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Shaping Citizens Perceptions of Police Legitimacy: A Randomized Field Trial of Procedural Justice

November 2012

Lorraine Mazerolle, Emma Antrobus, Sarah Bennett, Tom Tyler


Through a randomized control trial, this study examines the lasting impacts of traffic stops based on how citizens regard the legitimacy of the police from their encounter in a procedurally just traffic stop. A hypothesized casual model that pre-existing views of the police, met with a random-breath test (RBT) encounter from the experimental group or control group of officers, leads to specific perceptions of fairness and respect that translate to overall general perceptions of fairness and respect in police, which finalizes itself in varying levels of cooperation and satisfaction from the citizen and the legitimacy they afford the police. In testing this hypothesis, the authors worked with senior-level police officers to establish a script that operationalized the four elements of procedural justice: 1) citizen participation, 2) dignity and respect, 3) neutrality, and 4) trustworthy motives. The officers were given cue cards to the script, and prior to starting their shift at the pre-made RBT roadblocks, were briefed by their senior officers. Officers emphasized to motorists they pulled over that they had been randomly stopped to reinforce the “neutrality” element. Additionally, citizens were given the opportunity to voice their opinions of the police via short conversation initiated by the officer within which they were asked what problems they saw as priorities pertaining to policing, and were also provided with a community bulletin that illustrated the police priority problems, upcoming events, as well as contact info. Drivers who received the experimental RBT encounter were 1.24 times more likely to report that their views on drinking and driving had changed than the control group, and the experimental respondents reported small but higher levels of compliance and satisfaction with police during the encounter than did their control group counterparts.

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Policy Implications

The resulting implication that police have much to gain from fair treatment and interactions with citizens, can shape the manner in which implicit bias and procedural justice trainings are implemented. The use of senior officers to develop short scripts, allows the interactions between police and citizens to occur professionally and in line with the expectations of a police officer.

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