Police Legitimacy and Procedural Justice: Theory and Practice

Police departments routinely assess officers’ performance, especially their productivity, but the ‘procedural justice’ with which officers treat citizens is seldom measured, except through citizen complaints, and it is rarely an outcome for which police managers are held accountable.  Procedural fairness is a matter of treating people with dignity and respect, listening to what they have to say, and explaining what is being done.  Officers’ conformity with principles of procedural fairness is of fundamental importance, as it affects police legitimacy – i.e., people’s trust in legal institutions, their cooperation with law enforcement, and even their compliance with the law.  One theory suggests that measuring police performance in these terms, and making it susceptible to police management, would improve all of these outcomes. Another theory, one of organizational “loose coupling,” suggests that managerial controls in “street-level bureaucracies” like police departments would not extend so far as the procedural justice with which officers act toward citizens.  With support from the National Institute of Justice, Finn Institute researchers tested these propositions and at the same time examined procedural justice in new ways.


The Institute’s research provided for measures of police performance based principally on surveys of citizens who had contacts with the Schenectady and Syracuse Police, and which were incorporated into the departments’ management accountability systems (i.e., Compstat).  In Schenectady, where in-car video is used, the survey-based measures were complemented with data coded from sampled video and audio recordings. The Institute’s study illuminates the promise and pitfalls of a procedural justice model of policing, by scrutinizing the ways in which police managers use the information on police performance and how patrol officers and supervisors react, and also through the unprecedented examination of citizens’ judgments about procedural justice in their encounters with police in terms of independent assessments of officers’ behavior in the same encounters.

Reports and Publications

Robert E. Worden and Sarah J. McLean, 2017.  Mirage of Police Reform: Procedural Justice and Police Legitimacy. Oakland, CA: University of California Press (https://doi.org/10.1525/luminos.30).

Robert E. Worden and Sarah J. McLean, 2018. “Measuring, Managing, and Enhancing Procedural Justice in Policing: Promise and Pitfalls,” Criminal Justice Policy Review 29 (2): 149-171. (Published on-line August 4, 2016; https://doi.org/10.1177/0887403416662505.)

Robert E. Worden and Sarah J. McLean, 2017.  “Research on Police Legitimacy: The State of the Art,” Policing: An International Journal 40 (3): 480-513


Robert E. Worden and Sarah J. McLean, 2017.  “Building Trust in the Police: What Really Works?” The Crime Report, July 18,


Robert E. Worden and Sarah J. McLean, 2015. “Police Legitimacy, Procedural Justice, and the Exercise of Police Authority,” Research in Brief, The Police Chief 82 (November): 14-16.

Robert E. Worden and Sarah J. McLean, 2014. Assessing Police Performance in Citizen Encounters: Police Legitimacy and Management Accountability.  Report to the National Institute of Justice.  Albany, NY: John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, Inc.  DOI 10.13140/2.1.2257.3125.