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Taking the step towards evidence-based police practices

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

In recent years, longstanding police interrogation methods have been criticized for their use of problematic psychological practices that often lead to false confessions and wrongful convictions. As empirical research into this topic has expanded, the call for police organizations to adopt more “evidence-based” practices has become clear. In spite of this, the acceptance and implementation of evidence-based policies in law enforcement agencies has proved to be difficult. Examining the factors that influence a department’s openness to change is key to promoting the successful implementation of such policies in the future.

In On the Importance of a Procedurally Fair Organizational Climate for Openness to Change in Law Enforcement, Brimbal and colleagues (2020) investigated factors that can correlate with a department’s willingness to accept new policies like these. Their first study consisted of several surveys of law enforcement officials who had previously been trained in advanced evidence-based practices – these surveys included questions about the level of procedural justice in their organization, their sense of rewards and sanctions, sense of empowerment, and willingness to comply with directives and engage in extra-role behavior. The results of these surveys indicated that law enforcement investigators who characterized their supervisors and higher management as behaving in a “procedurally fair and just” way identified with their organization to a higher degree, and therefore perceived their organization as more legitimate. Thus, these factors positively predicted ratings of compliance, empowerment, and extra-role behavior.

In the second study, the researchers had law enforcement officials participate in a training on evidence-based techniques and answered similar questions to that of study 1 to evaluate trainability and effectiveness of the introduced techniques. The results indicated that these procedural justice factors were related to openness to change. Additionally, officials’ motivation to attend training was, for obvious reasons, the most important factor in predicting likelihood of future use of evidence-based tactics.

These two studies point to the importance of procedural justice within law enforcement agencies. Procedural justice, especially when compared to other factors, proved to be a strong indicator of likelihood to adopt new evidence-based practices in the future. Officers who perceive their organizations as operating in a procedurally fair manner and see upper management and supervisors as fair, transparent, and trustworthy see themselves to be an important part of the organization and adopt any policies as their own. Such officers are more inclined to go above their duties, make decisions in the field, follow orders, and are the most open in implementing change and evidence-based interviewing techniques.

In this way, procedural justice’s influence is thought to be linked to psychological mechanisms of identity and legitimacy. When people feel that they are being treated fairly by their supervisors, they are more likely to be proud of their organization and their role within it. Those who identify strongly with their organization in this way follow its norms and rules as they have accepted them as their own. Likewise, procedural fairness contributes to an organization’s legitimacy in the eyes of the workers. In organizations that are thought to be procedurally fair, supervisors are seen as wielding their power in a fair and accountable way, thus motivating subordinates to obey and follow orders. Procedural justice has been found to be important in many aspects of the legal system – this study has identified that it is important within the police department (not just between the police department and citizens).

These studies are the first step in identifying potential factors that may influence law enforcement agencies towards the successful implementation of evidence-based practices. Looking forward, reconfiguring law enforcement agency’s structures and processes could be key to improving employee cooperation in the implementation of new programs of change.

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