Can Procedural Justice Training Reduce Officer Misconduct?

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Protest march in Baltimore, 2014. Photo by Bruce Emmerling via Flickr

The militarized “forced-based command and control model,” called “warrior policing” by some, is the dominant operating method of many U.S. police departments, and in the process has led to increasing distrust and hostility on the part of many communities across the country —particularly communities of color.

However, a study of the Chicago police department, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), argues that a less aggressive approach, employing the principles of “procedural justice,” can reduce the hostility while at the same time increasing police effectiveness.

Researchers studied the careers of 8,480 officers who went through procedural justice training in the Chicago Police Department (CPD) between 2012 and 2016, and found that in the two years immediately following their training, officers received 10 percent fewer complaints than those who had not been trained.

Similarly, the researchers found that “training also reduced the use of force against civilians by 6.4 percent” in a two-year period.

The paper cross-checked officers’ records with existing “complaints regarding officer conduct, settlement payouts following civil litigation, and mandatory officer filed use of force reports.”

Their findings of a 10 percent reduction in complaints worked out to approximately 732 fewer complaints to the Chicago Police over a two-year period, the researchers said.

“These results support efforts to change the culture of policing by demonstrating that realistic levels of training can produce substantial changes in police behavior on the streets,” concluded authors George Wood, Tom R. Tyler and Andrew V. Papachristos.

Procedural justice, which is finding growing acceptance in policing circles across the U.S., is aimed at changing interactions between patrol officers and community residents in a way that emphasizes “respect, neutrality, and transparency,” according to the authors.

A police street encounter, either with a suspect or community members, should allow residents to provide their own account of events in a way that reduces the kind of friction that often leads to conflict, particularly in at-risk neighborhoods with little confidence in law enforcement.

In police academies, recruits are told that law enforcement can still be effective when efforts are made to show residents that crime investigations will follow standard procedures governed by the impartial pursuit of justice.

Under the program, described by the paper, “officers were encouraged to provide opportunities for civilians to state and explain their case before making a decision, apply consistent and explicable rules-based decision-making, treat civilians with dignity and respect their status as community members, and demonstrate willingness to act in the interests of the community and with responsiveness to civilians’ concerns.”

Existing research suggests that an emphasis on police-to-civilian transparency, which involves officers explaining their policing actions, and responding to community concerns, can in fact help people solve more crimes with community cooperation, the paper continued.

“[The research shows] that procedural justice policing can build popular legitimacy and heighten willing deference and cooperation,” the study added.

As part of the Chicago training, officers were given detailed brochure-like templates, with strategies outlined for ways that the officer could approach a civilian so as to minimize conflict.

By minimizing hostile encounters, and allowing eyewitnesses to share their perspective of an incident, the hope was that this would not only reduce distrust but lead to fewer instances of officer misconduct.

A key finding of the Chicago study was that there were significantly fewer complaints of misconduct or misbehavior against officers exposed to the training than against those who did not receive training.

Noting that across the U.S., “distrust of the police is widespread and consequential for public safety,” the authors said their findings show procedural justice training can be a “viable” way to decrease harmful policing practices.

This sentiment is shared by many law enforcement bodies, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) of the Department of Justice.

The study’s lead author, George Wood is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.  The other authors are Tom R. Tyler, Macklin Fleming Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School, as well as a Founding Director of The Justice Collaboratory; and Andrew V. Papachristos, Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Northwestern Network and Neighborhood Initiative at Northwestern University.

The full study can be accessed here.

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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