Legitimacy in Policing: Turning the Lens Inwards

The link between procedural justice, police legitimacy and community trust encourages police to consider how they interact with the public so that people feel they have been dealt with fairly and with respect. Even when the outcome of their encounter with police is negative (e.g. speeding ticket), if the interaction with the officer was fair and reasonable they are likely to retain a favourable impression of police, high satisfaction, compliance and cooperation with police (Mazerolle, et.al, 2013).

What is most important to understand is procedurally just actions do not require large scale effort or the implementation of expensive techniques to generate perceived procedural justice and the subsequent effect on police legitimacy.

In a study undertaken in partnership between the University of Queensland, the Centre of Excellence in Policing and the Queensland Police Service (QPS) a randomised field trial during Random Breath Testing (RBT) operations was used to test the efficacy of procedural justice principles on police legitimacy (Mazerolle, et al, 2012).

Officers in the control group provided the legislatively required instructions to the driver to provide a breath sample for testing. This usually is an interaction of approximately 20 secs.

This enable officers to churn through a large number of tests but usually does not allow for any real dialogue with the driver.

The intervention required officers to add a short statement showing care and support for the driver and passengers. This dialogue targeted the four tenants of procedural justice: trustworthy motives (this is about protecting the public and reducing the road toll), neutral actions (we are not picking on you), citizen participation (seeking their ideas about local problems) and conveying dignity and respect (thanking the motorist and expressing gratitude for their time and patience). On average these interactions took 97 seconds with some up to 160 seconds.

This doesn’t sound like rocket science does it? Yet in this study the introduction of simple, short, supportive conversation to what was otherwise a run-of-the-mill police stop found there was significant difference in measures of satisfaction, perceptions of police legitimacy, and openness to cooperation with police between members of the public who received the standard ‘blow in the bag’ instruction and those who received additional conversation with the officer.  As the researchers noted, “Put simply: A little nice goes a long way”.

So this got me thinking, if procedural justice principles lead to increased police legitimacy and increased trust of the community which is predicted to lead to greater community cooperation and support for policing then we should also consider how procedural justice displayed by police leaders could generate higher engagement and trust within their team.

Leadership training which lists a range of skills you need to develop can be confusing and difficult to implement when you get back to your office. Leadership theory may be interesting but translating that into changed behaviour is difficult. Being provided with scripts and formulae’s for dealing with difficult conversations such as poor performance can feel unnatural. You worry about getting it right and in doing so lose any real connection with the person you are talking to. Rather than building trust there is now a Great Wall of China between you and the. They don’t particularly trust you and you revert back to your old habits of avoiding such conversations.

But if random community members can have their trust changed by a few moments of consideration where the inconvenience and nervousness of being pulled over for a RBT is acknowledged, their good deeds are praised and they don’t feel like they are on a meaningless conveyor belt … just imagine what small actions you could take to connect with your staff.

Like taking the time to notice their efforts, explaining why a decision was made and giving suggestions that are personal and relevant to them specifically.

Forget trying to perfect the ‘feedback sandwich’, you know the one where you sit someone down and give them positive feedback, negative feedback and then finish on a high note. One, it doesn’t work and two, they know what you are doing!

Instead genuine, small doses of connection show they matter. Nothing drives performance and engagement like knowing that your contribution matters.

Building police legitimacy is not rocket science.

Neither is building leader legitimacy.

Mazerolle, L. et al. (2012). Shaping citizen perceptions of police legitimacy: A randomized field trial of procedural justice. Criminology, 51 (1), 33 – 63.

Mazerolle, L. et al. (2013) Procedural justice and police legitimacy: a systematic review of the research evidence. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 9 (3), 245 – 274




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By | 2017-01-11T13:02:45+00:00 January 11th, 2017|Confidence, confident communication, Courage, Leadership, police|Comments Off on Legitimacy in Policing: Turning the Lens Inwards

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