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“That’s not fair!”
Policing and perceptions of fairness

photo of a man drawn in pencil, holding a hammer to destroy a puff of smoke that captions it's not fairEmployees of law enforcement agencies—both sworn and civilian—are more likely to view their organizations as legitimate and to comply with workplace policies and procedures when the agency exhibits a culture where transparency, impartiality, fairness, and voice are embraced and modeled through internal decision-making, policy, and overall treatment of personnel. We all want to be valued, we all want to be heard, and we all want to be respected.

When looking at the internal issues of many organizations, however, you can usually find division among staff. This can be especially true when there is a perception of different treatment between classifications of employees. Such internal polarization within the police department may demoralize sworn and civilian employees, and can foster discontent by certain groups within the organization who feel disproportionately or unfairly treated. A counterbalance to discontent is satisfaction and collaborative relationships within an agency that can prove advantageous to its overall effectiveness.

Procedural justice provides a framework for organizational transformation within law enforcement agencies. It provides a structure for developing sustainable organizational practices and procedures by internally promoting the principles of procedural justice through fairness and transparency in resolving disputes, making decisions, and allocating resources. Employees become collaborators by providing opportunities for the employee voice to be heard through an exchange of ideas and by demonstrating respect.

Police executives and supervisors must become more effective in fostering an environment where procedural justice principles become a standard practice within their agency. Where the core principles of procedural justice are valued and practiced within the entire agency there will be:

  • Positive organizational transformation
  • Improvement in the work culture
  • Decrease in the internal polarization of the staff

Perceptions of fairness are not only driven by outcomes. They may also be influenced by the fairness and consistency of the process used to reach those outcomes.1 This suggests that if executives and supervisors are fair and consistent in the allocation of internal resources, in decision-making, and in resolution of disputes, officers and civilian employees will view the agency and fellow employees as more legitimate and therefore will be more supportive of agency goals and policies.

photo of Procedural Justice book written by Tom TylerAn expert on procedural justice at Yale University, Professor Tom Tyler’s research has demonstrated how organizations that do not implement the pillars of procedural justice create an environment where staff often becomes demoralized. In such an environment, a subversive tone might exist that detracts from organizational performance and ultimately manifests itself the same way in officers’ interactions with the public. Internal respect for one another can translate to a more engaged work environment and a higher level of collaboration among colleagues and with members of the community. When an organizational culture demonstrates procedural justice values, employees are more likely to incorporate them into their interactions with the public.

When procedural justice is embedded into the very fabric of the policing culture, beginning with the chief and continuing down through the ranks of sworn and civilian personnel, it will ultimately have an impact on the way front-line officers and civilian personnel interact with individual community members. In order for the community to view the law enforcement agency and its personnel as legitimate, the principles of procedural justice must be a part of the agency’s organizational culture. How an officer responds to a situation will impact the community’s perception and level of trust of the agency. The COPS Office has supported the creation of a curriculum, entitled Procedural Justice for Law Enforcement Organizations: Organizational Change through Decision Making and Policy, which aims to instill the importance of procedural justice at the organizational level. The curriculum was designed to be delivered to the leadership of law enforcement organizations, encouraging the examination of policy and procedures in light of the pillars of procedural justice.

The curriculum emphasizes the importance of embracing the pillars of procedural justice at the organizational level, setting the right tone for the organization as a whole. As officers and civilian employees of law enforcement agencies experience a culture of fairness, transparency, impartiality, and voice, their behavior will ultimately shift, reflecting in the ways that they treat one another as well as members of the public. Adoption of procedural justice principles from the top of the agency on down and also modeling fair behavior are both important to transforming the culture of an agency.

To date, the COPS Office Procedural Justice for Law Enforcement Organizations course has been delivered in five states and well received by all agencies. One course participant commented, “The entire course was outstanding. My favorite part was the leadership principles. We were all reminded of the reasons we became leaders of our organization.” The movement from a community reaction of “that’s not fair” to “I understand” often rests within the individual police officer–community member interaction, but is often rooted in the deeper culture of the law enforcement agency. Procedural justice aims at the heart of an organization’s culture to create fundamental change toward more fair processes and outcomes.

photo of CPSJ logo

In Collaboration with Melissa Bradley, COPS Office

1 See R. Hollander-Blumoff, and T.R. Tyler, “Procedural Justice in Negotiation: Procedural Fairness, Outcome Acceptance, and Integrative Potential,” Law & Social Inquiry 33 (2008): 473–500. doi: 10.1111/j.1747-4469.2008.00110.xTom Tyler, 2008.

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Fairness as a Crime Prevention Tool | The Importance of Legitimacy in Hot Spots Policing | The Importance of Procedural Justice | Procedural Justice: High Expectations | Policing and Perceptions of Fairness