The police should be guardians, not warriors

A new approach to policing

From police brutality in the United States, to an 'institutionally sexist, racist and homophobic' police in the UK, policing faces an uncertain future. Professor Mike Hough offers his insight into the damning Casey Review as a missed opportunity to engage with key issues, and proposes how a better engagement with procedural justice and combatting ‘warrior mentality’ might restore legitimacy.


The Casey Review of the MPS was commissioned in the wake of the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, Wayne Couzens. It is clearly an important and valuable document. However, it fails to use a rich research literature which addresses the legitimacy of policing through the lens of procedural justice theory. Its analysis of the problems of the Met is sharp and accurate, and I hope it will prove helpful in the process of reforming and rebuilding the Met. It has significant recommendations about organisational changes that are needed. The following comments are not intended to detract from its value, but to suggest ways in which its impact can be enhanced. Attending to the findings of procedural justice theory would permit greater specificity and clarity in proposals for rebuilding trust in the Met.

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The intellectual underpinning on which the report is built is policing by consent –  the principle upon which Robert Peel and his first Commissioners Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne founded the Met in 1829. The Casey report takes this principle as self-evidently important, with public consent flowing from the legitimacy that the public confers on the police, and the trust in the police that builds this legitimacy. I have no problem in agreeing with this, but over the last twenty years, policing scholars have built up a substantial evidence base about: the various forms that trust in the police takes; the relationships between different forms of trust in the police and police legitimacy; and the relationships between legitimacy and compliance. This body of work offers clear pointers to ways of rebuilding trust in the police when it has been squandered, and it is a shame that the report fails to engage with it. Whilst the report’s call to rebuild trust and foster police legitimacy is absolutely correct, procedural justice theory can help to identify the dimensions of trust that can realistically be strengthened, and the ways in which this can be done.

Louise Casey and her team will most certainly have been aware of procedural justice theory, but the report is strikingly silent on any reference to it. They may well have taken a decision to avoid any ‘intellectualising’ tone in the report, and to settle for a report that used direct and plain language that will best reach their key audiences – something that they have certainly achieved. Embracing the academic evidence might have strengthened the report, however, in spelling out more clearly how trust needs to be rebuilt. The obvious model is the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.


There needs to be procedural justice within police departments if treatment of the public is to improve


This report was commissioned by President Obama in the wake of the killing by a police officer of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It was a response to events different from – but not totally dissimilar to – those that led to the Casey Review: an unjustified killing by a police officer of a vulnerable person, in the wake of a number of previous scandals. The following quote is from the first page of the report:

Decades of research and practice support the premise that people are more likely to obey the law when they believe that those who are enforcing it have authority that is perceived as legitimate by those subject to the authority. The public confers legitimacy only on those whom they believe are acting in procedurally just ways ...  Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian—rather than a warrior—mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public. Toward that end, law enforcement agencies should adopt procedural justice as the guiding principle for internal and external policies and practices to guide their interactions with rank and file officers and with the citizens they serve.

The Task Force report is structured around six ‘pillars’ or themes, the first pillar focussing on approaches to building trust and legitimacy. Drawing closely on Procedural Justice Theory, it sets out with impressive clarity what is actually involved in rebuilding trust and legitimacy – and the mindsets and occupational culture that need to be fostered within police departments. It sets out clear ways in which fairer treatment of the public will improve trust. It also makes the important point that there needs to be procedural justice within police departments if treatment of the public is to improve. 

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One of my colleagues, in the course of an observational study of street policing, discussed with officers their use of stop-and-search. One officer memorably said that he would rather stop and search more young people and stretch the boundaries of reasonable suspicion than turn up at a parent’s front door to tell them their child is either dead or in hospital. He thought that people needed to decide what they want: aggressive policing that keeps kids alive or ‘nicey nicey policing’ and more dead or injured kids. It is this ‘warrior mentality’ that needs to be tackled in the Met, and in implementing the Casey recommendations, Met leaders need to set out clearly for the workforce what their preferred alternative is to that warrior mindset.

Procedural justice theory sets out a persuasive set of options, which are applicable to a wide range of police settings. The dimension of trust that has the strongest association with levels of legitimacy is trust in procedural fairness. Procedural fairness here means: treating people with dignity and respect; giving them voice – or listening to them; being unbiassed and explaining the reasons for decisions; and conveying trustworthy motives. If police routinely treated their publics in this ‘nicey nicey’ way, this would consolidate their legitimacy and lead to increased compliance with the law. And as a by-product, it would lead to improved officer safety, higher job-satisfaction, improved well-being, and reduced sickness.

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