Police Discretion with Young Offenders

IV. Organizational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

6.0 Policing styles: Reactive versus proactive policing

The three main patrol functions within traditional reactive policing are routine patrol, immediate response to calls, and follow-up investigations (Cordner & Sheehan, 1999: 385-394). Reactive policing can be defined as the police responding to specific requests from individuals or groups in the community which encompasses "immediate response to calls" and "follow-up investigations". However, the rationale for routine patrol is not as straightforward. Traditional thinking suggests that the mere presence of a police vehicle will act as a deterrent to crime (Trojanowicz et al., 2002). According to Crank (1998), routine or random preventative patrol is by definition reactive policing. There is no initiative on the part of the officer or the organization to target a specific area or problem within the geographical patrol district. However, it can also be argued that routine patrol is required in order to facilitate response in a timely manner to dispatch calls.

In contrast, proactive policing involves the "police, acting on their own initiative, [to] develop information about crime and strategies for its suppression" (Crank, 1998: 244-245). This can also be interpreted in a myriad of ways. For example, an officer responding reactively to a dispatched call could, nonetheless, resolve the issue proactively by mediating between the parties or using informal action. Similarly, in contrast to routine patrol, directed patrol involves police officers being instructed to monitor specific areas that are identified through problem or crime analysis when they are not responding to dispatch calls (McKenna, 1998). Directed patrol is more proactive than random preventative patrol; however, it still lacks the component of problem oriented policing which engages the community in resolving crime issues. One American study found that proactive policing resulted in more arrests, detention and filing of reports than reactive policing (Seagrave, 1997). Possible reasons suggested were the need for more forceful action to gain "legitimacy and control" as well as officers having made a decision beforehand which prompted a proactive mobilization (Seagrave, 1997: 148). This finding appears to be counterintuitive to what one would expect when officers employ problem-oriented policing. Thus, these findings suggest a need to distinguish clearly between proactive mobilization and problem-oriented policing practices (Section 7.3 below).

Figure IV.15 Style of policing by location of service

Figure IV.15 Style of policing by location of service - If the following image is not accessible to you, please contact Youth Justice Policy at Youth-Jeunes@justice.gc.ca for an alternate format.


We attempted to ascertain where on the continuum of "reactive" and "proactive" police officers perceive their work in relation to youth crime. Officers' responses fell into three broadly defined categories: mostly reactive, mostly proactive, and a bit of both - which includes officers who felt their work was both reactive and proactive on a fairly regular basis. The distributions of answers given by officers serving in different assignments is shown in Figure IV.15.

Figure IV.16 Regional distribution of styles of policing

Figure IV.16 Regional disgtribution of styles of policing - If the following image is not accessible to you, please contact Youth Justice Policy at Youth-Jeunes@justice.gc.ca for an alternate format.


Just over one-half (51%) of the police officers in our sample indicated their job duties are "a bit of both" (reactive and proactive). Many patrol officers in this category mentioned that they may respond reactively to a call from dispatch, but wherever possible, they try to resolve the incident in a proactive manner. They felt that, in spite of the notion that their jobs in patrol are purely reactive, they actually do both types of policing. 39% of GIS officers also fell into this category. They indicated that they usually lay charges; however, they may make referrals to external agencies and they see this as a proactive activity. 40% of the police officers indicated they are mostly reactive in their duties. These were most likely to be in patrol or GIS. It is not the case that these officers do not engage in proactive activities; it merely reflects the fact that they feel the majority of their actions is reactive. Finally, 9% of the officers in our sample suggested they are mostly proactive in the scope of their duties. As expected, these tended to be school liaison, community service, or youth squad officers. As with those officers who characterized their work as mostly reactive, the "mostly proactive" officers also respond reactively to calls for service but the majority of their time is spent in proactive work.

Proactive policing is more common among officers working in the Territories, Quebec, and British Columbia (Figure IV.16). [79] It is also more common in metropolitan and in rural and small town agencies (Figure IV.17). The relatively high proportion of officers in rural and small town police agencies who said that their work is mostly proactive is surprising, in view of the limited resources of these agencies, and may reflect the lesser pressure on these officers to deal with a high volume of calls for service in relation to serious crime, or a more community-oriented style of policing. Proactive policing is also much more common among police officers working in agencies whose jurisdiction includes a First Nations reserve (Figure IV.18).

Figure IV.17 Styles of policing by type of community

Figure IV.17 Styles of policing by type of community - If the following image is not accessible to you, please contact Youth Justice Policy at Youth-Jeunes@justice.gc.ca for an alternate format.


Officers who identify themselves as mostly proactive are three times as likely to almost always consider informal action with minor offences (54% vs. 13%) and almost twice as likely to do so with provincial offences (38% vs. 17%). This may be due to the higher proportion of CSO and SLO officers identifying their work as mostly proactive; whereas patrol work was characterized generally as mostly reactive or a bit of both. However, there were quite a few patrol officers who would "almost always" consider using informal action with minor and provincial offences. In these circumstances, they suggested that it is an integral component of exercising their discretion with youth-related incidents.

With respect to almost all types of informal action, there are no apparent differences among officers whose work falls into the three types of policing style. One exception is in the use of formal warnings. Almost half of the officers who identified their work as mostly proactive use formal warnings (46%) compared to about one-quarter (27%) of those who said a bit of both or 19% who said mostly reactive. Thus, the data suggest an incremental increase in the use of formal warnings as officers identify their work as progressively more proactive - or as police services encourage proactive policing.

Figure IV.18 Styles of policing by whether a First Nations reserve is in the police agency's jurisdiction

Figure IV.18 Styles of policing by whether a First Nations reserve is in the police agency's jurisdiction - If the following image is not accessible to you, please contact Youth Justice Policy at Youth-Jeunes@justice.gc.ca for an alternate format.


Surprisingly, we did not find any significant differences among officers identifying the three policing styles in the overall use of alternative measures or pre-charge diversion. However, officers who perceive their work as mostly proactive are less likely to use post-charge alternative measures (54%), compared to those whose work is mostly reactive (86%) or a bit of both (80%). This suggests to us that officers may conceptually separate pre-charge and post-charge alternative measures and classify the latter as a reactive response. This may be due to the fact that officers generally do not have much of a say in whether a young person is diverted post-charge to an alternative measures program. An officer lays the charge, and the outcome is not under his/her control; whereas, they are more likely to view as proactive those actions which they can control (e.g. pre-charge diversion).

There are significant difference among officers in the three categories of work style in their identification of any offences for which they would almost always lay a charge. 31% of police officers who identify their work as mostly proactive suggest that there are no offences which will almost always result in a charge, compared to 9% of those that are mostly reactive or 4% that are a bit of both. This suggests that officers doing mostly proactive work are less likely to base their decision-making simply on the nature of the offence.

We were unable to use data from the UCR on the proportion of apprehended youth who were charged to assess the impact of policing style on the propensity to charge, because the UCR data are measured at the level of the overall police service, and our indicator of policing style is measured for individual officers. There was no reasonable way to combine individual officers' answers concerning whether their work was mostly proactive or reactive or a bit of both, in order to characterize the overall degree to which an entire police service uses a proactive or reactive style.

There are very few significant differences among officers in the three categories of work style in the methods used to compel attendance in court. Police officers are just as likely to use a summons, an appearance notice or a promise to appear regardless of how they define their duties. However, there are differences in the conditions which they are likely to attach to an OIC undertaking, and the reasons which they give to detain for a JIR hearing. Police officers who suggest their work is mostly proactive are more likely to attach the conditions of no association or no alcohol or drugs. They were also more likely to specify clearly the conditions which they commonly attach to undertakings. Further, officers doing mostly proactive work are twice as likely not to detain a young person for multiple breaches (15% vs. 30%) and not as likely to detain if the young person is a repeat offender (15%) compared to officers whose work is a bit of both (36%) or mostly reactive (47%). Similarly, proactive officers are less likely to "almost always" detain a repeat young offender (8%) than those whose work is both reactive and proactive (23%) or mostly reactive (33%). No officers whose work is mostly proactive cited "if the youth is before the courts" as a reason to detain, compared to 17% of the officers whose work is a bit of both and 22% whose work is mostly reactive.

Our interview data indicate that officers involved in proactive enforcement practices within programs such as SHOP generally classify their work as mostly proactive. Thus, the findings described above imply that these proactive programs do not necessarily result in more charges; and tend to result in less use of detention, but more use of conditions on release undertakings.

[79] The percentages of police services with 'mostly proactive' policing in Figures IV.16 to IV.18 should be interpreted with caution, since they are based onr elatively small numbers.