Procedural Justice: A Training Model for Organizational-Level Change


In recent years, procedural justice has been heralded as a critical strategy for building trust and legitimacy in communities and within law enforcement organizations. Procedural justice speaks to the idea of fairness in the processes that resolve disputes and allocate resources, and the concept is commonly described as having four pillars: fairness, transparency, voice, and impartiality. In short, procedural justice is concerned not only with what people do, but also with how they do it. As the body of research on procedural justice’s internal and external applications for law enforcement grew, it became evident that a new kind of training mechanism was required to ensure the concept took hold at both the individual and organizational levels. Coming from the perspective that building a strategic national training model takes time, intentionality, and adaptability, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) in collaboration with the Center for Public Safety and Justice (CPSJ) at the University of Illinois at Chicago developed a unique, multitiered training initiative that works to embed procedural justice in organizational culture through strategically deployed and tailored training and resources.

Most law enforcement organizations are vertically structured, with direction coming from the top to be disseminated throughout the organization. Under this organizational structure, executive leadership sets organizational vision. This means executive leadership bears responsibility for integrating fairness and consistency, impartiality and unbiased decision-making, community representation, and transparency and openness of process into their organizational culture so that individual employees use the filter of procedural justice when evaluating their actions and job performance. The COPS Office and CPSJ training model emphasizes the clear articulation of organizational core values and the transparent creation and fair application of an organization’s policies, protocols, and decision-making processes. It stresses that agencies should involve employees in each aspect of this process. The goal here is not to reorganize the traditional, vertically structured law enforcement agency. Instead, the aim of the model is to create or promote buy-in from staff up and down the structure and to recognize the role that procedural justice plays in each individual’s position. Creating buy-in throughout the organization generates greater employee trust in the process itself and helps reinforce support for organizational legitimacy. Individual staff members—regardless of rank—see others’ deliberate behaviors or emphasis on procedurally just practices, which then promotes change in themselves.

The central takeaway of each curriculum deployed in the model is that the pillars of procedural justice have application throughout the organization. The pillars inform how an organization works together to craft and apply policies and how coworkers treat one another. This approach to the organizational application of procedural justice encourages the organization to develop a culture that is able to discover additional applications for what is learned at all levels (executive, supervisor, frontline, and community) of the four-part procedural justice training series. Practice becomes routine, and routine becomes culture. With respect to procedural justice training, the application of fairness, transparency, voice, and impartiality becomes status quo within the organization and is reflected in officers’ interactions with the community.

When deciding whether a law enforcement agency is a legitimate authority, community members assess interactions not only by what officers do, but also by how they do it. Research shows that the process of an encounter is more important than the outcome in shaping a community member’s assessment of an interaction.1 Each interaction involving a community member and law enforcement, while it often occurs between only two people, ultimately reflects upon the agency as a whole. Agencies that have procedural justice as a core organizational value will see procedurally just practices occur in those individual interactions. This persistent and consistent focus on processes that are procedurally just is the foundation upon which legitimacy is built. And, as research shows, the community values the legitimacy of the law (and of law enforcement agencies) more than the deterrent effect of law enforcement.2 As stated, this promotion of legitimate authority begins at the executive level.

Procedural Justice Four-Part Training Series

The executive level is also exactly where the procedural justice four-part training series begins. The series is a law enforcement training model that contains specific curricula, workshops, and supplemental materials for every level of a law enforcement agency and for the community.

1. Executive Commitment and Executive Seminar

The first essential step in changing the culture of an organization lies in ensuring the chief executive has bought into both the change and the process by which to achieve it. CPSJ begins every training relationship with a “Conversation with the Chief” to assess readiness and ensure buy-in to the tenets of the training at the highest levels of the organization. CPSJ first learns about the agency and the commitment to procedural justice in order to garner executive commitment to the training series. Commitment, demonstrated at the top, is necessary for the adoption of the training throughout the department. A tailored executive-level seminar gives executives the chance to explore their roles in furthering the pillars of procedural justice in practice. The executive seminar lays the foundation for a successful training initiative by helping senior-level staff conceptualize and operationalize procedural justice in their department.

2. Sworn and Non-sworn Supervisors

The next step in the four-part series is to train supervisory staff—both civilian and sworn—through the course titled Procedural Justice for Law Enforcement: Organizational Change through Decision Making and Policy. This course focuses primarily on developing internal procedural justice to best serve an organizational commitment to external procedural justice. Because the executive and command staff have already begun the process, supervisors can be confident that their own bosses have committed to upholding the norms and values that they, the supervisors, are asked to exhibit and reinforce with those they supervise. In a best-case scenario, the chief or executive has already laid the foundation for organizational change through procedural justice both in communication and by exemplifying the pillars in practice. Human resources departments in the private sector have long embraced this strategy in training models, focusing on fully training supervisors both in key concepts and in their own essential role in reinforcing, rewarding, and supporting frontline staff in exhibiting the desired skills. Even though executive and command levels have a foundation for procedural justice, CPSJ’s trainers have found that it is best to separate supervisory staff from the executive and command staff in this training phase to create an environment in which conversation flows more freely and supervisors do not defer to those who set the organizational vision and values when discussing their own roles in shaping culture.

3. Frontline Staff

Only after executive, command, and supervisory staff are trained do frontline officers go through the training. By creating an environment in which supervisors understand their own roles in culture change and are empowered to cultivate these traits in those they supervise, agencies lay a solid foundation for frontline officers to put into practice what they learn in training. By the time frontline staff receives training, they should already be seeing and feeling the impact of the pillars of procedural justice in their work lives. Research and practice have shown that frontline staff are more likely to accept and apply a change in practice in their day-to-day work when those same changes are valued and practiced by those around and above them. In other words, internal and external procedural justice are linked. The Procedural Justice for Law Enforcement: Front-line Officer training is tailored to the specific experience of officers. Through research and examples, frontline staff are shown the benefits of procedural justice in their daily interactions with the public. Voluntary compliance; a view of the law as legitimate; and an emphasis of the benefits of positive, informal social contacts are all stressed as part of a change in practice that promotes officer safety. An additional resource to the frontline course is a complementary six-part roll call training that reinforces the tenets in after the classroom section is complete to continually engage frontline staff with the principles of procedural justice.

4. Community Engagement

After the agency personnel have been trained and are striving to achieve the goals found in the procedural justice philosophy, a joint workshop is hosted with the agency and the community. Procedural Justice as a Dialogue-to-Change brings the core tenets of the course to the community, where participating residents can explore the key concepts of the procedural justice curricula with trained officers in a nonconfrontational setting. Training with community members is not a new or radical concept. Indeed, classic community policing training efforts of the 1990s featured comingled classrooms of police personnel and residents. However, rather than the traditional classroom setting of past decades, CPSJ and the COPS Office have crafted a Dialogue-to-Change model that uses participatory leadership and restorative justice practices to engage community members in a values-based facilitation style that minimizes power dynamics and creates a space for open dialogue. This fourth and final component is first modeled by an outside facilitator, and then agencies are given the tools to continue conversations in this format once the workshop has ended.


The application of procedural justice to law enforcement demonstrates that there is a heightened sense of urgency to improve policing efficacy, but this urgency coexists with the struggle to gain and keep people’s trust. Therein lies the challenge: finding ways to do the best job of maintaining public safety while also maintaining the public’s trust and the legitimacy that such trust confers. The way law enforcement personnel interact with members of the public matters. The way executives and supervisors interact with staff matters. When an agency values internal procedural justice, it also encourages its frontline officers to demonstrate external procedural justice. Thus, how supervisors and employees interact can be linked to how frontline officers interact with community members. Likewise, just as employees are more likely to take direction from management when they believe management’s authority is legitimate, people are more likely to cooperate with a police force they perceive as legitimate.3

Therefore, if there is a desire for cultural change in vertically structured law enforcement agencies, training models need to be multilayered and strategic to best effect this change. The training model used in the procedural justice four-part training series exemplifies just that. Through the partnership between CPSJ and the COPS Office, 4,135 individuals, including civilian employees and community members in 33 U.S. states, have successfully been trained on how to implement and practice procedural justice.4 This training model for the procedural justice initiative supports the transformation of law enforcement culture by teaching agencies how to create, achieve, and promote procedural justice through core values and reinforced actions.

Law enforcement has made great strides to reconnect with communities, to engage them in local problem-solving efforts, and to restore strained community-police relationships. Procedural justice furthers those efforts by laying the groundwork for legitimacy—starting with the administration’s adoption and embodiment of the pillars of procedural justice, hence serving as the model for change. It is through that model of change that the community is engaged, officer and community safety is increased, and a combined effort to advance public safety is created. Practicing procedural justice is never a completed task; it is ongoing and continues to grow and enhance the abilities of law enforcement agencies to advance public safety. The procedural justice four-part training series demonstrates that the internal, then external, procedural justice training model of organizational change is one worth pursuing when the goal is lasting organizational transformation focused on building relationships, increasing officer and community safety, and improving problem-solving capabilities.



1Jason Sunshine, and Tom R. Tyler, “The Role of Procedural Justice and Legitimacy in Shaping Public Support for Policing,” Law Society Review 37, no. 3 (September 2003): 513–548.

2Tom R. Tyler and Jeffrey Fagan, “Legitimacy and Cooperation: Why Do People Help the Police Fight Crime in Their Communities?” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 6 (2008): 231–275.

3Tom R. Tyler, “Trust within Organisations,” Personnel Review 32, no. 5 (2003): 556–568.

4 Center for Public Safety and Justice, aggregated procedural justice training data (as of November 2, 2017), Chicago, IL: University of Illinois at Chicago.