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Innovative Collaboration Between ODU and Norfolk Police Will Analyze 'Procedural Justice' Protocols

By Brendan O'Hallarn

A groundbreaking research collaboration between Old Dominion University and the Norfolk Police Department could provide a template for more positive interactions between citizens and police.

Mengyan Dai, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice, received a grant of nearly $400,000 in late 2016 from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to examine the impact of "procedural justice" on interactions between police and citizens.

He has launched a three-stage study with the Norfolk Police Department to test this concept during police stops in the city.

Dai, who began researching procedural justice a decade ago while working on his dissertation at the University of Cincinnati, said theory suggests that the use of procedurally fair behavior by police officers will lead to broad positive outcomes in police-citizen relationships.

"Procedural justice focuses on the actions of officers following proper procedure during interactions," Dai said. "Theoretically, we know that if a citizen feels they are treated fairly during a stop by police, they are more likely to accept the outcome. In the long run, this could result in better relations between the community and police."

The concept of procedural justice has not been broadly tested, however. The NIJ grant is designed to conduct a field test for the theory. It required enthusiastic participation from a law enforcement agency, which the Norfolk Police Department was eager to provide.

Robert Kenter of the NPD Office of Special Projects, leader for the initiative on the police side, said the foundation for this type of change in culture in police-citizen interactions had already been built.

"We have invested significantly in community-based relationship-building. We want to get something concrete out of this investment," Kenter said.

To demonstrate how seriously the Norfolk Police Department is taking this initiative, the first of three stages to the study is an eight-hour seminar given to every member of the department in the four principles of procedural justice - giving citizens a voice in the process or allowing them to tell their story; remaining neutral in interactions; treating individuals with respect, and demonstrating trustworthiness of motive. These training sessions are underway.

"This project supports my efforts in 21st century policing, encouraging trust and legitimacy, not only with procedural justice, but also through transparency, accountability, and honest recognition of avenues for improvement," said Norfolk Chief of Police Larry Boone.

No one interaction between police and citizen will erase the suspicion and mistrust that has built up over many years in some communities across the United States. "But if we use procedural justice properly, the belief is it will change the interactions from that point forward," Kenter said.

That's where the second part of the study comes in.

Systematic social observations of citizen-police interactions, captured from in-car and body-worn cameras over 12 months, will begin later this year. Then citizens will completed surveys about their interactions with police to evaluate the effectiveness of the new approach.

"This project will contribute to a better understanding of important procedural justice issues faced by local agencies with a comprehensive approach," Dai said.

Brian Payne, the University's vice provost for academic affairs, said Dai's research "exemplifies the commitment of our faculty to conduct meaningful research that makes a difference in our community and across the world."

Citing the title of the university's strategic plan for research, Payne added, "This study is a perfect example of research that has the potential to innovate locally and transform globally."

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