Turning Police Encounters into “Teachable Moments”

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Young people’s perception of their encounters with police officers and other justice authorities—and whether they believe they were treated with fairness and respect—can have a lasting effect on their attitude toward law enforcement and the likelihood they will be involved in crime as adults, two criminal justice experts told a webinar audience yesterday.

“These early contacts shape the (attitude) these juveniles have toward the law, toward the police, toward the courts,” said Tom Tyler, a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School, addressing an audience of probation officers, attorneys and juvenile justice professionals during a webinar entitled “The Importance of Enhancing Procedural Justice in Interactions with Juveniles.” But authorities could turn these early encounters into “teachable moments” that leave a positive impression.

At a time when there is growing nationwide distrust between the public and police, the webinar highlighted what determines whether someone believes they were treated fairly, and how law enforcement agencies can help rebuild trust between officers and members of the public.

The term “procedural justice” describes how individuals were treated by law enforcement authorities, rather than referring to operational procedures, or the outcome of the encounter, the presenters said. The webinar was organized by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice.

“One way you can engender trust is explain your decisions,” said Tracey Meares, a law professor at Yale Law School and director of its Justice Collaboratory. For law enforcement agencies in particular, another way to gain the public’s trust is to acknowledge past problems and wrongdoing.

Trust is one of the four main factors that determine how people perceive procedural justice, Meares and Tyler said. In addition, allowing people to tell their side of the story, making decisions based on facts rather than bias, and treating people with dignity and respect can shape an individual’s perception of police and court authorities.

Tyler said communication is key. “It’s not just making a fair decision. It’s explaining to people so they’re aware that the decision you made is fair,” he said.

Research shows that people whose experiences with police involved unfair procedures were twice as likely to be involved in criminal behavior in the future, Tyler and Meares said, citing a study of young men between the ages of 18 and 26, conducted in New York City.

“We know that, on average, the contacts that people are having are not experienced by them as being fair,” Tyler said. As a consequence, this “creates more lawbreaking behavior in the future.”


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