If Only Cops Were More Like Customer Service Representatives

That people are searching for solutions to improve the relationship between police and the public is good. Better than good. Great. But that doesn’t mean any idea that fits inside a fortune cookie is worthy of serious consideration, even if it is, apparently, worthy of space on the pages of the New York Times.*

Beginning with the requisite anecdote, this one about Stockton, California and its police chief, Eric Jones, building “public trust,” former Times editorial board member Tina Rosenberg Timesspslains “a strategy to build police-citizen trust.”

Stockton is one of six American cities taking part in a new experimentfunded by the Department of Justice. (The others are Birmingham, Ala.; Pittsburgh; Gary, Ind.; Fort Worth; and Minneapolis.) The cities are beginning programs to promote racial reconciliation; to address the racial biases all of us carry; and to gain the community’s trust using an idea known as procedural justice.

Well, promoting racial reconciliation sounds nice. Gaining the community’s trust is a good thing. But what’s this “idea known as procedural justice”?

Procedural justice has become one of the most important strategies for changing direction — perhaps the most important. In 2014, the White House convened the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which published its report (pdf) last year. Its first recommendation: build trust and legitimacy, using procedural justice. Now many major police forces, including New York City’s, are starting to use it.

Okay, procedural justice is important, “perhaps the most important,” strategy. So what it is it?

“People want to believe whatever action police and authorities are taking is being done for good reason — that it’s equitable and fair rather than personal and prejudicial. They want to be treated with respect,” he said. “And they want to have a chance to speak their piece.”

“But you don’t learn this in the first instance from social science literature,” Kennedy continued. “You learn it from your mother.”

All nice, though the “mother” part is somewhat problematic. You see, all the nice men and women who wear shields have already gone through the whole childhood thing. Whatever they might have learned from their mothers is already done. If they’re beating people for kicks, it’s a little too late to send them back to the womb for a do-over.

Jones began to try new approaches. The force began to work closely with clergy and the community. Then Jones learned about procedural justice. The Chicago Police Department had developed a course and was training all its officers. Stockton sent three officers to take the course, and then three more.

Aha! So procedural justice** isn’t an actual thing, but a course developed by the Chicago police. Because they’re having such great success in not murdering black kids on the streets, avoiding federal investigations into their civil rights violations, running black sites to interrogate, if not beat or kill, disappeared citizens, and giving Bill Lewinski walking around money.  Who wouldn’t want to emulate Chicago when it comes to building public trust?

The course has had two parts so far (Part 3, on implicit bias, starts next month). Part 1 covers basic principles, and the effects on officers of a constantly hostile relationship with the community — the stress, burnout and cynicism. That lesson gets particularly high marks from trainees, said Capt. Scott Meadors, who runs the training.

The trainees like it? Aren’t those the cops whose twisted minds you’re trying to change? But since it’s all about their sad, hard jobs, and how it’s stressful on them, what’s not to like? It’s certainly true that the job would be more pleasant if it was less stressful, but that doesn’t quite explain how one achieves happy cophood.

According to a couple police chiefs, it would all go much smoother if people would just do as they’re told. And indeed, that’s pretty much what procedural fairness justice is all about.

Part 2 applies the idea to what police face on the job. For example: Police officers have typically dismissed residents trying to enter a blocked-off street with a terse “You can’t go there.” The course teaches them to say instead something like: “We’ve got a report of an armed person in the neighborhood. Let us sort this out and you can get back to your house. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

So you still have to comply with whatever they command, but if they throw “Sorry for the inconvenience” on the back, it will suddenly make everybody trust them?  Because this has worked so well for customer service reps from Bangalore?

“I put that bullet in your friend’s head because I felt threatened by his mere existence. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

While the New York Times may not be strong on deep thought these days, of the sort that parses platitudes for effectiveness, they are still pretty good wordsmiths.  Note that the title says “strategy.” An accident?



1. a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.

Tactics, on the other hand, are the means by which a strategy is achieved. Throw around some fortune cookie wisdom about building trust, and wrap it up in a training course to teach police to say “sorry” as they order you to “get on the ground or die, motherfucker,” and there you go. Problem solved.

Words like trust and respect are wonderful words, and everybody feelz all warm and fuzzy when they’re offered as the goal to be achieved.  But pretending that the mere mention of these laudable goals will make them happen isn’t exactly a reality-based solution, particularly when the sub rosa message is that we can all enjoy trust and respect, as long as we do as the cops order and the cops pretend to be CSRs from Manila when issuing their commands.

And if the cops make a mistake, like forgetting to say “sorry for the inconvenience, asshole,” it won’t be their fault. Blame it on their mothers’ lousy job.

*The new Public Editor was queried about whether the Times had a liberal bent, which she blew off as a perception problem. After all, when the newsroom is filled with passionate progressives who aren’t able to include a Bernie Sanders quote in every story, it feels fair to them.

**One might wonder why, of all the names in the world, the name “procedural justice” was chosen. I know I do.

12 thoughts on “If Only Cops Were More Like Customer Service Representatives

  1. Patrick Maupin

    If cops were more like customer service reps, I’d be dead a dozen times over by now. Unless, of course, the similarity extended to the cops being thousands of miles away.

  2. Bruce Coulson

    Hmm… So the cops would be more sympathetic and apologetic, but have to follow a set of policies that allow for no discretion, and of course really can’t do anything to solve your immediate problem? (But you could always insist on speaking to their manager/supervisor…who also would be unable to assist you.)

    There would be some advantages; calls to the police could be outsourced to a call center, so that there never be an issue of anyone from the public injuring the tender feelings of an officer over the phone. And if the police failed to respond to a real emergency, it could be blamed on the poor policies of the outsourcing company, or if the police response was inappropriate, you could blame the call center for the poor information that was sent to the police, causing them to misunderstand and over-react to a situation.

  3. DaveL

    indeed, that’s pretty much what procedural fairness is all about.

    No, you’re thinking about procedural justice. Procedural fairness was due to be next year’s catchphrase. If you start conflating the two now, you’ll spoil some lawprof’s next book idea, no book means no royalties, and his children will go hungry. Please, think of the children.

  4. JAV

    So it’s not about dealing with LEO behaviors that disregard rights, and relies on confrontation, escalation, and violence? Just another example of what happens when feelz are more important that reality.

  5. Federico Wibmer

    I see The Gray Lady is still taking the Fast and the Furious approach to reporting. Twice the filler, half the content.

    1. DaveL

      Recycled content, at that. I would say it’s “community policing” all over again, but that would be a disservice to community policing, which had more in the way of concrete policy recommendations. This is more like an idea that The Cardigans elucidated back in 2005.

  6. David MeyerLindenberg

    Wow. If you clear away the bullshit, Rosenberg wants cops to use negotiation techniques so it’s less obvious when they’re violating someone’s rights. Awesome. And she thinks she’s striking a blow for police reform? Jesus.

  7. Keith Lynch

    If the police want to be trusted, maybe they should stop lying to
    suspects. There are still people who were raised to believe that good
    people never lie, and that police are good people. So when police
    lie to them, they get very confused, and may say things that out of
    context sound incriminating. TL;DR: If they want to be trusted,
    they should simply stop lying. And they shouldn’t be surprised if
    it takes a few decades before their current bad reputation wears off.

    1. SHG Post author

      You are a handsome and fascinating person, no matter what anyone says. Nonetheless, try to stay on topic. Just a little bit.

  8. MelK

    I’m sorry, but you handed me a straight line, and it absolutely begs for a computer science pun: They called it Procedural justice because they’d already tried Functional justice and found it too hard to maintain.

  9. losingtrader

    The police just need, as your related post points out, “new models.”
    For example,I used to have new business models all the time. They worked great, until my girlfriend found out.

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