By Stefanie Kouremetis,
Community Engagement Program Coordinator
Most people will not write a commendation for an officer who issues them a speeding ticket. One motorist, who previously had negative experiences with authority figures, was inspired to do so stating:
“Obviously I was pulled over and cited as I was in the wrong. However, the way Officer Blinn talked to me and provided details of the law was a refreshing experience to see that he cared about my safety as well as making sure I understood.”
Although outcome, i.e. a speeding ticket, frequently factors into the overall assessment of a police interaction, the process associated with arriving at that outcome usually has a greater impact as is evident in the example above. “Process” is the focus of Procedural Justice, a national initiative that provides a framework for police interactions with the public. Tigard Police Chief McAlpine defines Procedural Justice as “treating people how you would want an officer to treat your family member and how you would want to be treated—with dignity and respect.” The four central principles for this initiative:
- Treating people fairly and consistently
- Giving citizens a “voice” during the encounter. “It’s not about head-nodding—it’s really being heard and understanding where the citizen is coming from.”
- Being impartial and unbiased in decision making
- Providing transparency and an open process. When officers can articulate how they arrived at a decision, the public will be more accepting of the results
Chief McAlpine has been rolling out Procedural Justice to the Department over the last few months through discussions at leadership meetings, shift briefings and, more formally, at trainings held last month. Although officers already employ these principles in many of their interactions, this framework establishes expectations, a common language and provides a guide for evaluating responses to further embed the principles into the Department’s culture.
If officers must abruptly end an interaction to pursue an urgent lead or respond to the next call, they may not thoroughly communicate the reason for a police contact or the tactics employed in the exchange. “If you do not fill in the blanks, citizens will do that for you,” says Chief McAlpine. Filling in those blanks may lead to the conclusion that the contact or tactics used were motivated by race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or other factors. During a late night, officers were dispatched to a report of a man wielding a baseball bat in downtown Tigard. Planning for safety, several Tigard officers responded with back up from other agencies. Discovering that the man was a new business owner who posed no threat to the community, officers left for the next call before fully explaining what necessitated their level of response. Without that information, the business owner concluded that number of officers and the tactics used were excessive and motivated by his race. He reported his dissatisfaction to police supervisors, which opened up a dialogue about his experience and the Department’s approach to calls for service that present risks to officer safety, leaving both parties with better understanding and connection. Ultimately he felt heard. Conveying the motives associated with an interaction—whether an officer or sergeant remains behind to debrief about the situation or follows up later—can mitigate frustrations and suspicions that may follow.
When police work embodies these principles, the community trusts and supports officers. Community members are more likely to comply with laws and partner with law enforcement on issues affecting them. “If you trust me, you’re apt to pick up the phone and communicate when there is a problem in your neighborhood. This work will help us strengthen relationships with residents of diverse ethnicities, races, socioeconomic and other backgrounds,” says McAlpine.
Chief McAlpine found that officers’ responses to a survey about the qualities they valued in a work environment mirrored the principles of Procedural Justice. As important as the initiative is for the public, it is equally important to apply these principles internally. The overarching goal of adopting this framework is to continue to build trust and legitimacy with the Tigard community and within the Department.