Building trust and legitimacy was the first of six “pillars” identified by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as essential for police reform. The Task Force urged police agencies to establish procedural justice as the “guiding principle” in police interactions with citizens for developing that trust.
Will police departments accrue greater public trust and legitimacy by promoting procedural justice—roughly defined as the fairness with which police authority is applied—in street encounters?
We don’t believe they will.
As well-grounded in theory and empirical evidence as this prescription appears to be, we believe it rests on a misdiagnosis of organizational dynamics and public attitudes.
In our recently published study of policing, Mirage of Police Reform, we found that citizens’ assessments of procedural justice are shaped much less by how officers use their enforcement powers—such as using physical force or conducting searches—than whether they use them.
Here’s what we mean.
When people encounter police, the procedural justice that they perceive is associated with their trust in law enforcement and their sense that police deserve to be obeyed. In other words, it is linked to their perceptions about the “legitimacy” —or lack of legitimacy— of the police.
A large body of research demonstrates the strength and consistency of these empirical relationships.
Police who are “procedurally just” treat people with dignity and respect, give them an opportunity to explain their situations and listen to what they say, and explain what police have done and/or will do. By doing so, they make clear that officers are taking account of people’s needs and concerns, and are basing their decisions on facts.
The National Research Council’s Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices (on which one of us served) asserted that legitimacy is thus “created” in individual police-citizen encounters.
With this research in mind, we worked with police departments in Schenectady and Syracuse, two cities in upstate New York, to make procedural justice a measure of performance for which police managers were held accountable.
Over the course of 18 months, we regularly surveyed people who had recent contacts with police as a result of a call for assistance, a stop, or an arrest; we summarized and reported survey results to command staffs through the departments’ Compstat meetings.
Supposing that “what gets measured gets managed,” we anticipated that managers and field supervisors would pay attention to how their officers treat citizens, and that procedural justice and public trust would thereby improve.
But we found a mixed reception to the administrative push for procedural justice among patrol officers, field supervisors, and mid-level managers. Some officers were receptive; some exhibited a tempered receptivity; others were quite skeptical. Some platoon commanders made procedural justice a frequent topic in roll calls; others neglected it.
With the introduction of these performance measures into Compstat, we detected no significant changes in citizens’ perceptions of, or attitudes toward, police in either city. Citizen satisfaction with police was fairly high at the outset of our study, leaving only little room for improvement.
We linked survey data on citizens’ subjective experience to independent measures of officers’ overt behavior—based on structured observation through the audio and video recordings of officers’ activities which Schenectady police routinely provided. (Syracuse police had neither in-car nor body-worn cameras.) We measured both officers’ procedural justice, e.g., displays of respect, attentive listening—and procedural injustice, e.g., discourtesy, ignoring citizens’ questions—and we discovered that citizens’ perceptions are weakly related to the former and only moderately related to the latter.
Our findings contradict the claim that legitimacy is “created” through police-citizen interactions. We saw no change overall in observed procedural justice, which was moderately high in the first place; or in procedural injustice, which was uniformly low.
However, in one platoon, whose commander and supervisors were all supportive, officers’ behavior measured by procedural justice standards modestly improved.
These findings make sense from the perspective of institutional behavior. The technology of policing—the process of turning the “raw materials” of community conditions and individual crises into the finished products of safer neighborhoods and resolved situations—is not well-developed, and a limited understanding of how and how much police contribute to desired social outcomes makes it difficult for anyone to assess how well police are performing.
The public’s demands on police therefore often rest on assumptions that positive outcomes will follow from the adoption (or imposition) of particular organizational forms, such as community policing, civilian review of complaints, and early intervention systems for misconduct. But in fact such forms often fail because they are only loosely coupled with the technical “core” of policing, where the work is performed—mainly in patrol.
Since the procedural justice of officers’ actions is not normally measured, everyone could assume that when a department “adopts” procedurally just policing, its commitment is honored on the street. But the implementation of administrative mandates is determined by officers’ interpretations of their meaning. The procedural justice model would likely be weakly implemented in any case, even if it might nevertheless have symbolic appeal to the community.
Meanwhile, the behavior that tends to generate police-community friction—such as the use of physical force or searches of vehicles or persons—would remain unaddressed. It’s not that we think that procedurally just policing is a bad idea – far from it. But as a reform prescription, our findings lead us to conclude that it offers false hope for better police-community relations.
As pointed out above, individual officers’ decisions about whether to use their coercive authority matter far more to public perceptions of police legitimacy than how they use it. Searches negatively affect citizens’ assessments of their contacts with police (unless they accede to them). So does the use of physical force.
We conclude that public trust in the police is closely tied to these critical exercises of authority. The experiences of some police agencies suggest that regulating these aspects of police performance will be more effective at achieving police “legitimacy” than mandating certain types of behavior to achieve “procedural justice.”
The Cincinnati Police Department is sometimes mentioned as an example of successful reform, partly because the frequency with which Cincinnati police use physical force has declined substantially. We believe that one key aspect of reform there involved use-of-force policies and procedures that were at least moderately coupled with street-level practice.
Supervisors were empowered to supervise—not merely to enforce policy but to guide officers in developing and using effective tactics. Such coupling cannot be taken for granted—the Ferguson Police Department had a similar policy on the books—but can be achieved and sustained.
Robert E. Worden is the Director of the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, and Associate Professor of criminal justice at the University at Albany, SUNY. Sarah J. McLean is the Associate Director and the Director of Research and Technical Assistance at the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, Inc. They welcome comments from readers.