Lawful or Fair? How Cops and Laypeople Perceive Good Policing

Meares, Tracey L., Tyler, Tom R., Gardener, Jacob | January 1, 2015

Legal authorities and the public live in two separate worlds. One world is suffused with law, and the other world is suffused with people’s lived experiences that support their evaluations of fairness. When legal authorities consider whether police policies and practices are desirable, a framework regarding the lawfulness of the relevant policies and practices dominates the conversation. Police departments, their policies, and police officers’ actions are viewed as right or wrong with reference to constitutional standards, as interpreted by prosecutors, judges, and other legal actors. In contrast, we argue that the public is generally insensitive to the question of whether police officers act consistently with constitutional standards. Instead, the public evaluates the propriety of police actions primarily by assessing whether police officers exercise their authority with “procedural fairness.”

We rely on the results of an innovative nationwide experimental survey involving respondents from representative American cities. Each survey respondent completed a questionnaire and then watched and reacted to three videos of police–citizen interactions. We argue that the actual lawfulness of police action has at best a minor influence on public evaluations of appropriate police behavior. Public judgments about whether police officers should be disciplined for misconduct are largely shaped by people’s procedural justice evaluations.

We believe that these findings strongly support the need for police to broaden the framework within which they evaluate a variety of types of policing policy—racial profiling, zero tolerance policing, street stops, mosque surveillance, etc.—to include an understanding of how these policies and practices impact public views about the appropriateness of police conduct. Whether policies comport with constitutional standards alone is an impoverished way to judge the rightfulness of police action. Further, our findings point the way toward creating relationships between the police and the public that both enhance cooperative efforts to maintain social order and build people’s identification with and commitment to both the communities in which they live and to law and government. That broader framework requires evaluating police policies and practices with reference to public conceptions of procedural justice.