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An exploratory study on the practice of procedural justice and use of force in police-citizen encounters

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Published onMay 04, 2024
An exploratory study on the practice of procedural justice and use of force in police-citizen encounters
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ABSTRACT

Procedural justice is a philosophy and theory demonstrating that the practice of its four principles improves police-community relations. This means that citizens view law enforcement as a legitimate entity of government. Much controversy has stemmed from alleged unlawful killings of suspects in the past decade. These incidents question whether law enforcement acted legitimately. Since then, scholars have researched training in using the four principles of procedural justice. They have also researched the use of procedural justice in police-citizen encounters. The current research study addresses law enforcement officers’ perspectives on the use of force and the use of the four principles of procedural justice. The research focuses on the following question: What are law enforcement officers’ opinions, thoughts, and experiences on using force and procedural justice in police-citizen encounters? The current study uses a thematic analysis of officers’ interviews to answer questions about the four principles of procedural justice and using force. Data on the use of force and the four principles of procedural justice was collected from a literature review on procedural justice, law enforcement officer interviews, departmental training curriculum, and policies and procedures. The thematic analysis focuses on law enforcement officers’ perspectives on using procedural justice in the context of the use of force.

Keywords: Procedural justice principles, thematic analysis, use of force


The current research focuses on California law enforcement officers’ opinions, beliefs, and lived experiences in using the four principles of procedural justice in the context of the use of force. Criminal justice professionals posit that procedural justice is a theory promoting improved police-community relations through legitimate policing and trust. The four principles of procedural justice are: (a) treating people with dignity and respect, (b) giving citizens a “voice” during police-citizen encounters, (c) neutrality and transparency, and (d) trustworthiness (Lee, 2017; Owens, et al., 2018; Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Tyler, 1990). Amidst the concern that police-community relations have diminished, former President Obama formed the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Under former President Obama’s Task Force, law enforcement professionals, other criminal justice professionals, community members, and community stakeholders collaborated to form six pillars addressing the social problems regarding police-community relations (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015). Procedural justice falls under pillar three: Ensure fair and impartial policing. In this pillar, law enforcement will train its officers in the four principles of procedural justice to improve police-community relations.

Even after implementing the task force and the procedural justice initiative, other occurrences caused the community to question whether law enforcement was earnest enough about the initiative to improve police-community relations. The aura of the community became us vs. them. Police-community relations remain a constant social problem, causing several other issues, such as diminished crime prevention, lack of combatting crime, and lack of support for law enforcement. Although this social problem may not be evident in every community, it is more apparent in those communities that experienced civil unrest where police illegitimacy is perceived as obvious. Minority community members were the most affected by police illegitimacy. In this regard, the perception of racism from community members among law enforcement stems from the racism of the 1960s. Then, the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, attempted to find a solution. Thus, the social problem has gone on for more than forty years.

The purpose of the current research study is exploratory research into officers’ thoughts on using the four principles of procedural justice in the context of using force in police-citizen encounters. Critically, research suggested that the majority of police officers consider fatal police encounters involving African Americans to be rare incidents (Silver, 2017). This contrasts with the public’s belief that those fatal incidents stem from more significant problems in policing and society (Silver et al., 2017; Pew Research Center, 2017). These fatal incidents continue to happen from time to time. The phenomenon exhibits two crucial topics for policing: (a) police use of force and (b) the use of procedural justice principles in police-citizen interactions (i.e., officers treating citizens fairly and politely). Research has demonstrated that training in the four principles of procedural justice diminished complaints against police by 10.0% and decreased the use of force against citizens by 6.4% over twenty-four months (Wood et al., 2020).

More research studies are being conducted on procedural justice principles, principled policing, and police legitimacy concerning police-citizen encounters. Law Enforcement professionals realize that training helps shape officers’ behavior (Skogan, et al., 2015). Training in procedural justice has been the focus of some of that research. Law enforcement agencies nationwide have implemented policies and training for law enforcement officers (Cunha, 2022; Police Research Executive Forum, 2022). Every police agency is guided by its state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. Police culture is one area that still needs more research (Silver et al., 2017; Alpert et al., 2005; Lawton, 2007; Paoline et al., 2016). This gap is only beginning to be lessened because of the research conducted by scholars involving procedural justice principles in supervisor-line officer interactions, social bonds, and principles of procedural justice explaining law enforcement's positive socialization in police culture (Cunha, 2022; Van Craen, 2018). The current research can add to the knowledge of procedural justice as a viable strategy for reducing the use of force in police-citizen encounters.

Literature Review

The current study stems from research on procedural justice, the use of force, and policing. In the past few years, Peace Officers Standards and Training Commissions across the nation have been revising their training for police officers, adding procedural justice training. Individual agencies have added to that training by revising policies and training within their department. For instance, the California Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission has spread the principles of procedural justice throughout its training for law enforcement officers. Therefore, officers get training in more than one setting and one mode. They receive procedural justice training related to its principles in all aspects of their duties, from traffic stops, pedestrian stops, interviews, interrogations, investigations of crimes and traffic collisions, and so forth.

Other research has provided information on the situations in which officers are most likely to deploy use-of-force tactics (Terrill et al., 2008). It was found that police officers tend to deploy force between 1 percent and 22 percent based on various jurisdictions across the United States (Terrill et al., 2003). Current statistics on the deployment of force by law enforcement officers show that in 2020, out of 920,147 police-citizen contacts, 82,480, amounting to 0.15% of encounters resulted in threats of force or nonfatal use of force (Tapp and Davis, 2022).

Research demonstrated that the frequency of the use of force was reduced. Findings report that the use of force was decreased by -7.45 (95% CI: -12.40, -3.37; SE = 2.33; P = 0.002) per 100 offices in 24 months after training (Wood et al., 2020). During the study (2 years), officers reported using force in 7,116 incidents where they used techniques ranging from takedowns to firearm discharge (Wood et al., 2020). Researchers estimated that, with no training, there would have been 486 more incidents of use of force, for a total of 7,602 (Wood et al., 2020). These statistics resulted in a 6.4% decrease in using force (Wood et al., 2020). The 6.4% reduction in the use of force parallels a rate of 3.77 per 100 officers per month after the training period (Wood et al., 2020). The findings result in a 0.40 reduction from 4.17, estimated with no training (Wood et al., 2020). More use-of-force incidents were reduced after procedural justice principles training (Wood et al., 2020). Teaching officers to improve their interpersonal communication skills using procedural justice principles can decrease the use of force incidents (Mazerolle & Terrill, 2018).

In recent years, procedural justice has become a national initiative stemming from former U.S. President Obama’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing. This task force was formed in 2015 after several alleged unlawful killings of unarmed citizens (Wolfe and Nix, 2016). From that task force, initiatives and legislation have come forth to help improve police-community relations. Procedural justice is only one philosophy, theory, or strategy that addresses this phenomenon. The Task Force on 21st-Century Policing and other legislators have ensured that law enforcement agencies will train their officers to practice the four principles of procedural justice. The task force findings suggest that procedural justice does improve police-community relations (Lee, 2017; Owens, et al., 2018; Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Tyler, 1990). Research has demonstrated that procedural justice reduces force deployment in police-citizen encounters (Wood et al., 2020). Using force is one of two critical aspects of police-citizen encounters; the other is using procedurally just tactics (e.g., the fairness and politeness with which officers treat citizens) (Silver et al., 2017).

Police culture impacts how law enforcement officers do their job. This area of research related to police use of force and police use of procedural justice has addressed officer satisfaction with their jobs and duties as law enforcement officers. This is relevant to how police officers perform their duties during police-citizen encounters (PEW Research Center, 2017; Van Craen, 2016; Van Craen & Skogan, 2017; Reynolds & Helfers, 2019; Sun et al., 2018).

Social process theories help explain law enforcement behavior. The social bond theory explains police conduct from this theoretical viewpoint of social process. The current method of law enforcement culture and its values and norms indicate solid bonds among its members. The element of attachment applies to law enforcement officers since ‘loss of respect from peers’ is a negative outcome of misconduct (Donner et al., 2016). Therefore, law enforcement officers are more likely to follow appropriate laws and departmental policies. In law enforcement, involvement involves social interactions with peers, supervisors, and civilian personnel in occupational duties and training in a positive connection. The amount of time law enforcement officers dedicate to learning department policies, training, and retaining their knowledge in their occupational duties plays a big part in their involvement (Donner et al., 2016). For law enforcement officers, commitment comprises positive social interactions with citizens and coworkers for a pleasurable association. The officers’ investment in their agency and its policies and culture affect their judgment in obeying appropriate departmental procedures and legal directives (Donner et al., 2016). Belief for law enforcement officers necessitates officers to take procedural justice seriously and practice treating citizens according to the four principles of procedural justice. Law enforcement officers believe that procedural justice principles are effective for police-community relations.

In other words, solid social bonds such as attachment, involvement, commitment, and belief promulgate positive socialization in law enforcement culture. These same bonds provide the path for law enforcement officers to use procedural justice principles during police-citizen encounters to reduce the use of force situations. Other professions, such as the Information Technology profession, have researched social bond theory. Feng et al., 2019 and Safa et al., 2016 learned that supervisors impact employee behavior, part of the socialization process. There are two subcultures in the overall police culture, ‘street cop culture,’ where values and attitudes of police culture are evident. The second subculture is known as ‘management cop culture,’ where the needs and concerns of the department and city are apparent (Reuss-Ianni, 1983).

The second social process theory, the social learning theory, was posited by Albert Bandura in 1977. Bandura (1977) asserted that individuals learn behavior through social interactions. Researchers studied social learning theory (Chappell & Piquero, 2004; Van Craen, 2016) in the law enforcement profession. Research has demonstrated that law enforcement officers reflect their superiors in how they treat others, especially citizens. Law enforcement officers treat citizens the same way their superiors treat them. Van Craen (2016) asserted that if superiors treat officers with dignity and respect and allow them to explain their viewpoint (voice), they will treat the citizens similarly. Bandura (1977), Van Craen (2016), and Chapelle and Piquero (2004) suggested that social learning theory explains how individuals learn through socialization with those that influence them the most. In the case of law enforcement officers, peers and supervisors influence officers in learning to behave and perform their operationalized duties. Law enforcement superiors set the standard for practicing procedural justice in the training, encouraging the practice of procedural justice in the field. This same process applies to any training, such as use-of-force training, where procedural justice training positively impacts and can reduce use-of-force incidents. This phenomenon is known as positive socialization.

Theoretical Foundations

The current research study was prompted by the social problem of law enforcement officers’ inappropriate behavior during police-citizen interactions in their daily duties and the concern that police-community relations are diminished. Social process theories are used in the current research study to help explain law enforcement’s culture. Social process theories help explain how they learn their daily duties, and most recently, in learning to use the four procedural justice principles. The theoretical foundation of social processes rests in the social control (social bond) theory postulated by Travis Hirschi (1969) and the social learning theory postulated by Albert Bandura in 1977. There are four elements in social bond theory. Those elements are attachment, involvement, commitment, and belief; each helps explain how positive socialization impacts law enforcement officers’ behavior as well as other professions (Donner et al., 2016; Feng et al., 2019; Hirschi, 1969; Safa et al., 2016; Van Craen, 2016). Social learning theory explains how law enforcement officers learn behavior, such as practicing proper procedures (Van Craen, 2016).

The positive social process viewpoint can help law enforcement better understand why officers may be more likely to behave according to the four principles of procedural justice. Research has demonstrated that procedural justice training reduces the use of force (Wood et al., 2020). Although social learning theory can explain how officers learn criminal behavior, such as using excessive force or making stops, questioning, and frisking without reasonable suspicion (Terry v. Ohio, 1968), the current research study is focused on the pro-socialization of law enforcement officers. Research has demonstrated that procedural justice training reduces police misconduct, measured by the number of complaints officers receive (Wood et al., 2020). In the Wood et al. (2020) study, 6,577 complaints were filed against the trained officers two years after the training was implemented. States’ law enforcement officers’ practices, agency policies, and training helped explain whether law enforcement officers use procedural justice. Peace Officer Standards and Training Commissions nationwide have implemented training for their agencies. Individual agencies have followed suit and have developed policies, procedures, and training regarding procedural justice and its four principles.

In other words, the elements of social bond theory explain how social bonds reduce the chances of an individual participating in criminal or deviant behavior (Hirschi, 1969). Social learning theory explains how individuals learn morally accepted, criminal, or deviant behavior (Bandura, 1977). Research has demonstrated that social bond theory and social learning theory can help explain the practice of proper procedures (Donner et al., 2016), such as with law enforcement officers (Van Craen, 2016).

The second social process theory, the social learning theory, was posited by Albert Bandura in 1977. Bandura (1977) asserted that individuals learn good or bad behavior through social interactions. Researchers studied social learning theory (Chappell & Piquero, 2004; Haas et al., 2015; Van Craen, 2016) in law enforcement, where appropriate officer behavior was promoted through fair decision-making and fair treatment of officers by their superiors. Research has demonstrated that law enforcement officers reflect their superiors in how they treat others, especially citizens. Law enforcement officers treat citizens the same way superiors treat law enforcement officers. Van Craen (2016) asserted that if superiors treat officers with dignity and respect and allow them to explain their viewpoint (voice), they will treat the citizens similarly. Bandura (1977), Van Craen (2016), and Chapelle and Piquero (2004) suggested that social learning theory explains how individuals learn through socialization with those that influence them the most. In the case of law enforcement officers, peers and supervisors influence officers in learning to behave in performing their operationalized duties (Reynolds & Helfers, 2019). Law enforcement superiors set the standard for practicing procedural justice in the training, encouraging the practice of procedural justice in the field. This same process applies to any training, such as use-of-force training, in which procedural justice training positively impacts and can reduce use-of-force incidents. This phenomenon is known as positive socialization.

Both theories’ origins posited the causation of deviant and criminal behavior. Currently, these same theories help explain the behavior of police officers (Donner et al., 2016; Chapelle & Piquero, 2004), stemming from other research studies. The current research study intends to explain positive socialization in police officers’ behavior. Training and learning in groups are also socialization processes, a big part of social process theories (social bonding and social learning). Whether individuals are youths or adults, this socialization practice of human interaction allows for prosocial or antisocial influence. Individual behavior is foundational in those four elements of social bond theory (Hirschi, 1969; Donner et al., 2016;) and the learning process explained by social learning theory (Bandura, 1977; Van Craen, 2016) explains police behavior. Parents or supervisors, teachers, and peers influence human behavior.

Positive socialization is a central theme in the current research data. This process of forming positive bonds and positive social learning was demonstrated in the data presented. The phenomenon of socialization was found in the study where California law enforcement agencies were examined using procedural justice (Cunha, 2022). Strong pro-social bonds form among individuals (youths and adults), which prevent them from engaging in criminal or deviant behavior (Jones et al., 2015). Research supports the notion that positive socialization can be achieved through positive social bonds and prosocial learning where fairness and equality are practiced internally, fostering fairness and equality in police-citizen encounters. Positive Socialization is affected by organizational justice and its three elements: distributive justice, interactional justice, and procedural justice (Wolfe et al., 2018; Reynolds & Helfers, 2019). Research demonstrated that California law enforcement officers and agencies were experiencing positive socialization, which promoted positive behavior in practicing procedural justice.

Method

The current research study is a qualitative case study methodology and design with a thematic analysis from research participant interviews. A review of secondary sources, such as prior or recent research studies focusing on procedural justice and the use of force, was completed. I interviewed eleven (11) California law enforcement officers to collect data. I reviewed department policies, procedures, and training curricula from California law enforcement agencies and the California Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission. The eleven (11) participants are current law enforcement officers from a sub-urban/rural agency with over 16,000 employees. The methodology and design of qualitative case study research allowed me to understand the opinions and mindsets of California law enforcement officers. Understanding the law enforcement officers’ opinions and mindsets allowed me to gain insight into a significant anthology of experiences and emotions in methods that are challenging in quantitative research studies (Mohajan, 2018; Yang et al., 2017; Yin, 2018). In other words, I used case study research to investigate a real-world phenomenon involving real people. I intended to gain insight into those peoples’ real-life experiences through storytelling. Quantitative research cannot gain insight into individuals’ real-life experiences through storytelling. Qualitative research is also a good starting point for creating quantitative research.

I chose California Peace Officers as the population for the current study because, in 2015, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris proposed that legislators pass Assembly Bill AB 1118. AB 1118 mandated California Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Training Academies and all California law enforcement agencies to implement procedural justice training. The passing of California AB 1118 was supported by a 90-day review of training based on research in procedural justice. The training was a joint effort by Stanford SPARQ, a behavioral science “do tank” with the Stanford University Psychology Department, the Oakland and Stockton Police Departments, and the California Partnership for Safer Communities (Wallace et al., 2015). The sample in the current research population was eleven (11) California law enforcement officers; see Table 1 for the sample demographics.

Triangulation was used to ensure trustworthiness, transferability, and dependability while preventing bias (Yin, 2018; Roberts et al., 2019; Faquhar et al., 2020). Triangulation reduces bias from the researcher through the collection of data from various sources. The credibility and dependability of the research are strengthened through the neutralization of bias found in only one source of data collection (Farquhar et al., 2020; Natow, 2020). Hence, triangulation allows for a positivist or post-positivist viewpoint in a study (Farquhar et al., 2020).

I used purposive, expert, and non-probability sampling because California law enforcement officers were the most capable of providing the information vital for the current research study (Creswell & Poth, 2018), allowing for learning of real-life perspectives (Vehovar et al., 2016; Galovic et al., 2015). In learning about the research participants’ real-life experiences, in this case, law enforcement officers, a researcher can achieve the credibility, reliability, and transferability necessary when using purposive, expert, and non-probability sampling (Daniels, 2019). Purposive sampling also ensures transferability while ensuring a sample of experts (law enforcement officers) in the field who are knowledgeable about the topic of the research study (Daniel, 2019). Purposive sampling assists the researcher in better understanding the individual or group of individuals’ experience(s) related to the research question and research problem in qualitative case study research, promoting credibility (Frankel & Devers, 2000). Purposive sampling ensures credibility because the sample population is best suited to answering the research question (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Daniels, 2019).

The study focused on California law enforcement because research stemmed from California law enforcement practices and policies regarding procedural justice. In expert sampling, research participants are the experts, minimizing researcher bias (Wadams & Park, 2018). Purposive sampling can reduce bias (Morse, 2015; Wadams & Park, 2018). Expert sampling solidifies having an expert opinion or viewpoint from research participants (Wadams & Park, 2018). Non-probability, purposive, and expert sampling achieve transferability where the results at one site may benefit other sites (Connelly, 2016). Triangulation in data sources allows a research study to achieve transferability, reliability, and credibility and even reduce bias (Daniels, 2019).

In selecting the participants, a recruitment flyer was sent to department personnel via mass email explaining the research study from each agency’s point of contact. The points of contact were upper-level management personnel who provided site approval and vital information for the research study. I also received the email so personnel interested could contact me via email. The flyer contained information for interested personnel to contact the researcher for further instructions. Those that were interested contacted the researcher via email or phone call. Those officers were screened based on the inclusion criteria. The inclusion criteria included being an active law enforcement officer with at least three years of experience and receiving procedural justice training. Once the officer was determined eligible for the study, the researcher sent the officer the Voluntary Informed Consent form via email to review and sign, giving their consent to participate. Once the interested individual reviewed and signed the document, they emailed the researcher the Voluntary Informed Consent form.


TABLE 1: Demographics of Each Research Participant from California Law Enforcement Agencies

Research Participant

Age

Race /
Ethnicity

Male/
Female

Years of Service

Assignment

P1

54

Hispanic/Other

Male

35

Training Bureau

P2

51

African American

Male

14

Intake Supervisor

P3

54

Other

Male

24

Patrol/Watch Officer

P4

41

Hispanic

Male

14

Watch Commander

P5

45

White

Male

23

Advanced Officer Training

P6

55

White

Male

8

Background Unit

P7

50

White

Male

30

Training Bureau

P8

43

Mexican/White

Female

20

Training Bureau

P9

28

Hispanic

Male

6

Patrol

P10

29

White

Male

7.5

Patrol

P11

34

Hispanic

Male

8

Patrol


I used open-ended questions, reviewed department policies, and reviewed departmental training documents concerning procedural justice training. I reviewed the training curriculum and observed training videos used in teaching procedural justice. I audio-recorded the remote interviews in the Cisco WebEx meeting room while taking notes. I then manually transcribed the remote interviews from the audio recording. The transcription was saved in electronic and handwritten copies for data analysis. I achieved triangulation and validity (Moon & Wolf, 2019) in the study by coding for themes (Saldana, 2016) in the transcriptions of each participant. Triangulation in this study was achieved by reviewing the departmental policy manual, training curricula, the California Peace Officer Standard and Training Commission’s training curricula from their website, and the transcriptions from the Cisco WebEx meeting room interviews.

While coding for themes from the collected data, the goal was to achieve saturation by finding themes in the data. Saturation meant that the researcher was satisfied that the theme or themes were the genuine meaning of the participants’ lived experiences (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Constantinou et al., 2017; Casteel & Bridier, 2021; Guest et al., 2006; Sebele-Mpofu, 2020; Saldana, 2016). The researcher must be immersed in analyzing interview transcripts for each participant to grasp the ‘real’ understanding of the story. Researchers must notate individual comments, read, listen, and summarize data that group important codes leading to themes or patterns in responses from the research participants (Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2016). Saturation is when research participants provide no more added information, and the researcher completely understands the participants’ viewpoints, opinions, and real-life experiences (Hennink et al., 2019; Constantinou et al., 2017). In qualitative case study research, a small sample of research participants (10-15) is acceptable (Stake, 1985; Boddy, 2016; Yin, 2018; Nee et al., 2019). Research has demonstrated that saturation can begin to become evident at six (6) interviews and certainly evident at eleven (11) interviews when used in combination with the other data sources (Guest et al., 2006; Boddy, 2016; Yin, 2018; Constantinou et al., 2017; Sebele-Mpofu, 2020; Casteel & Bridier, 2021).

Saturation became evident in six (6) interviews and was evident in eleven (11) interviews (Casteel & Bridier, 2021; Guest et al., 2006; Sebele-Mpofu, 2020). I checked for saturation beginning at interview one (1) and, moving forward, concluded that I reached saturation at interview six (6). Then, I reversed my analysis and assessed the interviews from interview eleven (11), which in reverse determined that I reached saturation at interview seven (7). In reviewing the data sources, the researcher took notes and an assorted color of highlighted patterns in terms and phrases that created the themes in the data. This type of highlighting allowed the researcher to differentiate between patterns and themes. Those terms and phrases were saved onto a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, where a chart and table were created for analysis. Table 3 provides a visual of the themes from the research study. After saturation was met, I was convinced that the two (2) themes were the true meanings of the California law enforcement officers’ lived experiences or stories (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Saldana, 2016). The research reached saturation when participants provided no more added information, and I fully understood the participants’ viewpoints, opinions, and real-life experiences (Constantinou et al., 2017; Hennink et al., 2019). In other words, the themes told me what the law enforcement officers experienced, enabling me to answer the research question.

Findings

I discovered two main themes in the research participants’ interviews related to using force and how law enforcement officers socialize through training and forming strong prosocial bonds where they participate in prosocial behavior during police-citizen encounters. The direct quotes from each research participant relate to the training, policies, and procedures associated with procedural justice and its four principles: voice, respect/dignity, neutrality in decision-making, and trust (Skogan et al., 2015). The data demonstrated that the core values of the law enforcement profession relate to the social process theories of social bond theory and social learning theory through positive socialization (Cunha, 2022; Van Craen, 2016; Donner et al., 2016; and Chapelle & Piquero, 2004). The policies, procedures, and training focused on procedural justice aligned with what the law enforcement officers stated in their interviews. I discovered that California POST connected the training curriculum with procedural justice and officers’ operational duties involving police-citizen encounters, such as using force, strategic communications, community policing, and decision-making. Table 2 explains the number of research participants that noted each theme.


TABLE 2: Themes Extrapolated from the Interview Data Collected

Themes

Number of Participants Out of Twelve

The Practice of PJ and the Use of Force

11 of 11

Positive Socialization

11 of 11


Positive Socialization

Social process theories, social bond theory, and social learning theory explain positive socialization. This phenomenon is the process for any group or subgroup, whether it be a group of employees or a group of criminals, or even gangs. The current research uses social process theories to help explain how procedural justice can be used to reduce use-of-force incidents. Prior research has demonstrated that training law enforcement officers to practice procedural justice in police-citizen encounters will reduce law enforcement use of force incidents (Wood et al., 2020; Skogan et al., 2015). Training in topics related to communicating and interacting with citizens is essential in helping reduce the use of force by law enforcement. The training includes procedural justice, cultural diversity, and improving law enforcement training dealing with de-escalation (Sytsma et al., 2021). Positive Socialization among law enforcement happens in this environment where they can learn together, build solid pro-social bonds, and learn from the leaders of their agencies.


TABLE 3: Theme, Definition, and Supporting Commentary

Theme

Definition

Supporting Commentary

Practice PJ and Use of Force

Words and/or phrases that suggest the practice of PJ sometimes do not work, which results in the use of force.

“Procedural justice and the four tenets may not always work. Procedural justice is important, but there are constraints; the behavior of the suspect or subject dictates that.”

Positive Socialization

Words and/or phrases that suggest supervisors promote and the training bureaus train the LEOs, the LEOs learn and accept the strong bond of practicing the principles of procedural justice to enhance community relations.

“The policy at the department on procedural justice is engrained in their bias-based policing policy. In that policy, the department’s mission statement and core values guide the LEOs in acting legitimately.”

 


The theme of positive socialization was apparent in research participants’ responses based on training in procedural justice within their department. These law enforcement officers believe their agency supports a culture of practicing procedural justice in police-citizen encounters. The principles of procedural justice align with law enforcement culture, values, and code of conduct, fostering positive socialization. California law enforcement officers concurred that procedural justice aligns with their core values. Law enforcement officer P-1 stated, “…our core values align with the procedural justice tenets. Our culture here embraces our core values, which are the same as the procedural justice tenets.”

Law enforcement officer, P-2, commented,

Procedural justice is a roadmap to building better relationships with the community. Using the four tenets of procedural justice is the roadmap; if you take one of them away it is ineffective. It gives the officers a roadmap to what they are already doing.

The law enforcement officers’ perceptions of their department, training curriculum, and expectations of them were that law enforcement officers ought to use procedural justice principles in their daily police-citizen interactions. Law enforcement officer, P-8, stated,

Socialization impacts procedural justice, in a sense, that of those who want to follow the crowd but are independent. We have strong personnel equality standards in our department, which is the guiding force of how we are supposed to respond to others. Continual training deals with diversity, navigating diversity (respecting others’ cultures), and dealing with all other employees as well.

The interpretation from the findings in the current research was that social learning and social bond theories relate to the agencies’ culture, where the practice of procedural justice principles is promoted. The interpretation is that the culture of the agency has an impact on officers’ behavior. Training, policies, and positive socialization of the officers and supervisors support procedural justice principles. The officers form strong pro-social bonds that help guide their daily duties. Law enforcement officer, P-11, commented,

I think just to be safe, be courteous. If a fellow officer is going down the wrong path, remind them to be safe, be courteous. Procedural justice helps build trust, explain our actions, and take the time to talk to people. They just want to vent and there is value in talking with people. It leads to good procedural justice interaction.

The four bonds, attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief of social bond theory, are evident because the training and policies promote procedural justice and positive socialization. Law enforcement officer P-2 stated, “Our department is committed to training in and practicing the four principles of procedural justice as much as we can. We are teaching our law enforcement officers that, and we are reinforcing what we have always done.”

Social learning is evident because law enforcement officers learn from their supervisors and agencies, promoting procedural justice. Law enforcement officer, P-9, commented,

Our training officers in the field are training our new LEOs on principled policing and the four principles of procedural justice. Supervisors and upper management feel that principled policing is the way to go. We contact people for legitimate reasons.

Supervisors set the example for behavioral expectations for their subordinate officers. If the agency supervisors do not ‘buy-in’ to the principles of procedural justice, then the subordinate officers will not. Law enforcement officer, P-2, stated,

We promote the practice of procedural justice and its four tenets because we are responsible for the younger LEOs and those on the shift. If you have a sergeant who does not emulate the principles of procedural justice very well, it will reflect in the way he supervises. Young men and women may not understand; the supervisors help set the tone. If the supervisors do not ‘buy-in’ to the principles of procedural justice, then their officers will not.

Law enforcement officer P-11 commented, “With more procedural justice training, officers can be more confident in interacting with citizens because they are more skilled and knowledgeable. Procedural justice principles are the core values of the department; it is foundational.”

When supervisors promote the use of procedural justice principles and training bureaus train their officers in procedural justice, the law enforcement officers learn and accept the strong bond of practicing the four principles of procedural justice to enhance community relations. Supervisors set the example and expectations of their subordinate officers.

The Practice of Procedural Justice and Use of Force

Practicing procedural justice can promote officer safety in police-citizen encounters. California law enforcement officers agreed that procedural justice principles can promote officer safety. Current research has also demonstrated that procedural justice reduces the use of force. Law enforcement officer P-6 stated, “The use of force instructors felt that it was a valuable tool for officers to have.” The four principles in procedural justice promote officer safety, thus promoting legitimacy. Law enforcement officers felt that procedural justice applied to training involving the use of force, de-escalation, and overall communications.

California law enforcement officers asserted that even though they may use force against a citizen, they can still practice the four principles of procedural justice in that encounter. Law enforcement officer P-11 commented, “I would say that procedural justice puts me in a safer position, and if used correctly, it can prevent maybe using force or would ease the encounter, and the level of risk can drop when using procedural justice.” Law enforcement officer P-3 commented, “Procedural justice can reduce officer safety issues and the use of force. Although, there are instances procedural justice will not work. It does not work in all scenarios. It is a great tool otherwise.” Using force against an individual does not mean that an officer cannot use procedural justice principles. An officer can use force, treat the suspect with dignity/respect, achieve neutrality in decision-making, and promote trust.

There were concerns that procedural justice may not work because of citizens’ state of mind and behaviors. These encounters are just a few instances where procedural justice principles may not be effective. Law enforcement officer P-10 commented (Appendix A, Table 4), “Procedural justice and the four tenets may not always work. Procedural justice is important, but there are constraints; the behavior of the suspect or subject dictates that.” Law enforcement officer P-5 commented, “There are situations where subjects/suspects are not in the right mindset. A person with a mental health issue can make it more challenging.” In those instances where procedural justice may not work, officers believe that the subject was not in complete control of their behavior because of illegal substances or mental health issues. Officers can still apply procedural justice principles that the subject, due to diminished cognition, cannot understand. Officers can still treat the subject with dignity and respect and achieve neutrality in decision-making.

Law enforcement officer, P-7, commented,

I responded to a call for service where I encountered a homeless male who was kicked off the train, and the male was in the middle of a mental health crisis. I determined the male displayed agitated behavior only and was able to comprehend what I was saying. Hence, the homeless male was not a danger to himself. I used the four principles of procedural justice to defuse the situation. First, I allowed the homeless male to explain what happened. I then decided to allow the male back on the train so long as he would return to his city of origin. The male got back on the train peacefully.

The research participants affirmed that procedural justice is valuable, but sometimes, using force is necessary. There are times when the practice of the four principles of procedural justice is immediately presented. However, this may not be the case in every single incident. Law enforcement officer P-7 commented, “I can react to a subject’s behavior by using force before I present the four principles of procedural justice.” Law enforcement officer P-4 spoke of incidents when there are times when the four principles of procedural justice may not work. One of those times might be when someone is under the influence of drugs. “I responded to an incident where a gang member assaulted a train conductor. The gang member was very uncooperative and under the influence of drugs. The gang member did not have the cognizant ability to understand the use of the four principles of procedural justice. The four principles of procedural justice were not effective in this situation.” The officer attempted to use the four principles of procedural justice, but due to the subject’s limited capacity, the subject did not understand, and force had to be used as a last resort. The officer still treated the subject with respect, and the decision to use force was based on the subject’s uncooperative behavior.

There is a training video where officers were dealing with an uncooperative subject. The officers exhibited procedural justice principles but still had to use non-lethal force to subdue the subject. During the procedural justice training, there was a discussion among the officers on the principles of procedural justice after viewing the video. One California law enforcement officer, P-6, commented, “We use certain checklists as we are dealing with people. There is a time when a threat assessment comes into play. Procedural justice may not work anymore, and you must use force. Afterward, you attempt to converse with them.”

Law enforcement officer P-9 commented that each situation is unique to others. The individuals the law enforcement officers deal with are not the same and do not all have the same mentality. California law enforcement officers affirmed that procedural justice works only in certain situations; it does not work for every situation. An individual’s mentality can be unpredictable, as explained by law enforcement officer P-5,

I feel like that, dependent upon whom you are dealing with, certain people respond differently to the way you are interacting with them. Suspects may not want to trust anyone. You can be respectful to anyone, but still, must be aware that things could go south and any moment. I had a call with a woman who was experiencing trauma. I went to retrieve her ID; she then became very combative quickly. Officers should know that things can go south in a minute.

Law enforcement officer, P-10, shared a story,

I had a gentleman who was under the influence of drugs, causing a disturbance at someone’s home in their yard. I tried to use the principles of procedural justice and, keep him calm and let him tell his side of the story. We ended up having to subdue him by using force. He did not understand. I did everything I could, asked him if he had someone who could come pick him up and everything. I thought it started to work, but he just would not comply. After we subdued him, he became even worse. He was trying to kick out the windows while in the back seat of the police cruiser.

The interview comments from law enforcement officers helped the researcher learn about their real-life experiences practicing procedural justice principles during police-citizen encounters. The comments also allow the researcher to understand better how the social process theories of social bond theory and social learning theory explain prosocial socialization in the law enforcement culture. Just as Hirschi’s (1969) four elements (attachment, commitment, involvement, belief) explain how strong bonds keep individuals from engaging in delinquent or criminal behavior, so do they help explain law enforcement culture through their moral values and code of ethics, exhibited by their departmental policies and training. See Figure 1.


FIGURE 1. Social Bond Theory and Procedural Justice


Discussion

The current research study provides real-life experiences and perceptions of active law enforcement using the four principles of procedural justice and the use of force. The current research study supports the idea that social process theories, social bonds, and social learning promote positive socialization in a pro-social environment. The social bond theory promulgated by Travis Hirschi (1969) can help law enforcement better understand why officers may be more likely to behave according to the four principles of procedural justice. The four principles (neutrality, voice, respect/dignity, trust) of procedural justice promote prosocial interactions. Hirschi (1969) promulgated the social bond theory, stating that strong social bonds for individuals are important in keeping individuals from engaging in delinquent and criminal behavior. The social bond theory is advanced through other current research (Donner et al., 2016) by using social bond theory to explain police officer misconduct. The same four elements of social bond, attachment, involvement, commitment, and belief, were used to describe law enforcement officers’ behavior (Donner et al., 2016). The stronger the bond to the culture or sub-group (law enforcement agency) in a prosocial environment, the less likely the individual will participate in inappropriate or non-confirming behavior (Donner et al., 2016; Williams, III & McShane, 2018).

The current research study discovered two themes: positive socialization and the practice of procedural justice in using force. These themes were extrapolated from law enforcement interviews. The themes help support the notion that procedural justice principles reduce the use of force by law enforcement officers. The data collected, department policies, department training curricula, and answers to the interview questions show that strong prosocial bonds lead to socialization within the departments. As research has demonstrated, law enforcement supervisors and managers create the ‘buy-in’ for law enforcement officer behavior (Chapelle & Piquero, 2004; Jones et al., 2015; Trinkner et al., 2016; Reynolds & Helfers, 2019; Wolfe et al., 2018; Van Crean, 2016;) within their agency.

However, there are specific conditions where procedural justice may not work, such as when a subject is under the influence of drugs or when the subject is having a severe mental health crisis. These incidents are incredibly challenging for law enforcement officers, and no communication technique would be more effective. Research has demonstrated that using the four principles in procedural justice can have an overlying positive effect on the perception of the community of how law enforcement officers managed the situation even though the use of force was necessary. In those situations where a subject is not under the influence of drugs or experiencing a severe mental health crisis, the four procedural justice principles will be effective. It is important to note that law enforcement officers concur that even though the use of force was used, the four principles of procedural justice could be implemented in the de-escalation (or after the use of force) process.

Secondary sources supported the notion that the use of procedural justice principles reduces the use of force by law enforcement officers and that the culture of law enforcement promotes pro-social environments where training allows for positive socialization. Law enforcement officers usually imitate their superiors, whether it be moral or immoral behavior (Chapelle & Piquero, 2004; Jones et al., 2015; Trinkner et al., 2016; Wolfe et al., 2018; Van Craen, 2016). This culture is nothing new for law enforcement officers’ training and working environment. The four principles of procedural justice support and enhance police culture, core values, and the standard of conduct.

California law enforcement set the example when, in 2015, then-Attorney General Kamala Harris ensured that legislation promoting procedural justice principles was passed. At that time, support from law enforcement supervisors reviewed procedural justice research for 90 days (Wallace et al., 2015), stemming from a collaborative effort by Stanford University (SPARQ), the Oakland and Stockton Police Departments, and the California Partnership for Safer Communities. The research study consisted of sixteen California law enforcement agencies’ police leaders. The leaders determined that the four principles of procedural justice were beneficial to law enforcement. The law enforcement leaders who attended the procedural justice training gave the training a rating of “very good” or “excellent” (Wallace et al., 2015). This research sparked revisions, from California Peace Officers Standards and Training to law enforcement training concerning de-escalation, use of force, strategic communications, and ethical behavior. The four principles of procedural justice were implemented in these areas, and a course in procedural justice principles was taught while training at the police academy.

Implications

This study's implications for law enforcement are continuous police training, policy, and practice revision. These changes or additional training, policy, and practice support police culture in improving police-community relations. As demonstrated through prior research, revising agency policy, practice, strategies, and training to support procedural justice can be achieved through prosocial bonds and prosocial learning. As research has demonstrated, when officers were trained in procedural justice, the use of force declined (Wood et al., 2020). The social bond theory and social learning theory are evident because of the prosocial environment. The department training, policies, and comments from the research participants provide a portrait that exhibits positive socialization and procedural justice through principled policing. This study adds to the knowledge of how procedural justice can improve police-community relations.

Further research on using the four principles of procedural justice concerning the use of force, police-community relations, and social process theories is necessary. This need stems from the challenges that contemporary law enforcement in America faces, which is evident in those instances of inappropriate behavior by law enforcement officers (St. Louis, et al., 2019; Wolfe & Nix, 2016; Wood et al., 2020) and the diminished police-community relations (Wolfe & Nix, 2016; Skogan et al., 2015). Prior research demonstrated that procedural justice principles in police-community relations are improved (Lee, 2017; Owens et al., 2018; Rosenbaum & Lawrence, 2017; & Skogan et al., 2015; St. Louis et al., 2019). The current research study found that law enforcement officers practice the four procedural justice principles and socialize positively by adhering to their departmental policies, training, and practice, stemming from the police culture where prosocial behavior is accepted. The interview comments from law enforcement officers, department training curricula, and department policies exhibit positive socialization.

Limitations

The limitations of the research study include the population sample. This non-probability purposive expert sample comprises only a small segment of the entire population of law enforcement officers in America. Hence, I could not understand all law enforcement officers’ attitudes, perceptions, and lived experiences in practicing procedural justice. Other limitations to realizing a clear-cut picture of law enforcement officers’ attitudes, perceptions, and lived experiences were related to the lack of additional females’ input on procedural justice and the lack of additional input from African Americans as well as other races. The qualitative approach ensured that I achieved real-life experiences with law enforcement officers that would be consistent across other law enforcement agencies.

Another limitation was that four of the eleven participants currently do not interact with citizens because of their assignment to the training bureau with the law enforcement academy. However, they train officers in the four principles of procedural justice. Those same officers used procedural justice principles in the interactions they discussed. The study did not address whether law enforcement officers correctly implemented the four principles of procedural justice during police-citizen encounters. However, officers responded to the interview questions based on real-life examples where they deployed their training in procedural justice. Research on social process theories can be expanded to other agencies to describe better police officer behavior related to procedural justice and the use of force.

Recommendations

Recommendations for future research consist of a longitudinal quasi-experimental study to further explain the positive socialization of law enforcement officers related to training and operational duties and using force where the four principles of procedural justice are used. Using prior research in collaboration with the current study regarding procedural justice, social bond theory, and social learning theory would continue to advance knowledge in ensuring appropriate behavior using the four principles of procedural justice. Therefore, conducting research focusing on social bond theory and social learning theory explaining police behavior concerning procedural justice principles is recommended. Further research comprises a treatment group and a non-treatment group and utilizes a pre-measure and post-measure of the problem (Lim & Koper, 2017; Santos & Santos, 2015; Ward et al., 2007). This type of research study can provide an evidence-based account of how procedural justice can be effective in a specific geographical location, identifying specific demographics. Therefore, law enforcement practitioners and academia should be allowed to implement strategies that complement procedural justice for that geographic area. A recommendation of evidence-based research for evidence-based policing is foremost.

Conclusion

The current research study findings are consistent with what law enforcement in contemporary America strives to accomplish regarding police-community relations. California POST and its agencies are trying to improve police-community relations like other agencies across America. Training curricula, training policies, and operational policies reflect the effort by law enforcement to improve police-community relations. The research interprets that law enforcement officers practice procedural justice principles in their daily police-citizen encounters. Supervisors and training officers mentor police officers toward practicing procedural justice principles to improve police-community relations. Implementing procedural justice training promotes positive socialization in learning how to improve police-community relations by reducing the use of force instances and policing with more legitimacy. The researcher envisions that the current research study could promulgate further interest from community members and stakeholders, scholar-practitioners, and agency researchers and encourage community awareness of the practice of procedural justice and principled policing. Other researchers can further the research by reviewing the findings in the current research study and the secondary data found in different research studies.

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Disclaimer- Competing Interests

I have no relevant financial or non-financial competing interests.

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