In a long series of influential papers over many years, the social psychologist Tom Tyler has explored the relationship between procedural justice and cooperation with legal authorities. In a nutshell, here is his claim: The primary reason that people obey the law and cooperate with legal authorities is not fear of adverse consequence if they don’t, but rather a sense that the legal system has legitimacy. And these critical perceptions of legitimacy seem closely related to whether the legal authorities are perceived to act in a procedurally just manner. Tyler has identified several key components to procedural justice, but the most important may be neutrality. Thus, police actions that are perceived as lacking in neutrality, such as racial profiling, may actually be counterproductive from a law-enforcement perspective; they are apt to undermine the legitimacy of the police in the minds of the public, and thereby undercut public cooperation. (For an attempt to apply Tyler’s procedural justice model to plea bargaining, see my article here.)
Tyler now has a new coauthored article that evaluates the procedural justice model in a new setting with a new population: Aziz Z. Huq, Tom R. Tyler, & Stephen J. Schulhofer, “Why Does the Public Cooperate With Law Enforcement? The Influence of the Purposes and Targets of Policing,” 17 Psych., Pub. Pol’y, & L. 419 (2011). Specifically, through a series of surveys, the authors sought to compare procedural justice effects in the anti-terrorism setting with the conventional anti-crime setting, and as between Muslims and non-Muslims.
In brief, they found no real differences. Neutrality and the other aspects of procedural justice correlate with perceived legitimacy and cooperativeness even in the anti-terror setting and among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
I found particularly interesting the discussion of “spillover effects,” that is, the tendency of unfair targeting of certain populations to undermine the legitimacy of the police even among those who do not belong to the targeted group:
The second question focuses on spillover effects. Such effects would reflect concern by non-targeted populations about the actions of the police when dealing with the targeted population. . . .
The results indicate that White respondents view the police as less fair and less legitimate if they target minorities. The corrosive effect of this belief on majority legitimacy judgments is stronger if White respondents view that behavior as motivated by police prejudice and if White respondents believe that police are harassing minorities.
Can the same spillover effects be observed in counterterrorism policing? Table 6 reports a parallel analysis for the counterterrorism data. Table 7 presents data on whether different kinds of policing tactics have different effects on Muslim and non-Muslim populations.
As Table 6 shows, non-Muslims view the police as unfair and less legitimate if they target the Muslim community and if they treat Muslims disrespectfully. Police suspicion of Muslims, interestingly, is not viewed as unfair either among Muslim or non-Muslim respondents, but the data suggest that such suspicions would be damaging if they led to targeting of the Muslim community or harassment of Muslims. Hence, spillover effects from police treatment of minorities are relevant to counterterrorism policing as well as crime control. (428-29)
I also thought it was interesting that survey respondents reacted quite differently to public and private intrusions by law enforcement:
“Public” actions are actions such as searching bags at train stations, while “private” actions are actions such as wiretaps or clandestine searches of homes that are not publicized or otherwise visible. An analysis of such police actions is presented in Table 7. This shows that non-Muslims and Muslims have similar beliefs about the frequency and the intrusiveness of policing measures. Both sets of respondents indicated that similar levels of police intrusions were occurring. Both groups also linked public intrusions to unfairness and lower legitimacy. Neither group, however, viewed police intrusions that did not happen in public as undermining fairness or legitimacy. (429-31)
Here is the authors’ bottom line:
In sum, even though terrorism is generally perceived as presenting greater potential harms than ordinary crime (Stuntz, 2002), that perception does not appear to dilute or mitigate expectations of procedural justice: Even when police confront grave threats, both minority and majority populations expect law enforcement officers to respect procedural justice values and are more likely to withhold their cooperation if they do not. It is especially striking in this respect that non-Muslims, who rate the threat of terror as larger than do Muslims, are nonetheless sensitive to procedural justice in counterterrorism policing, particularly the targeting and harassment of Muslims. (436)
To be sure, this study is subject to at least a couple of standard criticisms of much of the research on procedural justice. First, correlation does not imply causation; although cooperative attitudes may accompany perceptions that the police act with neutrality, it is not certain that good conduct by the police causes positive attitudes (or, for that matter, that biased policing causes uncooperative attitudes). Second, the research is based on self-reporting of perceptions by study participants in a survey setting, which may or may not reliably translate into feelings and actions on the street.
Still, as discussed in greater detail in my article, the volume of research pointing to procedural justice effects is quite impressive, consistently finding such effects in a wide variety of settings with a wide variety of populations over a period of many years. Given its consisentency with so much other research, the latest findings by Tyler and his coauthors seem considerably more compelling than they would standing alone.