Excerpted From: Jonathan Jackson, Tasseli McKay, Leonidas Cheliotis, Ben Bradford, Adam Fine and, Centering Race in Procedural Justice Theory: Structural Racism and the Under- and Overpolicing of Black Communities, 47 Law and Human Behavior 68(February 2023)(6 Footnotes/References )(Full Document)


00NoPictureHaving long played a role in telegraphing the second-class citizenship of communities of color(Weaver & Lerman, 2010), police agencies in the United States are receiving fresh scrutiny amid a wave of deadly police violence against Black people. The intensity and unprecedented scale of protests against policing since the killing of George Floyd have revived questions about excesses of the police, their popular legitimacy, and their need to reform. Now more than ever, we need to understand how racialized policing--including both the aggressive policing of Black communities and the lack of police protection in such communities--damages the legitimacy of the institution in the eyes of the public.

The U.S. President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing was convened just after civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere over the police killing of Michael Brown. Declaring that the first pillar of good policing was trust and legitimacy, the Task Force argued in their report that

building trust and nurturing legitimacy on both sides of the police/citizen divide is the foundational principle underlying the nature of relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve .... Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian--rather than a warrior--mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.

The report referenced procedural justice theory, which holds that respectful, accountable, and unbiased policing practices are key to winning trust and maintaining legitimacy. By sending relational messages of standing and inclusion, procedurally just policing motivates a sense of identification with the group(s) those authorities represent. Driven by procedural justice theory, scholars have presented an impressive amount of evidence that respectful, accountable, undiscriminating, and unbiased police behavior predicts legitimacy, cooperation, and compliance, which then reduces the need for intrusive, aggressive, and minimally effective policing.

Yet, tests of procedural justice theory rarely(if ever) directly assess how racialized policing damages police legitimacy; procedural justice scholars rarely(if ever) distinguish between perceptions of general police unfairness and perceptions of racially directed police unfairness. Because survey measures have been somewhat color-blind, we do not know whether delegitimating messages extend beyond the lack of status, dignity, and value, to also include racially motivated diminishment, domination, and the maintenance of established racialised hierarchies.

To address this gap in the literature, we drew on data from a cross-sectional quota sample survey of 1,500 U.S. residents conducted just after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020--a time of mass unrest in response to racially targeted police violence and murders. We examined whether people's perceptions of the under- and overpolicing of Black communities were important to the delegitimization of the police, in addition to more general issues of inclusion and fair process(procedural justice), equality across social groups(distributive justice), and respect for people's agency(bounded authority).

We also assessed whether perceptions of the under- and over-policing of Black communities were especially important to legitimacy perceptions among people who identify with the Black Lives Matter(BLM) movement. People who identified with BLM may have drawn stronger delegitimizing signals of racialized neglect, domination, and the arbitrary use of power over members of groups that have suffered from centuries of structural racism. We tested whether this was the case for Black and White participants alike.

[. . .]

The current research serves as proof of concept for an expanded procedural justice theory account that may be useful in future work on law enforcement approaches and police legitimacy in the context of structural racism in the United States. It suggests that, in the context of social inequalities and structural racism, legitimating norms may revolve around not only fair process, distribution, and agency but also racially directed questions of control, stigmatization, and the lack of protection for Black communities. If the law is enforced in ways that signal arbitrariness, exclusion, and a lack of protection to the communities being policed, then people may start to question whether power is being exercised not on their behalf but on them and over them. Crucially, this may extend not only to the individuals being policed in those ways but also to others in society who are concerned about systemic racism in policing.


Jennifer S. Hunt served as Action Editor.

Jonathan Jackson(iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2426-2219