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Here’s how to increase public trust


October 23, 2014
By Dorothy Cotton

I often read police-related research and find it falls into a bunch of categories:

  1. Interesting but who cares.
  2. Interesting but does not apply to us here in Canada.
  3. Interesting and we should do this here.
  4. Interesting in a sort of academic (meaning not very useful) way.
  5. You’ve got to be kidding.
  6. WOW! Neato!

Falling somewhere in either 3 or 6 is a very cool study I read recently: Promoting trust in police: Findings from a randomised experimental field trial of procedural justice policing.
doi: 10.1080/10439463.2013.862246
By Murphy, Kristina; Mazerolle, Lorraine; Bennett, Sarah.
Vol 24(4), Aug 2014, 405-424.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10439463.2013.862246

You should read this study. It is one of several papers stemming from the same set of data and address topics very relevant to the everyday life of police officers and organizations. It provides concrete and useful outcomes that can be easily adopted and demonstrates very good working relationships between researchers and police. (Frankly, regardless of the content, these studies show us that good useful research CAN be done!)

The authors begin by pointing out that while police are generally better trained and educated, more diverse in terms of community representation and have more resources available to them, this hasn’t translated into greater public trust. In some places, things have actually gotten worse, which kinda stinks.

Their hypothesis is that focusing more on procedural justice will lead to greater trust in police. This was tested in what the authors maintain is the world’s first experimental field trial to operationalise the key principles of procedural justice in a short, replicable script. As you probably know, procedural justice concerns the perceived fairness of the procedures involved in making decisions and the perceived treatment one receives from a decision-maker (i.e. an authority). It’s not so much about the outcomes of particular incidents – it’s about the process.

Do we care if the public trusts police? Again, I suspect you all know the answer to that one. Higher levels of trust are related to greater public deference to police during face-to-face encounters; higher levels of voluntary cooperation; and greater compliance with the law… all good things.

People who have more positive encounters with police are likelier to display a higher level of trust and all the good things that go along with that. Not surprisingly, if people have been treated poorly in the past, expectations for future interactions are likely to be negative and can lead to distrust in the individual or institution they have contact with. On the one hand, it’s not rocket science that playing nice is a good thing – but the principles of procedural justice suggest that simply being “nice” is not enough.

The gist of the study is that some police officers were given a script to use when they stopped people for routine “have you been drinking?” stops (AKA random breath tests or RBTs). Rather than just doing what police usually do in this circumstance, they used a much longer blurb focusing on four procedural justice elements: voice, neutrality, trustworthiness and respect. I quote from page 42 of the study:

<To provide ‘voice’ in the experimental condition, police gave the stopped driver a newsletter that highlighted recent crime issues in the local area. Drivers were asked if they had any questions or if they had any suggestions for police priorities in their area.

To display ‘neutrality’, the police officer explained the process that was being undertaken in the RBT and that the driver had not been singled out, but rather they had been randomly pulled over for a breath test. It was also explained that RBTs were conducted to reduce alcohol-related road accidents.

To build ‘trustworthiness,’ the police officer expressed their concerns about drink driving for the community and indicated that they disliked having to tell family members that their loved ones had been injured or killed in a road accident. The number of alcohol related deaths in Queensland in the past year was mentioned to the driver and the police officer asked them to help police to reduce accidents by driving carefully.

The officer ended the breath-testing encounter on a ‘respectful’ note with a gesture of courtesy to the driver (e.g. complementing them on the maintenance of their car; for wearing a seatbelt, etc.).>

The result? It was found that the procedural justice manipulation yielded a significant effect on public trust and confidence in police. Specifically, citizens exposed to the procedural justice condition during the RBT encounter were significantly more likely to trust police than those who received the control protocol. This effect remained even when accounting for general perceptions about police treatment of citizens and police effectiveness.

As an aside, this procedure also led people to think that police were fairer and generally improved perceptions of their competence.

Have a look – it’s nice to see a clear demonstration that some of the softer skills associated with policing are important, that what seem sometimes like airy-fairy concepts have a practical outcome – and that individual officers can really make a difference even in a routine stop.

Maybe we knew this already, but this article sure makes me think we can make more of what we know.