Study: Deploying procedural justice-trained officers to hot spots reduces crime, arrests
"We didn't tell officers to stop arresting people, but officers felt like sometimes arrest was not a useful tool when trying to build trust in the community"
By Caitlin Schmidt and Jamie Donnelly
The Arizona Daily Star
TUCSON, Ariz. — Researchers say a recent study that included Tucson police officers could be a step toward improving relationships between law enforcement and the people in the communities they serve.
Tucson was one of three sites that participated in the study on the effects of procedural justice in policing. Procedural justice involves fair and respectful treatment of people by giving them a voice, showing neutrality, treating them with dignity and respect and being trustworthy in one's motives.
The study analyzed the effects of providing procedural justice training to police officers who patrol high-crime areas, which researchers believed would result in police treating people more respectfully and improving their own behavior.
The theory proved correct in Tucson and the two other study sites — Houston and Cambridge, Massachusetts — but researchers say that if it weren't for the initial success in Tucson, the study could have been shut down.
Cody Telep, an associate professor in ASU's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice conducted the study along with researchers from George Mason University and University of Pennsylvania. He said the study was guided by general concerns expressed by scholars about how police departments' efforts to reduce crime may do that, but they could also damage trust.
"You don't want to be sacrificing police trust for crime control effectiveness," Telep told the Star. "Our study focused on strategies to build trust simultaneously."
During the study's run in Tucson, which took place from July 1, 2017, through March 31, 2018, Telep and others were testing to see if the training and treatment could be delivered as intended.
Eight TPD officers were selected after TPD put out a request for volunteers, then split into pairs based on background, including race and ethnicity, gender and experience. They were then split into two groups, one that would be trained in procedural justice while the other went without the training.
The procedural justice group went through 40 hours of training over the course of five days, after which each group of four was assigned a citywide patrol area identified as a hot spot, or an area in which crime has been identified as higher than others.
The trainings covered topics like police legitimacy, the importance of historical context in understanding trust in police, working with diverse populations and those with behavioral health problems and applying procedural justice to hot-spot policing tactics.
"We told them to go into these 20 streets and focus on reducing crime and building trust through procedural justice in any interaction," Telep said of the study group.
Fewer arrests, decline in crime
Researchers wanted officers to be thinking about giving people a voice, telling their side of the story, being active listeners, being transparent in explaining how they were making decisions, treating people with dignity and respect and demonstrating that they care. Over the course of the study, officers also received refresher trainings and had frequent check-ins with supervisors to make sure they were using what they learned in the field.
"We talked a lot in training about how it might be easier to use with someone who's being nice back or in a casual conversation, but that it should be used all the time," Telep said, adding that the use of procedural justice principles could also de-escalate a potentially volatile situation.
The other four officers were told to just go out and reduce crime in their 20-block area and were not given any information about procedural justice, instead receiving a half-day training on hot-spot policing tactics and project data collection.
"We didn't expect officers would be treating people disrespectfully, but we didn't tell them to emphasize any previous training they may have had or use it in the field," Telep said.
Officers on both sides of the experiment participated in ride-alongs with trained observers whose job it was to "rigorously assess" the officers' behavior and work in the field.
"We saw a lot fewer arrests in the procedural justice group, which we were surprised about," Telep said. "We didn't tell officers to stop arresting people, but ... officers felt like sometimes arrest was not a useful tool when trying to build trust in the community."
TPD Assistant Chief Kevin Hall was also surprised about the decline in arrests but said that as TPD does more work that shows the vast majority of violence occurs in a very small number of places, it makes a lot of sense that some of the most effective strategies don't have to be arrests.
"Sometimes it's just changing the environment," Hall said.
The procedural justice hot spots also saw less crime over the course of the experiment than hot spots focused on by the control group, with the study showing a 14% relative decline in total crime incidents in the procedural justice group hot spots compared to the standard-condition hot spots.
"That helps reinforce the idea that you can implement effective strategies that have effects on crime and focus on procedural justice at the same time," he said.
Community response to police interaction
Along with fewer arrests and less crime, results showed that the procedural justice group officers were significantly more likely to give people a voice, show neutrality and demonstrate respectful behavior while interactions involving the standard conditions group were significantly more likely to include disrespectful behavior.
One important piece of the study was talking to residents and gauging their response to officers' behavior, Telep said.
On each of the 40 streets patrolled, researchers spoke with seven to 10 people before and after the study, surveying them about their views on police, the community and crime, specifically asking whether they believed that the police harass or mistreat people on their street or if they believed the police on their block use more force than necessary.
"There were no big changes in police legitimacy or police trust, so (procedural justice) doesn't seem to be impacting the perception of legitimacy at all," Telep said. "But the hot spots with procedural justice-trained officers perceived less use of excessive force and were less likely to perceive that police were harassing or mistreating people on the block."
Telelp said it was tough to test the widespread effectiveness of procedural justice in policing in Tucson, since they studied only four officers working 20 streets, and those officers could work only a certain number of hours during the week.
Before the study, TPD officers had already received an eight-hour training that touched on procedural justice, but the study's results have made department officials reconsider how they implement procedural justice and how they back that up with what the officers are doing, Hall said.
"We're trying to be more specific about what officers do. We're trying to figure out what works best (engagement, education or enforcement,) or if it's a combination of all three," Hall said. "But in all three of those, procedural justice can be woven in and have a greater impact in everything the officers do, not just their engagement with the community, victims, offenders and business owners."
When it comes to building trust and a relationship with Tucson's community, Hall said "it's nonstop but worth the effort." He said police need to be accessible and make it as easy as possible for the community to come to them.
"We believe deeply in building those relationships," Hall said. "I think everything that we do, from crime reduction to crime prevention, to public safety and infusing wellness and health into communities has to be built on that foundation of trust and legitimacy that comes out of procedural justice."
Beyond the study
After the study's viability proved successful in Tucson, researchers received full funding to move forward in Houston and Cambridge, where Telep said they saw similar impacts.
"Tucson Police Department was essential to the overall project," he said.
While Telep thinks this approach would be difficult to implement department-wide, due to logistics and funding for training and reinforcement, he believes it's a good fit for certain specialty units that focus on crime control.
"We view this as one step in the efforts to change and improve relationships between police and citizens in the community," he said. "We didn't go into this expecting this was the answer, but rather one important first step and one where we see important evidence that training and reinforcement of training can have effects."
Telep and others are still in discussion about what to do with the training curriculum they developed for the study, along with what's next for the research.
"It's easy to say when you're not the one concerned with manpower hours and having to take all the calls, but spending an extra five to 10 minutes with a person, hearing their concerns and trying to help them find solutions to their problems is really useful," Telep said. "But that's difficult with the way patrol is set up in most cities. It's rare that you'll get the same officer twice, and there's not much time for a follow-up."
Innovations in training with a focus on tactics other than use of force is especially important with the changing role of police, Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum said during last month's Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College.
"The training police are getting now is not preparing them for the challenges they face. It has to be blown up and really rethink it," Wexler said. "I don't think it's fair to cops going out on the street today to hold them to one standard and to train them at a different standard."
In addition to more training on de-escalation, problem-solving and other tactics that don't involve force, departments also need to look at the way they're recruiting and make sure they're engaging the types of people that want to do the job the way that's required today.
"I go back to this notion that the police are doing too much, I get it, on one level," Wexler said. "But on the other level, helping a homeless person, helping someone get into an addiction program who has been addicted, to me, that's what the noble parts of policing."
Along the same vein, TPD's Hall said his biggest takeaway from the study was that police don't need heavy-handed enforcement to get results.
"We're really diving down and figuring out what are cops doing when they're in those hot spots. Because quite frankly, there's a national narrative about is it over policing? Or is it under policing? And how do you get that balance?" Hall said. "I think this adds to the conversation that maybe there's a balance in what we train the officers to do and how to act."
(c)2022 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)