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Procedural Justice: High Expectations

photo of King County Sheriff vehicleThe concepts of community oriented policing have long been engrained in the culture of the King County Sheriff’s Office. As an agency, we are proud of our tradition of “doing more with less” and have been able to accomplish our policing goals by proactively building strong community partnerships and by employing creative problem-solving strategies that address underlying issues, instead of just reactively responding to symptoms.

Unfortunately, due to dwindling resources and subsequent budget cuts, we have had to shift back toward being a reactive agency. In an attempt to save money, we have had to gut the infrastructure that supports our patrol deputies. We have made deep cuts to equipment, facilities, support services, and training, in an attempt to off-set budget shortfalls. Our agency has resorted to employing what I describe as “duct tape and super-glue” to fix problems instead of having the luxury of investing in organized, long-term, problem-solving strategies. Our average patrol deputy and the members of the community they directly serve have been the ones who have felt the most pain from these cuts. Trust and legitimacy—within the agency and with the public—have subsequently eroded.

In 2012, the King County Sheriff’s Office obtained a grant from the COPS Office to develop procedural justice training for line staff officers. The academic research-based concepts of procedural justice can be boiled down to four “pillars” that impact the public’s perception of police legitimacy: 1) a voice in the process, 2) transparency in the decision-making process, 3) neutrality in the decision-making process, and 4) respect for the person’s rights and dignity. In the King County Sheriff’s Office, we have high expectations that making these concepts of procedural justice a part of our agency’s culture will help us build legitimacy in our communities and make us more effective.

photo of King County Sheriff officersMost of our employees have intuitively figured out through trial and error how to use the concepts of procedural justice to gain voluntary compliance. As an agency, we are attempting to use training as a means to intentionally make procedural justice a part of our agency culture. Unfortunately, even though the concepts are rather simple to teach, “Procedural Justice” is not always an easy sell. Those who have already figured it out on their own are easily convinced of the merits. Our problem is that those few who most need to hear the message are also the most resistant. Some employees feel as though they will not be supported by the agency when they have to make tough decisions. Particularly in the areas of use of force and citizen complaints, many patrol deputies feel as though they do not have a voice, the process is not transparent, decisions are not neutral, and the process feels disrespectful or undignified. They are often distracted by challenges and stressors, on the job and off, and have trouble seeing the benefits of procedural justice.

In order to make procedural justice a part of our culture, we must first convince our officers that the concepts have been embraced at all levels of the organization and that they will be supported even when they get a complaint or when they must use appropriate force to overcome resistance. Before we can ask our officers to go out in the field and apply the concepts of procedural justice to all interactions with citizens, we must practice what we preach as an agency. We must actively engage employees in setting expectations and we must address employee performance concerns through student-centered training whenever possible—instead of using the disciplinary system as our go-to management tool. We must focus our efforts on hiring, training, and promoting the people who embody the principles of procedural justice. Finally, our training, policies, and procedures must give employees a clear roadmap to accomplishing their policing goals the right way—by focusing on procedural justice as a means to improve officer and citizen safety.

We are starting by using the procedural justice training as a way of setting clear expectations for how we communicate and interact with each other and with the public. Our agency has decided to use the “L.E.E.D.” model (Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity) as a way to train employees on how to apply the key principles of procedural justice. We use scenarios, discussions, and group exercises to show officers that this model can be applied to all interactions—internal and external—as a means to establish legitimacy and improve citizen and officer safety. We show that the L.E.E.D. model is typically applied as a means to gain voluntary compliance from the outset of an interaction, but we acknowledge that sometimes voluntary compliance is not possible. In those cases, the L.E.E.D. model is applied after the “dust” settles. We believe that the key is to make L.E.E.D a routine, expected, and measurable part of all interactions.

Our challenge as police trainers has been to convince all of our employees to apply the concepts of procedural justice to all interactions, so that even in their darkest hour they are still able to rise to the occasion. The academic ideals and research-based concepts of procedural justice can seem rather distant and unrealistic to a cop who is out on the street—cold, alone, at night, facing down a violent armed felon—and yet, it is in those moments that legitimacy becomes the most important. We have high expectations that legitimacy just might save a life.

By Sergeant Andrew McCurdy
King County Sheriff’s Office Advanced Training Unit

In Collaboration with Melissa Bradley
COPS Office

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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