From coercion to consent: social identity, legitimacy, and a process model of police procedural justice (CONSIL).

Lead Research Organisation: Keele University
Department Name: Faculty of Natural Sciences


The concept of legitimacy lies at the heart of democratic policing: in a democratic society, police must seek and maintain public support by acting impartially, using coercion proportionately, and persuading the citizenry that they are an institution that is entitled to be obeyed. Yet, there are multiple highly marginalised communities for whom perceptions of police illegitimacy, non-compliance, conflict, and experiences of police coercion are the norm. With its central focus on fairness, legitimacy, identification between police and public, and normative compliance, Procedural Justice Theory (PJT) is a useful model to understand how to improve police community relations. But there are several aspects of the theory that limit its policy relevance in relation to policing marginalised groups - i.e. those with whom police have most contact.

First, PJT research focuses on the general population and only infrequently on sub-populations. While we know much about how people in general understand and read policing, and the role of fairness in such understandings, we know less about how general experiences feed across to those parts of the population who have most at stake in their interactions with officers, who have long histories of problematic relations with police, and/or are increasingly the focus of police strategic priorities (e.g. safeguarding, radicalisation, anti-social behaviour, protest groups). Second, there is a heavy reliance in extant research on survey data and correlational analysis, and there is a pressing need for laboratory-based experiments to establish causal relations and delineate the subjective processes linking procedural justice, legitimacy, and law-related behaviour. Third, there is a related failure to address the nature and role of social identity, intergroup relations, and the dynamics of police-public interaction as mediators of fairness, legitimacy, and compliance.

This project will address these limitations by developing two parallel programmes of research. First, we will use ethnographic methods to obtain direct semi-structured observational data of a series of police interactions with marginalised groups across a range of contexts. We will conduct interviews with the people involved in those encounters (police, 'citizen', observer) to interpret how encounters were experienced, processed, and judged. When arrests (or other forms of criminal justice action) take place, we will develop longitudinal data by tracking those individuals through the criminal justice processes, undertaking a further series of interviews and questionnaires with various stakeholders involved in that process. We will also have access to statistical data concerning the nature and context of the encounters (e.g. stop and search statistics). Second, we will translate a series of police-public encounters into a fully immersive Virtual Reality (VR) programme that participants will experience via headsets to engineer a series of experimental studies.

Both experimental and ethnographic strands will explore the following questions: 1) What specific role(s) does 'social identity' play in perceptions of procedural fairness? 2) What contextual factors shape people's perceptions of the fairness of police activity and how do these change through and within interaction? 3) Are marginalized/excluded groups attuned to the fairness of police behaviour in different ways, and how do the dynamics of interaction with police officers shape or undermine this marginalisation? 4) What effect does the experience of police procedural (in)justice have on the subsequent behaviour of the individuals concerned? By addressing these questions the project will advance our theoretical understanding of the ways police can move away from coercion toward a consent-based approach among highly marginalised and 'difficult to reach' groups; theoretical knowledge that will provide applied benefit for a range of different stakeholders.

Planned Impact

The primary academic beneficiaries of our research will be researchers interested in policing, procedural justice, and social identity; primarily in social sciences including law, criminology, and social psychology. The external beneficiaries will be police forces at a national and international level. The knowledge produced will be of benefit in terms of reducing the likelihood of police coercion and improving police public relationships, particularly regarding marginalised groups.

This project is timely. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of the Constabulary (HMIC), the UK's main police oversight body, has since 2014 conducted an annual 'PEEL Inspection' of every force in the UK, evaluating them in terms of the legitimacy with which they operate. These reviews ensure that the issue of police legitimacy and procedural fairness is, and will remain, high on the strategic agendas for our police partners. This will help ensure a resilient senior level interest in our research, above and beyond the specific involvement of any one individual commander.

Pathways to impact are built into the foundations of this project through formal partnership of three of the UK's largest urban police forces. Senior Officers from our partner forces were instrumental in helping define the research questions of the project via a workshop, funded by the University of Keele in February 2017. This knowledge co-production framework ensures that project findings will be considered at various levels throughout each organisation, maximising opportunities for research findings to be integrated into policy changes and reforms of operational practice. Given the size and influence of our partners it is also likely that our research will go on to impact upon other police forces outside our immediate collaborative framework, nationally and internationally. To further reinforce this capacity for co-production we will involve Senior Officers in an Advisory Group, that will meet annually. On a day to day basis partner forces will allocate a single point of contact (usually a senior officer) throughout the duration of the project and who will sit on a Steering Group that will meet twice a year. These individuals will act as a conduit directing project relevant findings into their organisation via the various Departments and Business Areas.

The academic research team is also highly experienced in creating impact and uniquely positioned to disseminate research findings via their respective institutions. The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and the London Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) have partnered with University College London (UCL) to establish 'The Institute for Global City Policing', the first formal research partnership between the MPS and academia. The Institute will focus on the challenges faced by police in global cities such as London, and on the essential work of building the evidence base for policing in the capital itself. Professor Ben Bradford is the Director of the Institute and will be ideally positioned to integrate the project's research findings into policy and practice with the UK's largest police force. Also, Keele University has formally partnered with West Midlands Police and Office of the Police and Crime Commissioners to establish a strategic inter-disciplinary Research Centre focused on knowledge coproduction. Keele Policing Academic Collaboration (KPAC) is a formal aspect of University's research strategy, has a salaried Centre Manager focused on engagement and is one of the UK's most significant academic policing research centres. As such the centre provides an existing institutional platform through which research findings can be disseminated from Keele University to regional, national, and international policing partners. Our end of project conference will also involve representatives from police forces from across and beyond UK and as such will also act as a platform for generating further pathways to impact.


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