Procedural justice, routine encounters and citizen perceptions of police: main findings from the Queensland Community Engagement Trial (QCET)

Abstract

Objectives

To test, under randomized field trial conditions, the impact of police using the principles of procedural justice during routine encounters with citizens on attitudes towards drink-driving, perceptions of compliance, and their satisfaction with the police.

Methods

We conducted the first randomized field trial—the ‘Queensland Community Engagement Trial’ (QCET)—to test the impact of police engaging with citizens by operationalizing the key ingredients of procedural justice (neutrality, citizen participation, respect, and trustworthy motives) in a short, high-volume police–citizen encounter. We randomly allocated 60 roadside Random Breath Testing (RBT) operations to control (business-as-usual) and experimental (procedural justice) conditions. Driver surveys were used to measure the key outcomes: attitudes towards drinking and driving, satisfaction with police and perceptions of compliance.

Results

Citizen perceptions of the encounter revealed that the experimental treatment was delivered as planned. We also found significant differences between the experimental and control groups on all key outcome measures: drivers who received the experimental RBT encounter were 1.24 times more likely to report that their views on drinking and driving had changed than the control group; experimental respondents reported small but higher levels of compliance (d = .07) and satisfaction (d = .18) with police during the encounter than did their control group counterparts.

Conclusions

Our results show that the way citizens perceive the police can be influenced by the way in which police interact with citizens during routine encounters, and demonstrate the positive benefits of police using the principles of procedural justice. Our study was limited by the use of paper-only surveys and low response rate. We also recognize that the experiment setting (RBT road blocks) is limiting and non-reflective of the wider set of routine police–citizen encounters. Future research should be undertaken, using experimental methods, to replicate our field operationalization of procedural justice in different types of police–citizen encounters.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Queensland’s road death rate in the calendar year 2009 was 7.5 per 100,000 population. The national road toll for the same year stood at 6.9 per 100,000 population (Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics 2010). The Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads in partnership with the QPS is striving to reduce the toll per 100,000 population to 5.6 by the year 2011 as outlined in the Queensland Road Safety Action Plan 2010–2011.

  2. 2.

    We recognize the weakness of providing drivers with only a hard copy format for completing the survey. In a subsequent replication of QCET in South Carolina, we provide an online option for completing the survey.

  3. 3.

    The experimental intervention posed two potential design dangers: First, our pilot test demonstrated that the time taken to generate 300 experimental police–citizen encounters pushed the boundaries for the police both because the 300 encounters were very fatiguing for the police and because the 300 encounters maxed out the time available for the officers in a standard four-hour RBT operation. Second, we were concerned that the experimental intervention might generate a higher response rate amongst citizens than the control condition. This would prove problematic for our trial as it would indicate that the intervention itself created bias in the response patterns. Based on research by Raudenbush and Sampson (1999), we knew that we would need a minimum of 30 responses per operation for us to generate any reliable and valid ‘ecometric’ results. As such, we sought to fail-proof our experiment by distributing 400 surveys to drivers per control operation and 300 surveys to drivers per experimental operation. By making this a priori decision, we knew that we would generate at least 30 returned surveys per operation, thus enabling us to analyze the results one of two ways: if there was indeed a difference in the response rates between the control and experimental conditions, we would at least have a minimum number of responses per operation to explore ecometric differences between the two groups. Alternatively, if the intervention generated the same response rates, we could proceed to analyze the experiment without correcting for the response bias. It turned out to be the latter.

  4. 4.

    Survey questions: Please indicate how much you agree or disagree with the following statements. During this last RBT encounter…

    1. 1.

      The police officer was fair when making the decision to stop me

    2. 2.

      The police officer gave me the opportunity to express my views

    3. 3.

      The police officer listened to me during the RBT

    4. 4.

      The police officer treated me with dignity and respect

    5. 5.

      The police officer was polite when dealing with me

    6. 6.

      I felt that the police officer was trustworthy

    7. 7.

      I had confidence that the police officer was doing the right thing

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Acknowledgements

The QCET was funded, in its entirety, by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security (CEPS). The authors acknowledge the assistance provided by the Queensland Police Service. The views expressed in this material are those of the authors and are not those of the Queensland Police Service. Responsibility for any errors of omission or commission remains with the authors. The Queensland Police Service expressly disclaims any liability for any damage resulting from the use of the material contained in this publication and will not be responsible for any loss, howsoever arising, from use or reliance on this material. The authors thank the Queensland Police Service for their leadership throughout the trial, in particular Assistant Commissioners Peter Martin, Brett Pointing, Ann Lewis, and Kim Adams, Superintendents Tonya Carew, Ron Cooper and Tony Rand, Inspector Pete Hosking, A/Inspector Shaun Dinon and Senior Sergeants Stephen Peck and Neale Stonely, who all demonstrated remarkable innovation during the development and implementation of QCET. We also appreciate the efforts of the Metropolitan South Region traffic officers, who readily engaged with the trial. The authors thank Patricia Ferguson, Dr Silke Meyer, Elise Sargeant and Renee Zahnow for their assistance in observing QCET operations; Linzie Jones for data entry; and Jacqueline Davis and Dr Gentry White for statistical advice. The authors also acknowledge A/Professor Kristina Murphy for her valued assistance in developing the QCET survey and appreciate the fantastic feedback and guidance provided by the JOEX Editor, Professor David Weisburd, and the anonymous reviewers during the peer review process.

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Correspondence to Lorraine Mazerolle.

Appendix A

Appendix A

Table 4 Cue Card Provided to Officers. Front-side of script provided to officers to guide verbal message delivered to drivers in the experimental condition and the elements of procedural justice represented (final column)

Appendix B

Table 5 Demographic composition of final sample

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Mazerolle, L., Bennett, S., Antrobus, E. et al. Procedural justice, routine encounters and citizen perceptions of police: main findings from the Queensland Community Engagement Trial (QCET). J Exp Criminol 8, 343–367 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-012-9160-1

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Keywords

  • Police legitimacy
  • Procedural justice
  • Randomized field trial
  • Random breath tests