The topic of police reform has received a great deal of attention in academic and policy circles in recent years. One of the most influential frames for the police reform conversation has been procedural justice. Procedural justice, closely associated with the work of Tom Tyler, has replaced a number of other theories of police reform that have fallen, at least temporarily, into the dustbin of history. The procedural justice reform frame focuses on increasing police legitimacy and restoring community trust in the police to improve legal compliance. To achieve that goal, police officers are encouraged to respect human dignity and equality by treating all people with respect, by listening as people express their concerns and feelings in the course of their interactions with police, and by policing in a neutral, nondiscriminatory way. This procedural justice approach stood at the center of the May 2015 Final Report of the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing and police departments across the country have adopted procedural justice approaches and practices over the past few years.
Enter Monica Bell. Drawing on narrative data that she, along with a research team, collected in Baltimore, Maryland, in the wake of the police killing of Freddie Gray, Bell explains what is missing from the procedural justice frame. She argues that procedural justice centers concerns about compliance with the law, and consequently, focuses on increasing legitimacy in individual interactions to improve compliance. Or, as she puts it “in the version of legitimacy theory that policymakers have adopted most completely, trust between police and communities is understood as a problem of illegitimacy: the key concern is the degree to which people will choose to obey the law and its enforcers.” (P. 2072.) The intellectual origin of this model is Weberian analysis of the subjective process of legitimation, achieved through procedure and consent. The core analytical question at issue in this model is how to legitimate law enforcement in the eyes of the individual, thereby achieving greater compliance with the law. Procedural justice is the answer to this question. Continue reading "Addressing Legal Estrangement"