Procedural Justice

Procedural justice focuses on the way police and other legal authorities interact with the public, and how the characteristics of those interactions shape the public’s views of the police, their willingness to obey the law, and actual crime rates.

Procedural justice focuses on the way police and other legal authorities interact with the public, and how the characteristics of those interactions shape the public’s views of the police, their willingness to obey the law, and actual crime rates. Mounting evidence shows that community perceptions of procedural justice can have a significant impact on public safety.

Procedural justice is based on four central principles: "treating people with dignity and respect, giving citizens 'voice' during encounters, being neutral in decision making, and conveying trustworthy motives."  Research demonstrates that these principles contribute to relationships between authorities and the community in which 1) the community has trust and confidence in the police as honest, unbiased, benevolent, and lawful; 2) the community feels obligated to follow the law and the dictates of legal authorities, and 3) the community feels that it shares a common set of interests and values with the police.

Procedurally just policing is essential to the development of good will between police and communities and is closely linked to improving community perceptions of police legitimacy, the belief that authorities have the right to dictate proper behavior. Research shows that when communities view police authority as legitimate, they are more likely to cooperate with police and obey the law.  Establishing and maintaining police legitimacy promotes the acceptance of police decisions, correlates with high levels of law abidingness, and makes it more likely that police and communities will collaborate to combat crime. 

A key component of the research is that the public is especially concerned that the conduct of authorities be fair, and this factor matters more to them than whether outcomes of particular interactions favor them. This means that procedurally just policing is not consonant with traditional enforcement-focused policing, which typically assumes compliance is a function primarily of emphasizing to the public the consequences—usually formal punishment—of failing to follow the law. Policing based on formal deterrence encourages the public’s association of policing primarily with enforcement and punitive outcomes.  Procedurally just policing, on the other hand, emphasizes values that police and communities share—shared values based upon a common conception of what social order is and how it should be maintained—and encourages the collaborative, voluntary maintenance of a law-abiding community. Research indicates that this latter approach is far more effective at producing law-abiding citizens than the former. This makes intuitive sense— people welcome being treated as equals with a stake in keeping their communities safe, as opposed to being treated as subjects of a capricious justice system enforced by police who punish them for ambiguous, if not arbitrary, reasons.

Taking measures to enhance procedural justice within law enforcement agencies is becoming increasingly possible. Professor Tracey Meares and Professor Tom Tyler of Yale Law School have worked with the Chicago Police Department and others to create a one-day training for line officers and command staff that teaches them how to apply powerful procedural justice principles to their routine contacts with the public. The officers reportedly like it and evaluate it positively, as it improves not only public safety but their own. Indeed, there are many good reasons to cultivate a respectful relationship between police and communities, but the most important is that communities in which police are considered legitimate are safer and more law-abiding.


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