Procedural Justice, Legitimacy, and Policing Research Paper

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A significant amount of police work involves face-to-face interactions with the public. The nature of these interactions can vary considerably from encounter to encounter. Police are often faced with situations in which they have to deliver unfavorable outcomes to the individual or group they are dealing with. This can sometimes lead to overt resistance or aggressive behavior. Citizen compliance with police directives is therefore important and can help police to resolve issues more efficiently. Research in the procedural justice field has shown that if police treat citizens respectfully and make decisions in a fair way, then it can enhance public perceptions of police legitimacy. This in turn has been shown to shape compliance-related behavior during and after a police encounter and has even been shown to promote long-term compliance with the law. This research paper provides a summary of procedural justice research that has been conducted in the policing context and highlights future directions and controversies that have emerged in the field.


A long-standing debate has existed in the criminology literature which contrasts the work of those who believe that individuals will comply with authorities and the law only when confronted with harsh sanctions and penalties and those who believe that alternative models that seek to encourage voluntary compliance will be more successful (see Ayres and Braithwaite 1992). Traditional crime control models that place an emphasis on deterring potential offenders from breaking the law have tended to dominate policy making and enforcement approaches in the criminal justice field, including policing. The basic premise of such models is that people are rational actors who behave in a manner that will maximize their expected utility. In other words, individuals assess opportunities and risks and disobey the law when the anticipated fine and probability of being caught are small in relation to the profits to be made through noncompliance. The view is that if an individual is a rational decision-maker whose aim is to maximize expected gains, authorities should respond by deterring them from acts of noncompliance by ensuring the benefits to be obtained through noncompliance are lower than those obtained through compliance. Advocates of this perspective therefore suggest that compliance can be best achieved in two ways: (1) by increasing the probability of detecting noncompliers and (2) by increasing sanctions to the point where noncompliance becomes irrational (Becker 1968). According to supporters of this deterrence-based approach, authorities need to find an appropriate balance between these two measures to make compliance behavior the rational choice.

Although some research supports the basic premise of the deterrence model and its ability to deter people from noncompliance, other research also suggests that these factors have, at best, a minor influence on people’s law-related behavior. Some studies suggest that such estimates do not independently influence behavior when the influence of other factors – such as socialization processes, social norms, or moral reasoning – is considered. Critics of the deterrence model also suggest that such an approach to crime control is costly to maintain. Further, they suggest that it cannot satisfactorily explain the high levels of voluntary compliance observed in situations where the probability of detection is small. If people were simply rational actors motivated purely by self-interest, one would expect that compliance with the law would be significantly lower than what has currently been observed. Finally, some research has also demonstrated that deterrence-based enforcement strategies can be counterproductive in the long-term and can undermine the relationship between legal authorities and those they regulate. For example, research has shown that the use of threat and legal coercion, particularly when perceived as illegitimate, can produce the opposite behavior from that sought. Such actions have been found to result in further noncompliance, creative compliance, criminal behavior, or overt opposition. In fact, a growing body of research has shown that individuals comply with the law for reasons other than an instrumental calculation of benefits and risks of offending. This research shows that most people obey most laws most of the time because they believe it is the right thing to do.

In the 1980s, therefore, many scholars began to question the value of deterrence alone in regulating behavior. Criminologists began to focus their attention on researching compliance rather than deterrence and began to realize the importance of using alternative approaches for securing compliance. One such approach can be found in the procedural justice literature. According to procedural justice models of compliance, institutions responsible for enforcing the law can play a major role in influencing citizens’ compliance behavior through using procedurally fair practices.

Procedural justice has been shown to be extremely effective in shaping people’s compliance-related behaviors because procedural justice can increase people’s perceptions of an authority’s legitimacy (Tyler 1990). If people view an authority as legitimate, they agree that the authority has the right to govern them. Providing an authority with legitimacy transfers to them the authority and right to define what constitutes acceptable forms of behavior. As such, citizens will be more willing to defer to a legitimate authority’s directives or rules. While procedural justice scholarship has been conducted across many different contexts (workplaces, courts, taxation, policing, etc.), this research paper focuses specifically on the role that the institution of policing can play in encouraging citizens to comply with both police directives and the law more generally.

Scholarly interest in perceptions of police treatment and the legitimate authority of the public police is not new. However, it is the contemporary stream of policing research by Tom Tyler and his colleagues that has shaped the field today. Since the publication of Tyler’s (1990) influential book Why People Obey the Law, there has been a rapidly expanding literature around the importance of procedural justice to effective policing practice and in particular how the police can use procedural justice principles to encourage citizens to defer to their authority and comply with the law.

In the policing literature, procedural justice has usually been defined in terms of four issues: (1) neutrality, (2) respect, (3) trustworthiness, and (4) voice. First, people react positively to evidence that the police with whom they are dealing are neutral. Neutrality involves making decisions based upon consistently applied legal rules and principles and the facts of the case, not upon personal opinions and biases. Transparency or openness about how decisions are being made facilitates the belief that decision-making procedures are neutral when it reveals that decisions are being made in rule-based, principled, and unbiased ways. Second, people are sensitive to whether they are treated with dignity and politeness and to whether their rights as citizens are respected. The issue of interpersonal treatment consistently emerges as a key factor in reactions to dealings with police, with many complaints being made about police involving inappropriate verbal conduct by an officer. People believe that they are entitled to treatment with respect and react very negatively to dismissive or demeaning interpersonal treatment. Third, an authority’s trustworthiness is also an important component for determining whether they have acted in a procedurally fair manner. People focus on cues that communicate information about the intentions and character of the legal authorities with whom they are dealing (i.e., “their trustworthiness”). People react favorably to the judgment that the police officers with whom they are interacting are benevolent and caring and are sincerely trying to do what is best for the people with whom they are dealing. Authorities communicate this type of concern when they listen to people’s accounts and explain or justify their actions in ways that show an awareness of and sensitivity to people’s needs and concerns. Finally, voice has also been shown to be important to people. People want to have an opportunity to explain their situation or tell their side of the story in a conflict. They are interested in having a forum in which they can tell their story. For procedural justice to take place, the opportunity to make arguments and present evidence should occur before a police officer makes a decision about what to do.

Early theorizing postulated that procedural justice was important to people because it was able to maximize their instrumental gains. For example, having the opportunity to express one’s opinion through voice can increase one’s control over outcomes and may maximize the probability of a favorable outcome. This instrumental view of procedural justice can be traced back to the seminal work of Thibaut and Walker (1975). Thibaut and Walker’s control theory suggested that people do not focus directly on the favorability of the outcomes they receive from authorities. Instead, they focus on the degree to which they are able to exert influence over an authority’s decisions. If people feel they have control over decisions, they will believe the procedure has been fair. In contrast, if they feel they lack control over the final outcome, they will believe the process has been unfair.

More recent social justice theories, however, have steered away from such an instrumentally focused view of individuals to suggest that procedural justice matters to people for reasons above and beyond self-interest concerns and the outcomes they receive. Lind and Tyler’s (1988) Group Value Model has dominated theorizing in the procedural justice field. The Group Value Model suggests that procedural justice conveys a symbolic message that carries self-relevant implications. Drawing on psychological theories of social identity, the group value approach suggests that people are motivated to develop a positive sense of self. Unlike traditional social identity theories, however, which propose that people develop a strong sense of self through acquiring membership in high-status groups, the Group Value Model perspective suggests that one’s status within a group can also add to the sense of self. According to this view, individuals will assess their status within groups by evaluating the extent to which important group representatives (such as police) treat them fairly. When people feel they are treated with procedural fairness, their sense of self-worth is bolstered, and their attachment to the group is reaffirmed. Unfair treatment, in contrast, signals marginality and exclusion and conveys to the recipient that they are not a valued member of the group.

Scholars who have examined the effects of procedural justice in a policing context have consistently found that people are much more likely to view police as legitimate when they feel they have been or will be treated in a fair, respectful, and impartial manner by police. Conducted primarily in the United States, this research shows that building police legitimacy by using procedural justice can lead to greater public respect for legal authorities and stronger felt obligation to obey the law (Tyler and Huo 2002; Sunshine and Tyler 2003). This research also shows that when police are viewed as more legitimate, citizens will be more likely to comply with the law and will be more likely to defer to police directives as a result (Murphy et al. 2008). By having legitimacy, police can encourage law-abiding behavior not just during a police-citizen encounter but also outside of encounters through everyday compliance with the law. Social theorists argue that legitimacy is effective in shaping compliance behavior because it reflects an important social value that is distinct from self-interest concerns. Tyler (1990) makes the point that when behavior flows from one’s own internal values about what one ought to do, rewards and punishments or self-interest concerns are not the central determinants of behavior. It has therefore been argued that compliance which is garnered through a procedural justice-based approach will be economically more viable and more stable over time than instrumental deterrence-based approaches to regulation.

Inherent in most social regulation is the delivery of negative outcomes, and policing is no exception. Policing sometimes involves limiting people’s ability to behave as they wish, or imposing sanctions on those who behave inappropriately. While receiving an unfavorable outcome can sometimes lead to feelings of resentment and possible defiance toward police, research consistently finds that procedural justice is more important to citizens than obtaining outcomes that they regard as fair or favorable to themselves. Research by Tyler and Huo (2002) shows just how important police use of procedural justice can be to citizens. Tyler and Huo (2002) examined survey responses from a sample of Americans who were stopped by the police. While people were somewhat more willing to accept police decisions that were favorable or that had fair outcomes, Tyler and Huo found that they were most strongly influenced by procedural fairness. People were about 15 % more willing to accept decisions that were favorable, compared to those that were unfavorable. However, people were about 70 % more willing to accept decisions when they received fair treatment as opposed to when they received unfair treatment. This difference was found irrespective of whether the outcome was good or bad. So while both factors mattered, fairness of treatment dominated people’s reactions to personal encounters with the police.

Police stops are not the only way that people have contact with the police. In fact, the most typical form of police-citizen interaction other than police stops occurs when people seek help from the police. In this type of situation, the issue is not compliance or deference to police directives but satisfaction with police efforts to help. Researchers have found that procedural justice can also be important for shaping general attitudes toward police and satisfaction with an encounter. Tyler and Huo (2002) examined people’s reactions to police actions after requests for help, and the findings are essentially the same as those already noted concerning stops. People’s satisfaction with police actions in response to requests for help is greater if the police solve their problems, but the primary factor shaping satisfaction is the fairness of police treatment.

Future Directions

Procedural justice researchers consistently find that citizens are more likely to comply with police directives and with the law more generally when they view police as legitimate. They also find that legitimacy is shaped predominantly by procedurally fair treatment. A number of recent developments in this field of research have occurred in the past 5–7 years which appear to be shaping scholarship in the field. These developments include (1) more sophisticated theorizing around the concept of legitimacy, (2) a divergence away from studying compliance with police and the law to understanding citizen willingness to cooperate and engage with the police, (3) understanding the contingencies surrounding procedural justice effects, and (4) implementing procedural justice and legitimate policing in applied settings. While procedural justice research in the nonpolicing field has led to other developments not mentioned here, the developments highlighted here are the ones that have emerged in the policing literature and warrant further discussion in this research paper.

Conceptualizing Legitimacy

As already highlighted, procedural justice shapes satisfaction with police and compliance with police directives and the law because it increases the perceived legitimacy of police. Legitimacy is a judgment people make about the status of an organization as an authority that has the right to command others and be obeyed. Police legitimacy has traditionally been conceptualized in the procedural justice literature as reflecting two judgments. The first is public trust and confidence in the police. Such confidence involves the belief that the police are honest and that they try to do their jobs well and are able to protect the community against crime and violence. Second, police legitimacy reflects the public’s willingness to defer to the law and to police authority. Where police are judged to be legitimate, people feel that they ought to defer to their decisions and rules, cooperate with them, and follow them voluntarily out of obligation rather than out of fear of punishment or anticipation of reward.

Tyler’s empirical work in policing has dominated research in the field. His work has tended to focus specifically on the legitimacy of the police. In other words, Tyler’s research has tended to conceptualize legitimacy as originating in the innate properties of the police that leads people to trust the police and feel obligated to cooperate or comply with them. Only recently, Murphy, Tyler, and Curtis (2009) have argued that past procedural justice research has overlooked how people may also perceive the legitimacy of the laws and rules that the police are enforcing (i.e., what they termed legal legitimacy). Legal legitimacy is the belief that laws should be obeyed, regardless of whether the content of those laws align with one’s own moral beliefs about what is right or wrong. Murphy and colleagues suggest that individual police officers or the institution of policing more generally may be seen to have legitimate authority (with people feeling obligated to follow police directions), but the legitimacy of the policies, rules, and laws that the police enforce can be called into question. They argued that if people question the legitimacy of the laws they are being asked to obey, then compliance with laws or voluntary cooperation with police may be less likely (see also Murphy and Cherney 2012).

Using Australian survey data collected across three different regulatory contexts (including policing), Murphy and her colleagues (2009) found that the perceived legitimacy of the law did indeed influence people’s compliance with the law and/or their willingness to cooperate with an authority. Those who questioned the legitimacy of the law were found to be less likely to comply. More importantly, however, perceptions of legal legitimacy were found to moderate the effect of procedural justice on compliance. Procedural justice was found to be more important in shaping people’s compliance-related behaviors in a positive way when they questioned the legitimacy of the law than when they saw the law as legitimate. These findings demonstrate the importance of considering a broader definition of legitimacy in procedural justice research.

Scholars from the United Kingdom have also recently recognized the importance of legal legitimacy for understanding compliance with police (see Jackson et al. 2011). However, while Jackson and his colleagues distinguish between police legitimacy and legal legitimacy, they also expand on the traditional definition of police legitimacy. They have recently defined and measured police legitimacy as a multidimensional concept with three interlinked elements: (1) obligation to obey, (2) moral alignment, and (3) legality. Obligation to obey is consistent with Tyler’s definition of legitimacy, with a legitimate police force being able to garner obedience from the public. Moral alignment reflects the belief that the police and the public share broadly similar moral positions about appropriate law-abiding behavior. Jackson and his colleagues argue that legitimacy needs a moral foundation; otherwise, compliance with authority directives is blind. Jackson’s third conceptualization of police legitimacy reflects whether police themselves follow their own rules. If police are seen by the public to be acting in an ethical manner or exercising their authority according to established principles, then they will be seen to be legitimate. Research examining these new notions of legitimacy has only just commenced (see Jackson et al. 2012). By exploring empirically the link between the different forms of police legitimacy and legal legitimacy, future research can begin to tease apart the separate roles that each might play in explaining compliance-related behaviors.

From Compliance To Cooperation

To be effective police need to ensure that citizens comply with the law. To maintain social order the police must be widely obeyed, and this obedience must occur in both personal encounters with police and in people’s everyday compliance with the law. At the same time, however, effective policing also requires the ongoing support and voluntary cooperation of the public. Police cannot be everywhere at all times. Their ability to detect and deal with social disorder and crime is also dependant on the publics’ willingness to cooperate and assist the police by reporting crimes and passing on information about suspicious persons, events, and other information. While the police can use strategies to enforce legal compliance or compliance with police directives, as can be seen from the information presented earlier in this research paper, strategies such as these can have negative consequences for people’s subsequent willingness to cooperate with police in the future. Coercive approaches can destroy altruistic cooperation almost completely, with research showing that in disadvantaged communities where police are often perceived to be heavy-handed with locals, residents generally resist talking to police, or fear contacting them to report a crime or even one’s own victimization (Weitzer and Brunson 2009). The benefit to both police and society of a public that is willing to assist and support them in collaborative crime control efforts is obvious.

In a review of policing and policing practices in the United States, it was suggested that understanding how to motivate public cooperation with the police is the most important future research topic in policing (Skogan and Frydl 2004). Identifying approaches that can intrinsically motivate and encourage people to want to voluntarily cooperate with police has therefore been identified as an important avenue for future procedural justice research.

A recent set of studies show that fair treatment of citizens by police is particularly important for shaping such voluntary behavior. Sunshine and Tyler’s (2003) study was the first empirical study to demonstrate a link between procedural justice and people’s willingness to cooperate with police. Sunshine and Tyler utilized longitudinal survey data collected from 1,600 New Yorkers. They found that procedural justice shaped people’s compliance with the law, their willingness to cooperate with police, and their willingness to empower police with a wider range of discretion in their duties through shaping their views of the legitimacy of the police.

Since the publication of Sunshine and Tyler’s study, the emphasis on studying legal compliance in the procedural justice literature has decreased in favor of studying the impact of procedural justice and police legitimacy on willingness to voluntarily cooperate with police (Murphy et al. 2008). Such cooperation and engagement could include contacting the police to report a crime, a general willingness to assist police if asked or required, and participation in crime prevention programs. Tyler and his colleagues have also recently found that procedural justice is the primary factor shaping the Muslim’s willingness to cooperate and work with US police in anti-terror policing (Tyler et al. 2010; see also Cherney and Murphy forthcoming). This emerging body of research suggests that if police adhere to principles of procedural justice in their dealings with the public, then they may be able to successfully engage people and shape their willingness to cooperate with police in a range of different matters. Identifying the situations and circumstances surrounding when people would be willing to cooperate with police, work with police in crime prevention, or report crimes to their local authorities is therefore emerging as a fruitful and important avenue for future procedural justice and police legitimacy research.

Contingencies Surrounding Procedural Justice Effects

In the past 10 years, there has been a growing amount of scholarly interest in procedural justice theory and its relevance to policing. A key concern of this body of work has been to understand the antecedents of police legitimacy and people’s willingness to comply or cooperate with police. Much of the published research on procedural justice to date has aimed to establish whether Tom Tyler’s model of procedural justice can be replicated. For example, researchers have begun to assess the applicability of Tyler’s procedural justice model in different countries. Tankebe (2009a) made the point that the majority of procedural justice and police legitimacy scholarship has occurred in the West. Considering that the history of public-police relations can differ significantly across different countries, it begs the question of whether procedural justice may have different effects across particular sociopolitical and cultural settings. Similarly, very little procedural justice research has been conducted across different groups within the United States or other Western societies (e.g., new migrants, youth, victims vs. offenders) or whether the effectiveness of procedural justice may relate to certain forms of compliant behavior. Whether procedural justice proves to be more or less effective across these different contexts or groups remains largely untested. While the research in this area generally supports the conclusion that Tyler’s model can be generalized across various groups or countries, a handful of recent studies also indicates that Tyler’s model may not hold true across all conditions and contexts, or across different groups. For example, Tankebe (2009a) has shown that in the African context, instrumental factors and personal outcomes are far more important in shaping police legitimacy than procedural justice-based concerns. Murphy and her colleagues have also recently shown in the Australian context that procedural justice can be counterproductive with some ethnic minority groups (Murphy and Cherney 2011, 2012). Murphy’s research has also shown that procedural justice matters more to people in policeinitiated encounters but matters less when they initiate contact with police. Here, instrumental factors, such as whether the police fix a problem or solve a crime, appear to be more important (Murphy 2009). Research with victims of crime has also found that reutilization of police services is shaped by whether victims have received a favorable outcome from police in the past, not by whether they had received procedural justice from police during the investigation (Hickman and Simpson 2003). While not a complete repudiation of Tyler’s model, this work does indicate that attention needs to be given to the possibility that procedural justice effects vary across groups or under certain conditions or contexts. These contingencies have only just begun to be explored and open up a major avenue for future research in the field.

Operationalizing Procedural Justice Into Policing Practice

The fourth major development in the police legitimacy and procedural justice field relates to the testing and evaluation of procedural justice-based policing approaches in applied settings. The overwhelming majority of procedural justice and police legitimacy studies rely on survey methodology (for a review, see Mazerolle et al. 2010). Almost no studies in the policing context use experimental field designs that attempt to ascertain the relevance of procedural justice theory to policing practice. Hence, research that seeks to examine how procedural justice can be operationalized into police practice and that also seeks to evaluate the effectiveness of such practice on citizen behavior offers another potential and important avenue for future procedural justice work. Only a handful of studies purporting to do this have emerged in the literature.

A recent Australian example is perhaps the most impressive of the studies that has been conducted to date (Mazerolle et al. 2012a). In partnership with the Queensland Police Service in Brisbane, Australia, the study’s researchers implemented a change in police procedure which adopted procedural justice elements. The study varied police actions during encounters with drivers in Random Breath Testing contacts. In Australia, a police stop for the purposes of random breath testing for alcohol is the most common reason people have contact with police. The study used a randomized field trial design to examine whether introducing elements of procedural justice into the breath testing encounter could increase perceptions of procedural justice and police legitimacy. Police in the experimental condition were provided with a scripted procedural justice protocol. This protocol was longer than the standard control protocol. In the procedural justice protocol, officers were trained to focus on four procedural justice elements: voice, neutrality, trustworthiness, and respect.

To provide voice the officer gave the stopped driver a newsletter with recent crime news from their area. They asked if the driver had any questions or suggestions about crime issues or how to conduct policing in their area. To communicate neutrality the officers explained the procedures being followed. They told the driver that they had not been singled out for the random drink driving test. Instead, they had been stopped randomly. They also explained that the purpose of the police procedure was to reduce alcohol-related accidents. To develop trustworthiness officers communicated concern for people in the community. They noted that their actions were motivated by concerns about the driver and the community. Officers indicated the number of deaths from drunk driving incidents and noted that police hated to have to tell a family that someone they care about had died. They asked the driver to help the police reduce accidents by driving carefully. After the driver took the breath test, the officers were instructed to try to end the interaction on a respectful note with a gesture of courtesy toward the driver (e.g., “thank you for maintaining your car”). The officer then invited all drivers to complete a short survey of their experiences of the encounter and to return it in a provided reply-paid envelope in their own time. In the control condition, in contrast, drivers were pulled over by a police officer and simply instructed to provide a specimen of their breath for alcohol content testing. If the recording came back negative, drivers were handed a survey and were allowed to continue with their journey. A total of 21,000 drivers were involved in the study.

Survey responses from 1,645 drivers exposed to the experimental condition and 1,102 drivers from the control condition were received. Evidence from the study suggests that the procedural justice approach yielded a number of desirable benefits. Relative to the control group who did not receive the procedural justice protocol, it increased the view that the police are fair and trustworthy and left citizens more satisfied with the encounter. It also raised levels of confidence in the police and increased subsequent willingness to cooperate with police. Hence, the police were able to implement an enforcement action while building legitimacy through procedural fairness (see also Mazerolle et al. 2012b).

While the Queensland Random Breath Testing Study involved a specific police-citizen interaction, building police legitimacy need not be linked to such a specific encounter. Police programs that aim to build police legitimacy can also apply to general police efforts to engage with the community. For example, the police can conduct meetings with people in the community to hear about community concerns. They can also communicate with the public through newsletters, bulletins, or through the media. A recent study from the United Kingdom has found that the police can communicate concerns effectively and improve confidence in police by creating and disseminating newsletters (see Hohl et al. 2010). The study found that trust and confidence in police in London was much higher among people living in suburbs that received newsletters about police engagement in their neighborhoods. For people living in neighborhoods that did not receive the newsletters, perceptions of police legitimacy were lower. While both these examples support the idea that police legitimacy can be enhanced by direct police communication showing concern for the public, more research is needed in this space to ascertain whether procedural justice-based policing can be put into practice effectively for different groups of people, or in different contexts.


The discussion presented above suggests that procedural justice-based policing shows much promise for shaping public perceptions of police legitimacy and for shaping people’s willingness to cooperate with police and comply with the law. However, despite the apparent success of procedural justice as an effective policing strategy, research in this field is not without its limitations. Several continuing problems or controversies with this body of research remain. Three of the main issues will be highlighted here.

First, Reisig et al. (2007, p. 1006) have noted that much of the survey research in this area has inconsistently operationalized key constructs and has done little to evaluate the construct validity of existing scales. They noted that measures of procedural justice and police legitimacy have differed from one study to the next. They state that this is an important concern given the interest in procedural justice policing, the number of police-citizen interactions every day, and the need for police to secure citizen cooperation and compliance. They argued that given the lack of attention by researchers to develop reliable and consistent scales across different studies, it raises a concern as to whether the measured variables across different studies reflect the theoretical constructs of interest. If measures are inconsistent or not measuring what is intended, it may lead to misleading and inaccurate conclusions across different studies. To rectify this issue, Reisig and his colleagues suggest that more needs to be done in future research to refine the scales commonly used to study police-citizen relations and to test the key propositions of the procedural justice-based model of policing using these refined measures. If the results continue to be consistent and continue to reveal the importance of procedural justice to shaping police legitimacy and compliance-related behaviors, then practitioners and researchers can be more confident in the findings.

A second major limitation of the procedural justice literature is the tendency for researchers to (1) overemphasize the relationship between procedural justice and compliance, not only in the short term but also in the long term, and (2) to underemphasize the role of instrumental factors such as outcome favorability or deterrence in shaping behavior (for a detailed critique of the procedural justice policing literature, see Tankebe 2009b). Teasing apart whether compliance stems from procedural justice or instrumental factors in any given police-citizen encounter is difficult.

Tankebe (2009b) uses research from the field of restorative justice to highlight the first issue. He notes that one of the more robust findings from the restorative justice literature is that offenders who have experienced a restorative justice conference, relative to those who have experienced traditional court procedures, tend to evaluate the experience more positively on aspects of procedural justice. However, studies that have evaluated the long-term effectiveness of restorative justice conferences on offending behavior have tended to find that they reduce recidivism in the short term but that the effect on long-term law-abiding behavior is less conclusive. If procedural justice leads to long-term behavioral improvements, then one should expect to see conclusive evidence for both short-and long-term reduction in repeat offending among participants of restorative justice conferences.

Relevant to the second issue, it has been suggested that procedural justice scholars have tended to underemphasize the importance of instrumental factors in shaping people’s views and behaviors toward authorities. By being neutral across all situations, police may be able to enhance the impression that they are being fair, but such a strategy can sometimes seem off-putting to citizens who expect a more assertive response to a problem. For example, Herbert (2006) cited the example of citizens who were calling on police in Seattle to deal with absentee landlords who failed to adequately screen or regulate their tenants and thus enabled ongoing street level crime in the area. Police officers reminded the concerned citizens that they were unable to police private property arrangements. Such a response did not allay citizens’ concerns and in fact led to police being viewed as unresponsive and illegitimate. Hence, Herbert argued that in such situations, outcomes may be what matters to people and that on some occasions a procedural justice-based policing approach can “perhaps imperil police legitimacy as much as enhance it” (p. 498). As noted earlier, a growing number of studies have also shown that under some circumstances, outcomes may matter more to people than fair treatment. Understanding the context surrounding when this may be the case is important and should not be underemphasized by future research studies.

Finally, the third major criticism that has been raised in relation to the procedural justice literature is the preoccupation with the utilitarian effect of procedural justice on compliance related behaviors. It has been noted that police practitioners and researchers often overemphasize the value of procedural justice for securing cooperation and compliance, rather than promoting it as a good in itself (Tankebe 2009a, b). The police have an intrinsic obligation to exercise their authority in a procedurally fair way, irrespective of any instrumental benefit such an approach may have in facilitating their role in maintaining social order. Both researchers and police practitioners need to keep this in mind when advocating a procedural justice-based policing approach.

Despite these criticisms, however, it is clear that procedural justice-based policing has an important role in policing practice. As the review above suggests, such an approach can serve to improve police-citizen relationships; it can improve the public’s willingness to cooperate and comply with the law while at the same time being of intrinsic value in and of itself.


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