Procedural Justice and Citizen Review of Complaints Against the Police: Structure, Outcomes, and Complainants’ Subjective Experiences

Published date01 March 2018
Date01 March 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Procedural Justice
and Citizen Review
of Complaints Against
the Police: Structure,
Outcomes, and
Subjective Experiences
Robert E. Worden
Heidi S. Bonner
, and
Sarah J. McLean
People who file complaints against the police tend to experience objectively unfavor-
able outcomes, for most complaints are not sustained. But features of citizen over-
sight might be expected to enhance the procedural justice of the complaint review
process and, hence, provide positive subjective experience despite the outcomes.
Using data collected through interviews with complainants about their experience
with complaint review in a city that provides for citizen oversight, we examine the
factors associated with complainants’ subjective experiences. We find that complain-
ants’ subjective experiences are shaped mainly by outcomes, while features of the
process that might be expected to enhance its procedural fairness have little or no
effect on complainants’ judgments.
citizen oversight, police complaint review, procedural justice
University at Albany, Albany, NY, USA
The John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, Inc., Albany, NY, USA
East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Robert E. Worden, The John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, Inc., 421 New Karner Road, Suite 12,
Albany, NY 12205, USA.
Police Quarterly
2018, Vol. 21(1) 77–108
!The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611117739812
Citizen oversight is commonly prescribed as a remedy for police misconduct.
Citizen involvement in the review of complaints against the police is expected to
better hold miscreant of‌f‌icers accountable for their actions, and hence to deter
police misconduct. In addition, citizen oversight is supposed to better meet the
expectations of complainants not only by substantiating the allegations that they
make but also by ensuring that the complaint review process is, and appears to
be, fair. Research suggests that the parties to disputes may be satisf‌ied with
procedures that they regard as fair even when the outcomes are not favorable
to them (e.g., Donner, Maskaly, Fridell, & Jennings, 2015; Kerstetter, 1996;
Lind & Tayler, 1988). Due to the ‘‘procedural justice’’ that civilian involvement
imparts to complaint review systems, then, the subjective experiences of com-
plainants should tend to be positive even when the objective outcomes are
unfavorable for them.
Unfortunately, the evidence that has accumulated on the operation and
impacts of citizen oversight is quite thin. Recounting the hypothesized ef‌fects
of citizen oversight on complaint review, the National Research Council’s
Committee to Review Research on Police Policies and Practice concluded that
‘‘little empirical evidence has been produced about the extent to which citizen
review meets these expectations’’ (2004, p. 203) and that ‘‘the popularity of
citizen review and optimism about its benef‌its far outstrip the empirical evidence
that citizen review has salutary ef‌fects’’ (2004, p. 204). More recently, the
President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing observed that ‘‘there are
important arguments for having civilian oversight even though we lack strong
research evidence that it works’’ (2015, p. 26). The Task Force went on to ‘‘urge
action on further research, based on the guiding principle of procedural justice,
to f‌ind evidence-based practices to implement successful civilian oversight mech-
anisms’’ (2015, p. 26).
We examine the subjective experiences of complainants in one city that pro-
vides for a form of citizen oversight. We analyze data collected through inter-
views with complainants to estimate the ef‌fects of structural and case-specif‌ic
factors on complainants’ procedural justice judgments about the complaint
review process and their satisfaction with it. We f‌ind that complainants’ subject-
ive experiences are shaped mainly by outcomes, while features of the process
have little or no ef‌fect on complainants’ judgments.
Citizen Oversight and Procedural Justice
Procedural justice consists of how authority is exercised. Social research has
identif‌ied several dimensions of ‘‘procedural fairness’’ (National Research
78 Police Quarterly 21(1)
Council, 2004, p. 304)
.Participation: ‘‘People are more satisf‌ied with procedures that allow them to
participate by explaining their situation and communicating their views about
situations to authorities.’’
.Neutrality: ‘‘People think that unbiased authorities that use objective indica-
tors to make decisions, as opposed to personal views, act more fairly.’’
.Dignity and respect: ‘‘The quality of interpersonal treatment is consistently
found to be a distinct element of fairness, separate from the quality of the
decision-making process.’’
[P]eople feel that procedures are fairer when they trust the motives of decision
makers ....Authorities can encourage people to view them as trustworthy by
explaining their decisions and accounting for their conduct in ways that make
clear their concern about giving attention to people’s needs.
These four dimensions are sometimes subsumed under two categories of
judgments: the quality of treatment and the quality of decision-making.
Participation (voice) and neutrality speak to the quality of decision-
making while dignity/respect and trustworthiness speak to the quality of
In the context of citizen oversight, procedural justice is presumably of critical
importance as the outcomes are seldom favorable for complainants; only a small
fraction of citizen complaints eventuate in f‌indings against the police. For exam-
ple, in their review of citizen complaints in New York City, Sviridof‌f and
McElroy (1989) found that the vast majority of complaints that were investi-
gated were not substantiated. Walker (2005) estimated that ‘‘[b]oth internal and
external complaint procedures sustain about 10-13% of all complaints’’ (p. 144).
Most complaints are not sustained because, oftentimes, judgments must be
based on the conf‌licting claims of a citizen and an of‌f‌icer, with little additional
evidence to support either side (Kerstetter, 1996). Jerome Skolnick and James
Fyfe (1993) explain it this way:
...regardless of the intensity of the investigation, most citizens’ allegations cannot
be def‌initively resolved one way or the other. In most cases three bits of informa-
tion are available to those who must review citizens’ complaints against police. The
f‌irst is the citizen’s allegation that he or she was ‘‘done wrong’’ by an of‌f‌icer. The
second is the of‌f‌icer’s denial of the charge. The third is the investigator’s conclusion
that little or no objective evidence exists to support or refute the citizen’s charge.
(pp. 229–230)
Worden et al. 79

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