Policing and Procedural Justice: Shaping Citizens’ Identities to Increase Democratic Participation

Meares, Tracey | August 1, 2017

Like the education system, the criminal justice system offers both formal, overt curricula—found in the Bill of Rights, and informal or “hidden” curricula—embodied in how people are treated in interactions with legal authorities in courtrooms and on the streets. The overt policing curriculum identifies police officers as “peace officers” tasked with public safety and concern for individual rights, but the hidden curriculum, fraught with racially targeted stop and frisks and unconstitutional exercises of force, teaches many that they are members of a special, dangerous, and undesirable class. The social psychology of how people understand the fairness of legal authorities—procedural justice—is one way to understand these practices and their effects, and to improve relationships between law enforcement and the public. Procedural justice posits that people are likely to comply with the law, cooperate with authorities, and engage with them when they are treated fairly, which the public tends to interpret through how they are treated as opposed to focusing on the outcomes of authorities’ decisions. Research suggests that the way police treat citizens impacts how people think of themselves, especially how they think of themselves as citizens. Positive changes in procedural justice may encourage more democratic participation in government.