A controlled experiment focuses on improved police method

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In recent decades, much emphasis has been placed on techniques that fall under the concept of ‘proactive policing’. These generally include identifying the areas of a city with the highest crime rates and applying more aggressive policing to those locations. While there have been some successes, the approach has often sparked resentment, as methods such as stop-and-frisk policing created antagonism between the police and the communities they were supposed to help.

In a 2018 report on proactive policing, the U.S. National Academies of Science examined approaches designed to prevent intensive policing from causing friction with communities. The report found that a promising technique called “procedural justice” had no evidence of efficacy — we couldn’t say whether it consistently reduced crime and/or improved community relations.

So some people behind the National Academies’ report decided to change that by conducting their own controlled trial of procedural justice in three US cities. The results are inconclusive, but they suggest the technique could reduce crime and friction in the community.

According to the books

Procedural justice applies to much more than just policing, but its basic principles have an obvious utility. The basic idea is that any process, including policing, should be transparent enough that everyone involved believes things are being handled fairly. When applied to police, this also includes the respectful treatment of people being targeted. In practical terms, the authors of the article say that the police are displaying neutrality and trustworthy motives, respecting the people in the community and giving them a chance to voice their concerns.

To find out if this approach is effective, the research team worked with law enforcement in two major US cities (Phoenix and Houston) and a smaller city (Cambridge, Massachusetts). Using crime data, the investigators and police identified crime ‘hotspots’ in residential areas and instructed officers to do intensive policing in those areas.

Some of those officers were randomly chosen to undergo an intensive 40-hour training course on how to use procedural justice in the police force. Prior to the start of the study, residents of those hotspots were questioned about their attitude towards the police; the study was also repeated after the study period. During the police period, all officers had an investigator ride at least one shift to evaluate how well the police conducted their training.

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Finally, changes in crime rates were calculated compared to the pre-experiment baseline.

It seems to work (with caveats)

One thing that clearly works is the training. Officers who experienced it were much more likely to let community members have their say in disputes, displayed more respectful behavior, and were better at declaring neutrality in their interactions. (Or at least the interactions a researcher observed.) One caveat to this study is that the agents could have been more cautious about using procedural justice approaches if they knew they were being watched. But at least it was clear that officers knew how to act.

But arrest statistics suggest that this disparity persisted even if the police were not observed, as the number of arrests among officers who received the training fell by more than 60 percent. This indicates a much less aggressive approach to the community, despite the increased presence of police officers in the neighbourhoods. Crime in areas where officers had received procedural law training also fell by 14 percent compared to areas where other police officers were deployed for intensive police work.

The only thing that hadn’t clearly improved was how the community viewed the police. In areas where police were assigned who had not been trained in procedural justice, community surveys found that people viewed the police as harassing community members and using unnecessary force. This did not happen in areas where the officers had received the training, but the general attitude of the community about the police did not flinch.

While these tests collectively could achieve statistical significance for most measures, the study was too small to make effective city-to-city comparisons, or figure out numbers based on crimes. The pandemic also started after the tests were completed, drastically reducing response to follow-up surveys, so the community’s attitude should be taken with a grain of salt.

Still, the work provides fairly solid evidence that the approach makes for effective policing and can ultimately change community attitudes, if given enough time. While we’d like to see repetition before pushing for extensive policy changes, it’s refreshing to see researchers responding to a lack of information on such an important topic by doing the hard work it takes to change the situation.

PNAS, 2022. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2118780119 (About DOIs).

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