The Importance of Procedural Justice

photo of Sioux Falls Police vehicleThe city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has been very fortunate over the years. We are a friendly, family orientated community. We have a low crime rate and our city continues growing each year. Economically, Sioux Falls is on solid ground, even during this last national economic downturn. The Sioux Falls Police Department has established a very good relationship with our citizens. Things are going well here, and as our city grows our department wants to continue this great relationship with our citizens. Our community is also becoming more diverse and we want to make sure that we are addressing the needs of everyone in our community.

Over the last two years, our police department has revamped the Patrol Division. We have migrated to a team-based style of policing and have encouraged a more pro-active approach. We divided the city into areas—called quadrants—and assigned teams of officers to work those areas. The officers have made numerous contacts within their assigned neighborhoods and have partnered with community members in resolving problems and enhancing the rapport between police and citizens. We have seen some very promising results from these changes and feel that we are heading in the right direction.

Recently, a proposal was made to implement procedural justice in our department. The proposal was accepted and has received the full endorsement of our Chief Doug Barthel, Assistant Chief Patti Lyon, and the rest of the command staff. This article is about why procedural justice is so important to our department and why it should be to yours.

During my 26-plus years as a law enforcement officer, I have been privileged to observe and work with officers who rarely enter into altercations with anyone. They are able to defuse tense situations and convince people to do what they want them to do. They have the ability to speak to anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or culture. These officers are able to gain information from people who would otherwise refuse to talk with officers. They are able to do this because of their superior verbal skills. But what exactly are those skills? What is it that causes those they interact with to react so positively to them? Are these skills innate to those officers or can we teach these skills to other officers?

In 2011, I attended the COPS Office conference in Washington, D.C., where I was introduced to the concept of procedural justice. At the conference there were several speakers that spoke on the subject, including Dr. Tom Tyler and Dr. Lara Kunard. They provided answers on the subject of procedural justice to questions that I have always had.

Procedural justice is not a new trend or a new way of policing. What procedural justice does for policing is validate what most of us already knew: how we treat people and how we talk to them does matter. Procedural justice also tells us why it works, how it works and what we can expect in return. How can this affect the future of policing?

photo of statue representing the mission of the Sioux Falls Police DepartmentFirst, there is empirical research1 that shows procedural justice delivers positive results. In reviewing this research, we get a clear picture of how and why people view the police the way they do and how and why they may or may not comply with the law or the directives and decision of police officers. This is not a theory. The research backs up a way of policing that has been used by many officers throughout history.

Procedural justice does not necessarily require substantial changes to any other training or procedures that are currently practiced. For example, Defensive Tactics training would remain the same. Procedural justice is not meant to be a replacement for Defensive Tactics or even reduce the need or the importance of this training. It is, however, another tool that can be used by officers to avoid being in a situation that would require the use of force. Using procedural justice as the foundation of police training will not lessen or eliminate the need for the training that we currently do. What it will do is enhance most of our training and learned police skills.

For police officers, procedural justice amounts to four basic actions:
  1. Treat people with respect.
  2. Listen to what they have to say.
  3. Make fair decisions.
  4. Explain your actions.

These are not—or should not be—difficult things for officers to do. I know that most officers in my department are already doing these actions most of the time. With those officers it is important to emphasize that these actions work, reinforcing their good practices or fine tuning what they are already doing.

There are also those officers who have difficulty in performing some of these actions, or are reluctant in doing so. Changing these officers can be a challenge. They may not want to change their style of communication, and may see some aspects of procedural justice as showing weakness—such as explaining their actions. These officers are used to “doing” not “talking.” When selling procedural justice to these officers it is important to stress that this is not a new trend. Emphasize that history and research supports this method and skillset. Talking about the benefits of procedural justice will also help. One benefit that is especially important to officers is the safety aspect. Even if they don't buy into all of the other benefits of procedural justice, if you can get them to understand that it will make them safer, they may be more likely to give it a try.

photo of Sioux Falls honor guardBy having our officers do these simple things (treat people with respect, listen to what they have to say, make fair decisions, and explain their actions) we become more legitimate in the eyes of the public. This legitimacy has some very positive and beneficial payouts for law enforcement officers and the communities we serve. Legitimacy builds trust and confidence in the police and acceptance of police authority. Legitimacy also enhances the publics' perception that police actions are morally correct and appropriate. If the community views their officers as being legitimate they are more likely to comply with the law. They are also more likely to agree with police decisions and less likely to be confrontational or hostile toward us.

Procedural justice is vital to a successful and sustainable community policing program. The three pillars of community policing: Partnerships, Problem Solving, and Organizational Transformation, illustrate this importance. The first two pillars rely heavily on having the trust, confidence, and cooperation of the community. If you want to have a strong community policing program you need to have a department that believes and practices procedural justice.

Procedural justice is not just for the community. It is also important to remember that it should be practiced within our agencies. It is important to treat our officers and civilian employees in the same manner that we expect them to treat the public. Management has to be open to the idea that there is always room for improvement. A clear message needs to be sent from the top down of what is expected from the officers and the supervisors. Again, we should model the actions internally that we want our officers to demonstrate to the community. Simply, we treat them respectfully, listen to them, make fair decisions, and explain our actions.

As I mentioned before, I don't view procedural justice as anything new. It is the foundation for successful police work. It involves some very simple things that successful officers have been doing since the beginning of policing and it provides a roadmap for all of us in law enforcement to be effective in our interactions with our community and within our agency.

Captain Rich (Skip) Miller

Uniformed Services Division

Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Police Department

1 See T.R. Tyler, L.W. Sherman, H. Strang, G.C. Barnes, and D.J. Wood, “Reintegrative shaming, procedural justice, and recidivism: The engagement of offenders' psychological mechanisms in the Canberra RISE drinking and driving experiment,” Law and Society Review 41, no. 3 (2007): 553–586.

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