by Tom Tyler
Recent events in New York City make it clear that there is widespread and continuing anger over the street stop policies of the NYPD. This ongoing discontent reflects a broader paradox in American policing: the police have become more effective in reducing the rate of violent crime to historically low levels but their success has not led to higher levels of public trust in the police. There are lessons from this police experience not only for police commanders but also for judges, court administrators, and others working in the criminal justice system.
Based upon my own research and that of other social scientists we know why this performance without legitimacy paradox is occurring. Public anger continues because the police have not addressed what actually matters to the public. My research shows that police legitimacy is based upon how fairly the public thinks the police exercise their authority. Until the police change their policies and practices to address public concerns over procedural justice, controversies over police practices such as racial profiling, police street stops and the surveillance of Muslim Americans will not end.
Many cities, including New York City are experiencing dramatically lower levels of violent crime. Despite these gains public trust and confidence in the police is not increasing, nor is the large racial gap in trust and confidence between White and minority Americans closing. Better performance has not lead to greater public legitimacy. Why? Police leaders are failing to take account of public concerns. Evaluations of policies and practices by police leaders ask if they are effective in preventing crimes. The question of whether these policies and practices are viewed as legitimate by people in the community is not addressed. My research findings however tell us that effectiveness is not the key factor that the public considers when reacting to police policies and practices.
What does the public care about? Research shows that the key issue to members of the public is their evaluation of the fairness of the way the police exercise their authority: i.e. to issues of procedural justice. More than anything else people are concerned about whether they feel that the police officers to whom they give the authority to maintain order in their communities act using fair procedures.
What does the public mean by fair procedures? They mean first that when creating policies the police work with the community to identify problems and the strategies that should be used to address them. When dealing with particular citizens they allow those people to tell their side of the story, to explain their situation, before making decisions. When implementing the law the police explain their policies and how they are being applied in particular cases in ways that the public can see are neutral and unbiased.
The public also means that the police should treat people fairly. Fair treatment is respectful and courteous. It acknowledges people’s rights not to be demeaned, ridiculed or insulted by the police. And, the police are trustworthy. They act with integrity, accounting for their actions in ways that show good faith responsiveness to people and their problems.
Why should the police care about this public perspective on policing? Insensitivity to public concerns has led police departments like the NYPD to turn victory into defeat. Instead of being congratulated for lowering the rate of violence in New York City, or reducing the rate of unlawful shootings, the police are reviled by an angry population for mistreating people in the community.
And the police lose the benefits of public cooperation. Studies show that when people view the police as more legitimate they are more willing to defer to police authority; less likely to resist and defy the police; and that complaints against the police go down. Legitimacy further encourages willing compliance with the law and cooperation with police efforts in their efforts to stop crimes and identify criminals. When fairly treated people are more willing to work with the police in efforts that join the police and the people in the community in efforts to maintain order by attending community meetings or joining a neighborhood watch.
If officers dealt with people seeking to communicate respect and deliver fairness they would be working not only to prevent crime but to build public support for the police. And, more broadly legal authorities need to recognize the value of considering their policies and practices from the perspective of public concerns. That perspective emphasizes that people are “seekers of justice” and evaluate their experiences with the police and courts by evaluating how fairly they experience the actions of the authorities they deal with.
Tom Tyler, Professor of Law and Psychology, Yale University