The Impact of Psychological Science on Policing in the United States: Procedural Justice, Legitimacy, and Effective Law Enforcement

The May 2015 release of the report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing highlighted a fundamental change in the issues dominating discussions about policing in America. That change has moved discussions away from a focus on what is legal or effective in crime control and toward a concern for how the actions of the police influence public trust and confidence in the police. This shift in discourse has been motivated by two factors—first, the recognition by public officials that increases in the professionalism of the police and dramatic declines in the rate of crime have not led to increases in police legitimacy, and second, greater awareness of the limits of the dominant coercive model of policing and of the benefits of an alternative and more consensual model based on public trust and confidence in the police and legal system. Psychological research has played an important role in legitimating this change in the way policymakers think about policing by demonstrating that perceived legitimacy shapes a set of lawrelated behaviors as well as or better than concerns about the risk of punishment. Those behaviors include compliance with the law and cooperation with legal authorities. These findings demonstrate that legal authorities gain by a focus on legitimacy. Psychological research has further contributed by articulating and demonstrating empirical support for a central role of procedural justice in shaping legitimacy, providing legal authorities with a clear road map of strategies for creating and maintaining public trust. Given evidence of the benefits of legitimacy and a set of guidelines concerning its antecedents, policymakers have increasingly focused on the question of public trust when considering issues in policing. The acceptance of a legitimacy-based consensual model of police authority building on theories and research studies originating within psychology illustrates how psychology can contribute to the development of evidence-based policies in the field of criminal law. Read on here.