Procedural justice: How a simple concept can help cops make a big impact

Procedural justice often boils down to people treating other people with dignity and politeness, regardless of whether they’re a suspect or a cop or somewhere in between

By Mariano Delle Donne, Police1 Special Contributor

In law enforcement, there is perhaps no more important concept than that of procedural justice. At its core, this is the idea that a certain basic fairness must exist in the policing process, not only to help resolve certain disputes but also to allocate resources to where they can help do the most good. 

Indeed, procedural justice is intertwined permanently to the idea of due process, which is the legal requirement that dictates a person must have all of their legal rights respected as they move through the justice system, regardless of the reason.

Breaking Down Procedural Justice
Procedural justice is at play in nearly all aspects of a law enforcement agency, whether people explicitly realize it or not. In terms of communications, for example, procedural justice helps to guarantee that the use of fair procedures not only helps to communicate to police officers and other employees that they are valued members of the community, but that they are also truly making an impact. It is also directly related to fairness regarding outcomes and the decisions that are made throughout the day.

The philosopher John Rawls — famous for a number of documents including “A Theory of Justice” — wrote that there were two core characteristics in a perfect procedural justice scenario. Not only must there be an independent definition of what “fair” means given the circumstances, but a procedure must be created to help guarantee that a fair outcome will be reached.

Procedural justice is a broad concept, but in terms of the day-to-day activities of a police officer, it is often quite simple. The idea can be as simple as giving a person the chance to tell his or her side of the story to you before you make a decision about what to do. It can be as easy as a police officer reacting to evidence in a neutral way, paying attention to the facts of the matter and not trying to prove some preconceived notion the officer already has. It often boils down to people treating other people with dignity and politeness, regardless of whether they’re a suspect or a police officer or somewhere in between.

Procedural Justice in Action
Oftentimes, success in terms of procedural justice doesn’t just deal with the way a police force deals with a community — it also has to do with the way an agency deals with itself. Take New Orleans, for example. Since 2010, Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas has been undertaking a massive and comprehensive overhaul of the area’s police department aimed at cementing these ideas of procedural justice (including integrity, transparency and accountability) in place for future generations. Serpas created a series of 65 steps to help him do it. Interestingly enough, 10 of those steps had to do with taking a closer look at hiring and training processes — taking advantage of these core values as early as possible to help create a newfound sense of legitimacy throughout the agency.

Serpas said, “The New Orleans Police Department will no longer tell neighborhoods what their problems are. Instead, [they] will listen, collaborate, and respond proactively.” 

Since 2010, significant, positive impact on both crime and community relations in New Orleans and the surrounding communities has been seen as a result of this plan.

New Orleans is just one of the many examples of the power of procedural justice in action. Regardless of whether a police officer works for a small agency or a large one, on the East Coast or the West, they all have one thing in common — they strive to help leave communities in a slightly better condition than the one they found them in.

That simple idea is what procedural justice is all about.

About the Author 
Mariano Delle Donne is CEO and founder of Adventos Corporation, a company developing law enforcement intelligence and community policing software. Mariano also hosts ReturningBlue, a podcast series dedicated to sharing public safety insights and stories.

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