Jill T. Ruggiero
University of New Haven
In late 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer. The immediate response from the media, as well as former President Obama (who promptly directed then Attorney General Eric Holder to respond to Ferguson), was that the killing of Brown was unjustified and excessive because Brown was unarmed. Whatever the factual circumstances were at the time, or were later learned to be, did not really matter. It was the perceptions of what took place--compounded by historically poor police community and race relations--that were enough to reignite the flame. The perceived unjustifiable killing of yet another young black male sparked national movements, intensified scrutiny on police use of force, and police-community relations, and strengthened calls for complete criminal justice system overhaul. After Michael Brown’s death, several other high-profile officer involved shootings occurred, which served to further erode the already suffering police-community relations and trust in the system.
Due, in part, to public outcry over police excessive use of force (especially against black males) former President Obama convened the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015). The group was tasked with creating best policing practices that would result in positive community relationships with law enforcement, while reducing crime and building public trust in the system (Community Oriented Policing Services [COPS], 2015). The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Final Report contained six underlying themes or pillars: Building Trust and Legitimacy, Policy and Oversight, Technology and Social Media, Community Policing and Crime Reduction, Officer Training and Education, and Officer Safety and Wellness. More than half of these six operate on the core principles of procedural justice theory. In fact, “procedural justice” is mentioned 37 times throughout the final task force report (Antrobus, Thompson, & Ariel, 2018).
Because of the current state of police-community relations and the threat to overall police legitimacy due to recent incidents, it is crucial that officers behave in a procedurally just manner. Through a review of previous literature, policy implications of such, and suggestions for future research inquiries, this paper offers support for the potential to improve police-community relations through procedural justice police training.
Procedural Justice Policing
Procedural justice theory was introduced almost 30 years ago by Yale Professor of Psychology and Law, Tom Tyler (Tyler, 1980) as an enhancement of Rawls’ (1971) original “Theory of Justice.” As procedural justice theory relates to police legitimacy, it has perhaps never received as much attention since what came to be the first in a recent series of highly publicized police involved shootings-the death of Michael Brown. Perceptions of unjust, unfair, biased, and in some cases, criminal behaviors on the part of police can--and has--led to diminished police community relations, mistrust, social unrest, and physical harm or death to civilians and police officers. From a safety perspective alone, the importance of procedural justice and its connection to police legitimacy cannot be overstated.
Procedural justice policing is grounded on four components; (1) the officer’s perceived motivation, honesty, and ethicality; (2) opportunities for the representation of all parties (giving a voice); (3) opportunities for error correction; and (4) the quality of the officer’s decision and the officer’s bias in reaching a decision (Owens, Weisburd, Amendola, & Alpert, 2018). Procedural justice policing is, essentially, officers operating on the principles of fairness, transparency, allowing for voice, and impartiality (COPS, 2019).
Research findings on procedural justice policing consistently reveal that when civilians feel the police are exercising procedural fairness, they believe more in police legitimacy, thereby increasing compliance and cooperation with police decisions (Johnson, Wilson, Maguire, & Lowrey-Kinberg, 2017). Additionally, civilians are more likely to come forward to the police as witnesses or victims, to assist police, and most importantly, feel a stronger obligation to obey the law (Murphy, 2017).
It stands to reason, then, that police officers be engaged actively and positively in the communities they serve, and not use their police powers unnecessarily or in an unjust, unfair, or biased manner. When police are not engaged in the communities they serve, or they abuse their powers (or are perceived to abuse their powers), public trust is reduced, negative interactions and outcomes increase, crime rates may rise, harm to civilians and officers increase, and overall police legitimacy is decreased (Owens et al., 2018).
While a significant body of research exists on procedural justice theory in general and its importance in policing, few studies exist on police training programs in procedural justice and their efficaciousness (Antrobus et al., 2019; Kringen & Kringen, 2017; Murphy, 2017; Owens et al., 2018; Pickett, et al., 2018; Skogan, et al., 2014). While the importance of procedural justice practices has been more than established throughout this literature, the remaining (seemingly obvious) question is--do police know this—a question that has gotten much less attention. Do most police officers know what procedural justice theory is? What has the research on procedural justice and its impacts on policing shown? How can procedural justness benefit police and the communities they serve? Is there buy-in from officers, supervisors, and their command staff? The unanswered questions are boundless.
To answer some of these questions, three recent experiments related to police procedural justice training were conducted. First, Owens and colleagues (2018) utilized a randomized experimental design to evaluate a procedural justice training program created to “slow down” officers thought processes during citizen encounters. The training was delivered to Seattle, WA police officers between May and November 2013 (pre-Ferguson). The hope was that by slowing down officers’ thought processes and changing the way officers think about their tasks and the people they serve, behaviors that could be perceived by the public as unjust would be reduced.
The sample was determined by choosing officers identified as working in “high-risk circumstance” micro-places; then, treatment and control groups were formed. The treatment group received “training,” the extent of which was a meeting with a Seattle Police Department supervisor for an ensuing conversation about a recent incident response by that officer, and a debriefing of his/her response. The conversation was meant to not only remind officers that practicing procedural justice policing was an expectation of the Seattle Police Department, but also to explain exactly what that means, and to discuss whether the officer engaged in procedural justice practices during that specific incident. Additionally, researchers hoped that a dialogue between the officers and supervisors would serve to illustrate that although police departments usually function under a strict paramilitary structure, officers are allowed to have their own voice, express their opinions, and be treated fairly by the supervisors and organization—in other words, benefit from procedural justice practices.
The researchers hypothesized that these conversations would educate officers as to how to “slow-down” their thought processes and reflect on what other ways the incident could have been handled, to ensure a positive outcome for all. The authors recognized and noted the inherent conflict with typical police training and the fact that officers often have to make quick decisions about was being proposed in this study: slowing down (in non-dangerous situations) to reflect, listen, and allow others to have a voice. Notably, officers also were asked during the meeting to provide feedback on their supervisor’s performance during that meeting, to draw a comparison between how they are treated and how citizens they encounter feel/perceive their performance.
The researchers concluded that after the meeting with their supervisor, officers in the treatment group were approximately 12% less likely to resolve incidents through punitive methods than the control group officers, and were between 16% and 50% less likely to be involved in use of force incidents (Owens, et al., 2018). They were not able to conclude, however, that there was a difference in the rates of civilian complaints filed against treatment and control group officers. Nor did they find evidence of adverse effects or unintended consequences of the training (e.g., decreased self-initiated activity, decreased engagement in community). Overall, Owens and colleagues (2018) concluded that supervisory meetings with officers can have a positive impact on officers’ behavior, thereby improving police-community relations.
Similarly, researchers in an evaluation of a procedural justice knowledge and skills-based training program for new recruits in Queensland Police Service, Australia, found that such training efforts are cost effective and have the potential to improve police-community relations (Skogan, Van Craen, & Hennessy, 2015). In 2016, 56 police recruits from the Queensland Police Service were chosen as the sample. Half of the recruits, the experimental group, were trained in procedural justice over the course of one and a half days, while the control group received different, unrelated lessons. The content of the experimental groups’ training consisted of lectures, classroom discussions, exercises, and role-playing techniques. The entire training curriculum was designed to teach recruits interpersonal skills and the components of procedural justice. Essentially, the recruits were taught how to demonstrate fair treatment and fair decision-making to civilians in a variety of incidents. Field training officers then were asked to rate the recruits on a seven-point Likert scale measuring procedural justice characteristics. Recruits also were asked to complete surveys to gauge their attitudes on the importance of procedural justice, policing, the public, and organizational legitimacy (Antrobus et al., 2019).
Generally, the evaluation found some effect on the recruits’ behaviors in the field, but less effect relative to changing their overall attitudes. Officers, whether trained in procedurally just practices or not, typically show more procedurally just behaviors toward victims (Antrobus, et al., 2019; Murphy, 2017). Here, the experimental group recruits showed more procedurally just behaviors toward suspects, compared to the control group. The authors concluded that although there were no overwhelming effects of the training revealed, there were some positive effects and no adverse effects, so they remained optimistic that such training could improve police-community relations at a relatively low cost (Skogan, Van Craen, & Hennessy, 2015).
In arguably the most pertinent experiment yet on this topic, Pickett and colleagues (2018) investigated the impact of a social schematic model on police procedural justice. The social schematic model posits, in part, that individuals’ social environments are more impactful on their perceptions of police procedural justice than even their encounter-specific experiences (Pickett et al., 2018). It has long been established that negative interactions with police are shared more and weighted more heavily than positive interactions. This is true of many social interactions (think of the bad press a business gets from one dissatisfied customer). It has also been said that for every positive story that is shared, ten negative stories are shared, and that public perception of police officers is often the result of media influence or vicarious experiences.
In this study, researchers formulated several hypotheses related to police procedural justice (Pickett et al., 2018). First, that being exposed to procedurally just treatment by parents and teachers early in life would lead people to assume that most others are respectful, fair, and unbiased (known as “relational justice schema endorsement”). Second, that endorsement of a relational justice schema would be positively related to perceived police procedural justice. Third, that procedurally just treatment from parents and teachers would be related indirectly and positively to perceived police procedural justice. Fourth, that perceived adverse neighborhood conditions would negatively affect these assumptions and would be indirectly and negatively associated with perceived police procedural justice. Finally, that experience with police mistreatment would weaken the positive effect of relational justice schema on perceived police procedural justice. The study was conducted through a national online convenience sample (using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) tool), wherein respondents completed questionnaires with Likert type scales that were designed to gauge perceived police procedural justice, relational justice schema endorsement, and experiences with police mistreatment.
Researchers found relational justice schema endorsement was the strongest predictor of perceived police procedural justice, and that although negative personal or vicarious experience with police mistreatment exerted a negative effect on perceived police procedural justice, greater relational justice schema endorsement exerted a more significant, positive effect on police procedural justice. Findings also suggested that adverse neighborhood conditions contribute to reduced relational schema endorsement, although the positive association between relational justice schema endorsement and perceived police procedural justice was weaker among those who experienced police mistreatment (Pickett et al., 2018).
These findings suggest the task of changing public perception of police procedural justice may necessitate more than educating officers. Considering the findings that perceptions of police procedural justice are established during childhood, are based on factors (mostly) unrelated to police behavior, and that those perceptions cannot be undone, focus may need to be on educating the public as well as police.
Conclusion and Policy Implications
Although previous research on the efficacy of police procedural justice training has resulted in mixed findings (procedural justice training may be counterproductive and will “work” to varying degrees, Murphy, 2017; that perceptions of procedural justice can depend on race, Johnson et al. 2017), there is consensus that it is a low cost endeavor. While none of the reviewed recent studies found overwhelming effects in one direction or the other, focusing on best police practices and incorporating procedural justice training into policy and practice can be a low-cost, possibly high return on investment. There is enough literature to suggest that there are benefits to not only educating law enforcement officers on procedural justice, but also to formulating policy that requires officers to behave in such a way.
How the public perceives police officers is profoundly important, because they are the gatekeepers of the criminal justice system. If perceptions of how they behave and use their powers are poor, that can lead to negative perceptions of the entire system. President Obama, in describing the need for a task force on policing, stated, “When any part of the American family does not feel like it is being treated fairly, that’s a problem for all of us.”
Future Research Directions
Looking through an optimistic lens, it seems procedural justice training of law enforcement officers certainly cannot hurt and potentially could benefit the entire system. Future research in this area could elucidate just how beneficial it could be.
An interesting line of inquiry into whether college educated officers practice procedural justice more frequently and thereby deliver less punitive outcomes is an avenue that could shed light on the importance of higher education in the field of policing. Knowledge of sociological issues and criminological theory obtained in higher education settings may, in and of itself, guide officers toward more procedurally just practices. Investigating the differences or similarities between officers’ education level, procedurally just practices employed, and their involvement in use of force or citizen complaints could guide future training efforts.
Similarly, delivering an educational curriculum to officers that enables them to truly understand procedural justice (e.g., an actual course at the recruit level, as opposed to a few hours or a meeting with a supervisor) and evaluating the effects on their behaviors and attitudes is also an area that should be explored. Consideration of delivering that same curriculum to command staff (so the organizational leaders receive the same message as the rank-and-file) and assessing its resulting effects on the organizational culture is worthy of inquiry as well. Evaluation of whether that education results in organizational change, buy-in, changed patrol level responses, and ultimately more procedurally just outcomes could establish the efficacy of such programs.
Incorporating tools to build empathy skills in police officers in any procedural justice training also has the potential to improve police-community relations (along with a myriad of other benefits). As trauma-informed practices become more commonplace across systems, training officers in enhancing their empathy skills could also assist them in recognizing trauma and its effects on behavior. Ultimately, increased ability to empathize could result in changing officers’ attitudes and procedurally just behaviors. Subsequent evaluation of the effects of empathy training on police procedural justice practices could be enlightening.
Ultimately, the most important question to answer is, would any of these efforts result in behavioral changes by the police, thereby changing public perceptions of the police and lead to improved police-community relations? That is yet to be seen.
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