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How internal procedural justice impacts external behaviors

The implications officer perception of leadership and leadership behaviors have for organizational culture

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Research has shown that perceptions of internal procedural justice correlate with how officers embrace the tenets of procedural justice in the community.

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The Leadership Challenge” by James Kouzes and Barry Posner outlines what successful leaders do to make them successful. It is distilled into five practices of exemplary leadership and 10 behavioral commitments that support those practices.

Long before the first edition of “The Leadership Challenge,” the United States Marine Corps and other military organizations were teaching similar leadership behaviors. In the work of Kouzes and Posner, those leadership principles are rebranded and molded into a corporate vernacular. To summarize: people remain most powerfully attracted to leaders who are viewed as honest, forward-looking, competent and inspiring – in that order. The point: credibility is the key.

If having credibility is the foundation for effective leadership, Kouzes and Posner build the remainder of their leadership structure with five practices:

  • Modeling the way (leading by example);
  • Inspiring a shared vision (commander’s intent or mission statement);
  • Challenging the process (inventive or adaptable);
  • Enabling others to act (decentralize authority), and
  • Encouraging the heart (ritual, history and recognition). [1]

Each of these practices has long been a part of successful leadership. These principles inspire confidence, emulation and loyalty if practiced by those with positional authority or informal leadership roles. Conversely, failure to employ these practices can have catastrophic consequences for an agency or leave an organization to languish in a state of mediocrity. All officers must ask themselves how they can develop as a leader by embracing these traits.

Fairness and straightforwardness of conduct

The number one characteristic of an admired leader is honesty, as determined by respondents to the various incarnations of “The Leadership Challenge.” In the five editions since the book was first published in 1987, honesty was the most highly regarded trait. This is not surprising. Honesty has been singled out as a virtue for millennia. As defined by Merriam-Webster, honesty is defined as both “adherence to the facts” and “fairness and straightforwardness of conduct.” [2] The failure to be truthful or the perception of being untruthful casts a shadow over every word or assertion a person makes.

It is important to recognize that, as the coercive arm for the enforcement of legislated governmental interests, all our behaviors will be scrutinized, and understandably so. Our fairness and straightforwardness of conduct” will be examined – and has been captured in the concept of procedural justice.

The Department of Justice informs us that procedural justice “speaks to four principles, often referred to as the four pillars: fairness in the processes, transparency in actions, opportunities for voice, and impartiality in decision making.” [3] Violations of these pillars have predictably led to a mistrust of the police by community members – especially by those community members who have experienced such violations, either personally or vicariously. These violations inform the level of trust afforded a given police department or even the “police” more broadly.

For example, an oft-cited criticism from the public concerns officers who speed in marked police vehicles and yet enforce speeding violations committed by community members. Watching a marked unit running 90 mph on the interstate elicits an immediate and predictable belief by those who witness it as an abuse of position, however benign officers may think such behavior is. As such, officers should continually monitor their behaviors to ensure that their actions are consistent with what they enforce and ask themselves:

  • Am I applying the law equitably?
  • Am I treating citizens with dignity and respect?
  • Am I allowing them to be heard?
  • Am I telling them why I am doing what I am doing, given the time and the safety necessary to do so?

Modeling behaviors in law enforcement

There is a body of research on how the dynamics of internal procedural justice intersect with the observance of external procedural justice and how the various uses and abuses of internal positional power – read that as modeling behaviors – influence employee conduct.

Research has shown that perceptions of internal procedural justice correlate with how officers embrace the tenets of procedural justice in the community. [4] This suggests that officers who are treated abusively internally are more likely to engage in the same practices with the public. If an officer is not allowed to question a supervisor within a department without being subjected to aggressive, demeaning, or dismissive behaviors from that supervisor, officers are more prone to treat community members who question them in the same manner.

Research illustrates that we cannot expect external behaviors to be different from internal experiences. Conversely, when officers are part of an organizational culture where they perceive fair, respectful and transparent interactions; they will treat the community in a similar fashion. When agencies demonstrate that assignments, training, promotions and discipline are fairly awarded based on merit, qualifications and need, then morale improves, initiative-taking improves and community engagement improves. [5]

The impact of negative supervision

Popular culture often portrays abusive police supervisors as the norm. In the real world, the consequences of this type of behavior lead to the suppression of creativity, initiative and information sharing. [6] Read that as an environment where officers are less productive, less forthcoming with ideas and less engaged in their job. [7] Moreover, morale suffers, retention suffers and an organization can be hurt for years as the foreseeable result of suppressing alternative approaches to problems, a direct causation of the inability or unwillingness to hear opinions/feedback and make course corrections.

Course corrections are the result of human adaptive behaviors – yes, learning. As such, assignments based on allegiance (a common theme in organizations more broadly) rather than merit can have profound impacts on an agency and community for years.

If one embarks on a trip as the navigator of a ship departing from London and bound for New York, it is their job (as well as everyone else’s on the ship) to sound the alarm if the ship is off course. If the ship is heading too far north, the navigator might suggest to those on the bridge that we need to initiate “15 degrees left rudder.” If no one is amenable to suggestions and the navigator is aggressively and publicly rebuked – it is likely that other members of the crew will inhibit suggestions moving forward. Worse, if the navigator is punished by being sent into the bowels of the ship to work in the bilge room, an even more powerful message is sent.

With people afraid to say “I see palm trees,” would it be any surprise when the ship ends up in Miami? This is a dynamic that has implications for all levels within a department, including informal leaders impacting new officers and officers impacting the community. Importantly, agencies that discipline external officer behaviors which the officer experiences internally create a credibility gap and toxic environment that can “create lasting and enduring harm to the culture, climate, and people involved in the organization.” [8]

Current national events make it abundantly clear that people need to feel comfortable and supported in speaking up when things are going wrong. Even worse for an agency is when an abusive person with positional authority surrounds themself with those too weak or too ambitious to point out when the organization is off course or when things are not being done ethically or morally – a common practice of narcissistic leaders. [9]

Finally, how can agency personnel have a sense of security, or orientation, if a human needs model is used [10] when rules (and therefore consequences) are applied inconsistently or for political expedience? Law enforcement officers are seeing this across the country. If there is a disciplinary matrix, it should be observed and observed equally. Otherwise, why have a matrix at all? There is no value in it nor any mechanism for predicting behavioral outcomes, which results in increased stress. Importantly, if people feel that pointing out these discrepancies may bring further adverse consequences, nothing will be said to address the issues, compounding and continuing a sense of mistrust of the positional authority in the agency.

Crippling for an agency’s morale, and something the author has observed is when commonly accepted department practices that are technically violations of policy, are brought to bear against an officer as reprisal for perceived slights/offenses rather than for a legitimate disciplinary purpose. In community application, this would be categorized as “contempt of cop” behavior, where officers use formal sanctions to punish a person absent a legitimate law enforcement purpose. These behaviors increase organizational stress, apathy and the likelihood for turnover. [11,12] In the community, these types of behaviors result in resentment of the police and have contributed to anti-law enforcement sentiments.

It is important then, as a profession, that there are safeguards against the type of internal procedural justice that will negatively impact agency members and their service to the community. If law enforcement organizations do not want aggressive or dismissive behaviors from officers, those same officers cannot be treated aggressively or dismissively internally. If exemplary conduct from officers is expected, those officers must be shown those behaviors from agency leadership. If officers are expected to listen to the community, police supervision needs to listen to officers. If command staff wants officers to make decisions that lead to better outcomes, then intentionality and deliberation in decision-making need to be modeled. The cat-chasing-a-laser approach to agency priorities and projects does not inspire confidence in leadership.

Every member of an agency should know what is expected from them, especially in their current role. Every officer should know what the consequences are for violating policy. Every officer should know where the agency is going or what it is working toward. Every officer should be exposed to fairness, transparency, be given a voice (when time allows) and impartiality in decision-making. Internal procedural justice has an impact on how officers deliver services to the community. As such, formal law enforcement leaders should strive to model behaviors that reflect what is expected from line officers.

Re-read what constitutes credibility and the five practices of successful leaders. All law enforcement officers should understand that they are community leaders and embrace these practices. Even more importantly, law enforcement leaders with positional authority should understand that their behaviors are causally linked – either positively or negatively – to the way junior members of the department interact with the community. That should be a powerful motivator for formal supervision to model exemplary behaviors – otherwise, the agency will negatively impact the community by rotting from the inside out.

Be smart, stay safe.


1. Kouzes JM, Posner BZ. The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

2. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Definition of honesty. Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s most-trusted online dictionary.

3. Department of Justice. (n.d.). Procedural justice.

4. Van Craen M, Skogan WG. Achieving fairness in policing. Police Quarterly, 2017, 20(1), 3-23.

5. Kool M, Van Dierendonck D. Servant leadership and commitment to change, the mediating role of justice and optimism. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 2012, 25(3), 422-433.

6. Xiao X, Liu F, Zhou F, Chen S. Narcissistic leadership and employees’ knowledge sharing: Influence of organizational identification and collectivism. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 2018, 46(8), 1317-1329.

7. Carnevale JB, Huang L, Harms PD. Speaking up to the “emotional vampire”: A conservation of resources perspective. Academy of Management Proceedings, 2016, (1), 13788.

8. Smith N, Fredricks-Lowman I. Conflict in the workplace: A 10-year review of toxic leadership in higher education. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 2019, 23(5), 538-551.

9. Ouimet G. Dynamics of narcissistic leadership in organizations. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 2010, 25(7), 713-726.

10. Habermacher A, Ghaderi A, Peters T. The case for basic human needs in coaching: A neuroscientific perspective –The SCOAP Coach Theory. The Coaching Psychologist, 2014, 10(1), 7-16.

11. Hämmig O. Health and well-being at work: The key role of supervisor support. SSM - Population Health, 2017, 3, 393-402.

12. Tyler TR, Goff PA, MacCoun RJ. The impact of psychological science on policing in the United States. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2015, 16(3), 75-109.

Brian N. O’Donnell is a lieutenant with the City of Charlottesville, Virginia, Police Department. He served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps and has served as a police officer with the Charlottesville police department for over 24 years. He has a B.A. in economics from Northwestern University and an M.S. in Criminal Justice from Liberty University. Lt. O’Donnell is a 2016 graduate of the University of Virginia’s National Criminal Justice Command College, earned the Advanced Specialist designation by the Force Science Institute in 2018, and became an IADLEST National Certified Instructor in 2020. Lt. O’Donnell is currently assigned to the Patrol Division as the 2nd Shift Commander.