Procedural Justice: Increasing Trust to Decrease Crime

Improving procedural justice holds great potential to increase trust between authorities and communities and decrease serious crime. Megan Quattlebaum of Yale Law School's Justice Collaboratory writes at OJP Diagnostic Center to explain this pillar of the National Initiative.

Procedural Justice: Increasing Trust to Decrease Crime

By: Megan Quattlebaum, Associate Research Scholar in Law, Visiting Clinical Lecturer in Law, Supervising Attorney, and Program Director of the Justice Collaboratory, Yale Law School

May 26, 2015

Police leaders watching the news unfold in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, and North Charleston are doing a great deal of soul searching about how to repair strained relationships with the communities they protect. While problems so complex and longstanding will not have an easy solution, the concept of “procedural justice” is one police departments should take seriously.

A wealth of empirical evidence shows that when police are at their best—when they are neutral and unbiased; treat those with whom they interact with respect and dignity; and give folks a chance to explain their side of the story—they can actually bring out the qualities they want to see in their communities. People who are policed in this way are more likely to view the police as legitimate. And people who view the police as legitimate are more likely to obey the law, cooperate with authorities and engage positively in their communities.

This is the idea of procedural justice: how police interact with members of the public matters as much or more than the outcome of those interactions. Typically, the tools that police rely on most heavily to motivate compliance are what we would call “instrumental.” Historically, police often assume people follow the law and cooperate with the authorities largely because they fear the consequences of not doing so (arrest, a criminal charge, jail, etc.) and so those are the aspects of their work that they emphasize. But numerous empirical studies persuasively demonstrate that perceptions of legitimacy have a greater impact on people’s compliance with the law than their fear of formal sanctions.

The bad news is, if people experience an interaction with a police officer that suggests to them the police are untrustworthy, their ties with law and their sense of its legitimacy weaken, which may lead to a lack of cooperation with the police and more law breaking in the future. Put another way, unnecessarily aggressive policing brings out the worst in the people toward whom it is directed.

The factors that contribute most to people viewing a police stop as negative are whether the police threaten or use force arbitrarily, inconsistently or in ways that suggest a lack of professionalism or the existence of prejudice, or if police are humiliating or disrespectful. Notably, whether the stop results in an arrest is less important for purposes of perceived legitimacy than how that stop is carried out.3 Most police officers I talk to know this from experience: people can leave an interaction with a positive impression of the police even if they don’t get the result they wanted. Or they can leave without the ticket or arrest, but still be very upset and angry. It all depends on how they are treated.

Read the full article at OJP Diagnostic Center.


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