Effective Policing Linked to Public Trust

A new report shows that respectful treatment and transparent decision-making by police far outweigh traditional punishment-based strategies when it comes to building public trust and cooperation.

The in-depth psychological analysis, authored by psychological scientists Drs. Tom Tyler (Yale Law School), Phillip Goff (University of California, Los Angeles) and Robert MacCoun (Stanford Law School), is published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

The researchers focused on the concept of police legitimacy, which is driven by the public perception that police treat people with respect and fairness. They argue that many widely used policing practices, which are often seen as unfair, have compromised people’s view of the police as a legitimate legal authority, particularly following the recent heavily publicized deaths of minority men at the hands of police officers.

“In the wake of such deaths, the public has been increasingly unwilling to accept police accounts of such events, to believe that the police will investigate them in good faith, and to wait until such investigations are completed to react individually or collectively,” said┬áTyler.

For the report, the authors reviewed available scientific research on the relationship between legitimacy, trust, and law-related behavior. They found that when people view the police as a legitimate and appropriate legal authority, they are more likely to cooperate with the police during personal encounters.

Furthermore, people who view the police as legitimate are more likely to comply with the law in their everyday lives, and they’re more likely to help co-police their communities, report crime, identify criminals, and act as witnesses and jurors.

“Trust is not simply a byproduct of providing high quality service delivery or lowering the crime rate,” Tyler said. “Research shows that the subjective experience of being policed matters.”

In particular, research has shown that people react to whether or not they believe the procedures used by the police are just, an idea referred to as “procedural justice.”

The researchers said any efforts to encourage perceptions of procedural justice must focus on the following:

  • public participation: Involving the broader community in the development of strategies for managing social order encourages public acceptance and buy-in.
  • neutrality: Engaging in transparent, rule-based decision making demonstrates that policing policy and practices are fair and unbiased.
  • respect: Treating citizens with dignity communicates to them that their rights are being respected.
  • trustworthiness: Showing sensitivity to people’s needs and concerns indicates that the police are sincerely trying to do what is best for those involved.

“Psychological science can play an important role in the process of creating evidence-based policies and society can benefit from the incorporation of such evidence into policies and practices of legal authorities,” Tyler said.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Police officer talking with young boy photo by shutterstock.