Director Melekian Hosts First Issues Forum

Emerging Issues ForumWhat shapes police legitimacy? Why would someone choose to obey the law? And why wouldn’t they? Director Bernard Melekian of the COPS Office hosted his first “Issues Forum” on March 18 in Washington D.C. to address these and a host of other questions based around the issues of police legitimacy, procedural justice, and values-based policing. 
A select group of police chiefs, sheriffs, and other criminal justice experts from across the country gathered to discuss these issues in the forum which was kicked off by Professor Tom Tyler, chair of the Psychology Department at New York University and author of several influential books on policing, including the oft-cited Why People Obey the Law.

Tyler shared his research, demonstrating how the public’s  perception of police legitimacy is directly related to whether citizens believe police are exercising their authority in a fair way.  For proponents of “procedural justice,” citizen interactions should focus on two key outcomes: quality of decision making and quality of treatment.  In other words, the answers to the following two questions determine the success of any given police-citizen interaction: 1. Are decisions made fairly, in a neutral, unbiased way? and 2. Are people treated fairly, with respect, courtesy, and dignity?  If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then the citizen or citizens involved are much more likely to accept, on the individual level, the officer’s authority and, on the institutional level, police legitimacy as a whole.

 According to Tyler, the quality of the process is often just as—if not more—important than the result. What is at stake is not only the reputation of individual officers and law enforcement agencies.  Rather, as Tyler stated, “When the public believes that the police exercise their authority in a fair way, the public is more likely to accept police legitimacy and defer to police decisions, accept and obey the law, and cooperate with the police to fight crime.” Every interaction between the police and individuals, furthermore, represents a “teachable moment” in which all parties can learn about fairness and procedural justice.   Even if nothing legally significant happens, an experience with the police can have a strong psychological impact.  Thus, not only do police need training in fairness procedures for decision-making, but law enforcement executives and command staff also need to reevaluate the type of police behavior that is met with reward. 

Next up, Providence (Rhode Island) Chief Dean Esserman discussed the philosophy of a teaching police department.  Esserman stated that the role of a teaching police department is to “help advance the ‘profession of policing’ by transforming police departments into working laboratories for conceptualizing, developing, testing, and implementing new crime reduction and crime prevention strategies.”  For example, in one standard practice in the teaching hospital, doctors regularly choose one case to study and discuss as a whole.  Additionally, the teaching hospital model formalizes debriefing and examinations of cases with unsuccessful outcomes. These practices could easily be adapted for the law enforcement field and could provide officers and agencies with increased collaboration and learning experiences.  The potential advantages of a “teaching” police department include the ability to use academic partners to validate operational strategies that are demonstrably effective in reducing crime and to change the culture of policing to one with an increased emphasis on collaborative learning.

Finally, the founder and head of the  Josephson Institute of Ethics, Michael Josephson, concluded the session by sharing his description of an  exemplary police officer and his belief that departments need to hire and promote based on character, leadership, proficiency, and professionalism.  According to Josephson, police departments are not hiring the right people to recruit the right people because many police departments are not hiring and recruiting based on those characteristics. 
Throughout the forum, Director Melekian encouraged participants to begin the  discussion of changing law enforcements’ mindsets from “Can I do this?” to “Should I do this?”  Director Melekian asked participants to think of ways to change the internal administrative processes to reflect the values of the community; to institutionalize ethics training; and to implement changes in policies and procedures to reflect a values-based policing mindset.
Chiefs, sheriffs, and other participants discussed the need of law enforcement to understand why people behave the way they do, and then develop ways to better handle potentially heated situations. Participants also tackled the topic of community building through values-based policing, illustrating that a community structure of belonging needs to be created by law enforcement.  A complementary set of responsibilities now confronts both law enforcement and the public it has sworn to serve.  Law enforcement needs to convey to the public that the public belongs in law enforcement while the community needs to convey to law enforcement that it wants to work with law enforcement.  To build this community structure of belonging, participants stated that law enforcement needs to interact with the community beyond just the standards of customer service; the law enforcement oath and entire ethos of the profession must be reoriented around the protection of human, civil, and constitutional rights. 

The participants took the ideas and topics from this first “Issues” forum and hit the ground running, but they weren’t alone.  Partnerships and relationships were built between the participants and the presenters through project ideas and further research.  In addition, participants had plenty of feedback for the COPS Office and brainstormed the role that the COPS Office should play in moving these ideas and topics forward.

—Melissa Niese
Program Specialist
The COPS Office

—Katherine McQuay
Supervisory Policy Analyst
The COPS Office

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