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The challenge of procedural justice when situations get tense (American Police Beat)

Procedural justice, broadly speaking, refers to the extent to which people believe that authorities are fair in the execution of their authority. When people believe that authorities are fair, the perception is that the authority’s power is legitimate and worthy of compliance. This is critical in policing. To effectively enforce the law and prevent crime, police need community members to consent to their authority and cooperate with their efforts to maintain safety and enforce the law.


Tom Tyler, a professor at Yale University, is known as the father of procedural justice. In 1990, he conducted a study showing that an authority is seen as legitimate when they employ procedurally just practices.


To be procedurally just, these practices require four key principles: authorities must treat citizens with respect, give them a voice, show neutrality and demonstrate trustworthiness. The more procedurally just a law enforcement interaction is, the greater legitimacy the officer has in the eyes of the citizen and the more compliance and cooperation they are given in return.


Stated simply, when officers’ interactions are perceived as fair, they earn the cooperation of the citizens they are interacting with. Conversely, when the interaction is perceived as unfair, citizens are more likely to resist. In a way, this is common sense. But in policing, it poses a challenge.


How does an officer uphold the practices of procedural justice when citizens resist and the officer’s job is to exert control?


This question has become increasingly important in policing, especially with the rise in public dissent and frustration over highly publicized police use of force, regardless of whether the use of force has been deemed justifiable in the courts.


Read more about the challenges and opportunities officers face when it comes to procedural justice in our American Police Beat article.

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