals the variety of actions officers take, including but not limited to arrest, in their attempts to resolve problems with juveniles. It also reveals a clearer picture of the types of offenses and problems in which juveniles are involved and under what circumstances a juvenile enters the juvenile justice system. This method enables researchers to examine dispositions that police do not systematically record and that would not normally be accounted for in official police records (Black and Reiss, 1970; Lundman et al.; Worden and Myers). Research by Black and Reiss (1970) and Lundman and colleagues focuses on the arrest decision in police-juvenile encounters; the study by Worden and Myers examines police arrest practices with juveniles as well as officers' use of other forms of authority (commands, threats, investigative tactics, and advising). One other study utilizes police-juvenile contact records from 1968 to 1975 to analyze police arrest practices with juveniles (Sealock and Simpson). All of the above studies typically took a situational approach to explaining police decision-making with juveniles in that they looked to factors available in the officers' immediate situation to see if they had a bearing on police outcomes. More specifically, the focus was on the influence of both legal and extralegal factors.

It is widely known and accepted that police officers have high degrees of discretion and autonomy from supervisory and organizational authority (Lipsky; Brown). Patrol officers tend to work in isolation, not necessarily by choice but by the nature of the work itself, where there is no immediate supervision. While police agencies provide a demanding set of rules and guidelines to follow, it is the officer who must make on-the-spot decisions to resolve situations. Laws, statutes, and ordinances are often vague or inapplicable and, subsequently, do not provide much guidance for decision-making on the street. In addition, the handling of juvenile problems adds more uncertainty to police work. Police have to manage the application of laws specific to juveniles where juveniles are at times treated as adults and other times not (McNamara). This might even be cause at times for police to shy away from handling juvenile problems.

In turn, individual officers decide who will and will not be arrested, who will receive a citation, and who will and will not be informed about another agency that may offer assistance with a particular problem. How do officers make these decisions? On what do they base their decisions?

We know that police behavior varies. We know, for example, that all officers would not utilize the same level of authority in a given situation. Theorizing about what affects police behavior has generally taken three approaches, either independently or in combination: psychological; sociological; and organizational. Psychological theories of police behavior rest on the proposition that officers' actions are influenced by their own outlooks and background characteristics (e.g., education level achieved, training, length of service, attitudes about policing and about the people they serve, and so on) (Worden). Sociological theories rest on the proposition that officer behavior is influenced, at least in part, by the situation they confront and the distribution of different aspects of social life (e.g., the race and socioeconomic status of the suspect and complainant, demeanor of the suspect or complainant, how many other officers are present, and so on) (Black, 1976; Black and Reiss, 1967, 1970). Proponents of organizational theories believe that the police organization (the chief, supervisors, organizational rules and procedures, etc.) influences officer behavior.

These theoretical orientations have been used in the past to explain choices that police officers make while handling problems with suspects. To date there has been little research examining police decision-making with juveniles. Extant research in this area utilizes a sociological approach and examines the influence of situational factors on police discretion—that is, the extent to which police behavior is patterned, for example, by victim preferences, seriousness of the offense, evidentiary strength, and juvenile demeanor.

Sociological approach. Sociological or situational theories of police behavior turn to factors in the officers' immediate situation to explain their behavior. The underlying assumption is that people respond to the social structure of the situation. There are an infinite number of possibly influential factors in one's environment. A large body of research has accumulated on this subject and this research supports the hypothesis that police respond to the situation with which they are presented (see Smith and Visher for an example).

In police-citizen encounters, there are some situational cues that we expect officers to be attuned to when making decisions, for example, offense seriousness and the amount of evidence; this grouping of factors has been labeled legal factors. Other factors that might reflect a suspect's social status or what police might perceive as their "subversive capability," and for which effects on police decision-making are undesirable, are extralegal factors (Black and Reiss, 1967). A person's social status includes those characteristics that "one carries with them from situation to situation, such as their sex, age, race, demeanor, ethnic, or social class status" (Black and Reiss, 1967, p. 9).

Legal factors. A significant amount of research has focused on the influence of legal factors on police behavior with juveniles. Legal factors might include the seriousness of the offense, the amount of evidence available to the officer, whether or not the juvenile appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and whether or not the victim requests that the police take, or not take, some kind of action. Research testing hypotheses on the influence of these factors confirm that they do have a significant impact on police decision-making.

The influence of the seriousness of the offense and the amount of evidence available to the officer is well documented in extant research. Research on police-juvenile interactions suggest that these events are more likely than not of a minor legal nature and that when the offense is a serious one (e.g., a felony) and the evidence is strong, police are more likely to make an arrest (Black and Reiss, 1970; Lundman et al.; Sealock and Simpson; Worden and Myers). Likewise, when juvenile specialists make decisions other than arrest (detention decisions, referral decisions, and so on) and when patrol officers make decisions (for example, detention decisions) regarding juveniles that occur later in the process than the decision to arrest, they too tend to be influenced by offense seriousness (Hohenstein; Piliavin and Briar; Terry; Wordes et al.).

Police also tend to consider and respond to complainants' preferences when making decisions—in fact, one study finds that when police initiate an encounter with a juvenile they are significantly less likely to arrest than when they are responding to a complainant's request for police assistance (see Worden and Myers). As one might expect, when complainants request that a juvenile be arrested, the police are more likely to make an arrest (Black and Reiss, 1970; Lundman et al.). One interesting finding is that there is strong evidence that when the complainant is a minority the police utilize more authority not only in the form of arrest but also in investigation (searches, questioning) and commands or threats (see Worden and Myers). Also, when complainants request that the police do not make an arrest, police are less likely to take this action. This might be partly explained by the fact that when an offense is of a minor legal nature, the police may need complainants to sign a formal complaint in order to make an arrest. Police do not always make an arrest, even if the offense is a serious one; the decision might still be left to the complainant—or at least open to input from the complainant.

Especially in cases involving juveniles, officers might be expected to consider whether or not a suspect appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. While possession of drugs is an offense for both younger and older persons, possession of alcohol is an offense only for persons under the age of twenty-one. There has been little research on this matter. Worden and Myers report that when the suspects are juveniles under the age of eighteen, and when they appear to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the police are not more likely to make an arrest than they are to simply release the juveniles. Further, police are not any more likely to employ investigative tactics or use commands and threats under these circumstances; this too is unexpected. It could be that police officers are more likely to offer assistance and comfort in these situations, or at least when a juvenile is in need of assistance. Or maybe police officers do not view underage drinking as a serious offense, as they are aware that the majority of teens experiment with drinking and it is usually unrelated to more serious criminal acts.

Research on the role that legal factors play in police decision-making confirms that in cases involving adults and juveniles alike, police are influenced by these factors. Police are more likely to use authority and make an arrest when the offense is a serious one, when the evidence is strong, and when the victim prefers that an arrest be made. However, these legal factors do not determine police decisions. While they may play a substantial role, it is sometimes the case that when the offense is serious and the evidence strong, the police do not arrest. Likewise, at times, when the offense is of a less serious nature and the evidence is weak, the police use their discretion and make an arrest. Researchers look to extralegal factors to help further explain police decision-making.

Extralegal factors. The absence of concrete decision-making rules and guidelines to structure officer behavior, along with the observation that legal factors do not determine the use of police discretion, has focused social scientists on the role that extralegal factors play in decisionmaking. Attention to this issue has come about due to the realization that police officers bear the burden of an enormous amount of discretion and that they make decisions in a context with few informational cues available. It is in this light that one might expect situational characteristics that are readily observable to the officer—such as the suspect's demeanor, race, sex, and level of wealth—to play a role in decision-making.

As patrol officers exercise their authority and handle situations "they are in an important sense dependent for cooperation upon those whom they have control" (Black and Reiss, 1967 p. 11). Research examining the influence of suspect demeanor, a reflection of cooperation, has produced consistent evidence that it has a substantial influence on police behavior. Police researchers have consistently found support for the expectation that citizens who are disrespectful toward the police are more likely to be arrested and more likely to have force used against them than those who are respectful or simply deferential. This finding is uniform across studies of police-juvenile encounters as well as police encounters with adults (Black and Reiss, 1967; Black and Reiss, 1970).

While one's demeanor is termed an extralegal factor, one should, from an officer's perspective, give some consideration to what it really means to be disrespectful toward the police. We know that police use their arrest powers infrequently and that they do not arrest everyone that they legally could. If an officer is trying to decide which action is going to prevent a reoccurrence of a problem he may very well decide that the disrespectful person should be arrested more often than the respectful person under the same (or even more serious) circumstances. If someone is not deferring to police authority while the police are in their presence, why would the police believe that the person would defer when they leave—or that anything other than arrest will end the problem? In such a case, arrest may be used as a tactic to handle the situation because the police feel that any other outcome may not end the problem.

Observational studies done by Black and Reiss and Lundman and others in the 1960s and 1970s suggest that police arrest minority juveniles at a higher rate than white juveniles. And more recent research that analyzes official records paints a similar picture, suggesting that minorities are more likely to be arrested as well as detained and referred to other agencies (Wordes and Bynum; Wordes et al.; Sealock and Simpson). At least one study's findings suggest that juveniles of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to be arrested (Sealock and Simpson). However, each of these findings were born out of analyses where complainant preference and suspect demeanor could not be accounted for—two factors that have proven to be important predictors in other studies. More recent observational research, which controls for demeanor and victim preference, as well as other legal factors like offense seriousness and evidence strength, suggests that race does not play a role in determining arrest, or other authoritative actions by the police (Worden and Myers). It also suggests that police are not more likely to arrest juveniles who appear to be of lower socioeconomic status than those from the middle class. It does, however, provide evidence of a different police bias—a gender bias. Females are significantly less likely to be arrested by police than their male counterparts—even when controlling for offense seriousness, evidence strength, and victim preference.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPolice: Handling of Juveniles - Historical Overview And Organizational Structure, Legal Rights Of Juveniles, Police-juvenile Interactions, Police Handling Of Juveniles: Outcomes