Lawful or Fair? How Cops and Laypeople View Good Policing
50 Pages Posted: 24 Jul 2012 Last revised: 12 Aug 2014
Date Written: August 11, 2014
Legal authorities and the public live in two separate worlds. One world is suffused with law, and the other world is suffused with people’s lived experiences that support their evaluations of fairness. When legal authorities discuss whether police policies and practices are desirable or not, a framework of the lawfulness of the relevant policies and practices dominates the conversation. Police departments, their policies, as well police officers’ actions are viewed as right or wrong with reference to constitutional standards, as interpreted by prosecutors, judges and other legal actors. In contrast, we argue that the public is generally insensitive to the question of whether police officers are acting consistently with constitutional standards. Instead, the public evaluates the propriety of police actions primarily by assessing whether or not police officers exercise their authority consistent with “procedural fairness.”
We rely on the results of an innovative nationwide experimental survey involving respondents from representative American cities in which each respondent completes a questionnaire and then watches and reacts to three videos of police-citizen interaction. We argue that the actual lawfulness of police action has at best a minor influence on public evaluations of appropriate police behavior. Public judgments about whether police officers should be disciplined for misconduct are largely shaped by people’s procedural justice evaluations. The actual lawfulness of police officer conduct has at best a minor influence upon people’s evaluations.
We believe that these findings strongly suggest the need for the police to broaden the framework within which they evaluate a variety of types of policing policy – racial profiling; zero tolerance policing; street stops; Mosque surveillance, etc. – to include an understanding of how these policies and practices impact public views about the appropriateness of police conduct. Whether policies comport with constitutional standards alone is an impoverished way to judge the rightfulness of police action. Further, our findings point the way toward creating relationships between the police and the public that first enhance cooperative efforts to maintain social order and second build people’s identification with and commitment to both the communities in which they live and to law and government. That broader framework requires evaluating police policies and practices with reference to public conceptions of procedural justice.
Keywords: police misconduct, public perceptions of criminal justice, legitimacy, procedural justice, racial profiling, criminal procedure
JEL Classification: K10, K14, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation