One of the main arguments for having more police is that they act as a deterrent. With more officers on the street, more would-be criminals can be stopped and questioned; more wrong-doers can be arrested. But what if police contact actually has the effect of making it more likely that young people will offend in the future? Criminologists call this theory “labelling” based on the idea that police encounters catalyse in young people a criminal identity, encouraging association with their deviant peers and estranging them from mainstream society.
To test whether police contact acts as a deterrent or a catalyst for future offending Stephanie Wiley and Finn-Age Esbensen used data gathered over several years from seven US cities as part of the Gang Resistance Education and Training Program. Data were available for 2614 children and teenagers (aged 9 to 15; 49 per cent were male) collected at baseline (time one), again six to nine months later (time two), and then again a year after that (time three).
The researchers used the survey data to identify the children and teens’ “propensity” for offending at time one based on the demographic factors age, sex and race, as well as many other risk factors including impulsivity, risk seeking, school commitment, parental monitoring, unsupervised time with peers, substance use and more. Then they looked to see which of their participants had contact with the police by time two – including being stopped for questioning (14 per cent) or arrested (6 per cent).
The key finding is that with participants matched for propensity, those who had contact with the police at time two (compared with those who didn’t) said at time three that they’d feel less guilt if they committed various offences from theft to violence; they expressed more agreement with various “neutralisation” scenarios (e.g. it’s OK to lie to keep yourself out of trouble); they were more committed to their deviant peers (e.g. they planned to continue hanging out with friends who’d been arrested); and finally, they said they’d engaged in more offending behaviour, from skipping classes to taking drugs or being violent. This pattern of results differed little whether police contact involved being arrested or merely being stopped.
“The current study adds to the labelling versus deterrent debate by identifying the negative impact that not only arrest but also simply being stopped by the police has on delinquent behaviour and attitudes,” the researchers said. “The use of propensity score matching reduces the likelihood that our results are being driven by preexisting differences, a problem that may plague much of the existing labelling research.”
The researchers acknowledged that they can’t know for sure that their propensity matching was water-tight. Perhaps there was some unknown factor that increased the likelihood of police contact and later deviant attitudes and behaviour.
Wiley and Esbensen also acknowledged that police contact is often unavoidable if crimes are to be prevented. Their research suggests that such police contact needs to be handled with utmost care to avoid the apparently harmful effects documented here – for example, they suggested that police avoid aggressive questioning of youths in public places. The researchers added: “It is important that youth are not isolated after experiencing police contact, and family members, criminal justice actors , and the community should take steps to ensure that youths’ prosocial bonds are not attenuated following police contact.”
Stephanie A. Wiley, & Finn-Aage Esbensen (2013). The Effect of Police Contact: Does Official Intervention Result in Deviance Amplification? Crime and delinquency DOI: 10.1177/0011128713492496
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