On good authority: Yale’s Tyler honored for study of legitimacy in policing

Yale’s Tom R. Tyler, who studies how people interact with and perceive legal authorities, next week will receive the world’s highest honor in criminology.
Tom R. Tyler superimposed over an image of Stockholm’s City Hall .

Tom R. Tyler

Yale Law School’s Tom R. Tyler, whose research focuses on how people interact with and perceive legal authorities — especially the police — will travel to Sweden this month to receive the Stockholm Prize, the world’s highest honor in criminology.

The prize recognizes outstanding achievement in criminological research or in the application of research for the reduction of crime and advancement of human rights.

In his fieldwork, Tyler, the Macklin Fleming Professor of Law and professor of psychology at Yale, has demonstrated that police can boost public perceptions of their legitimacy if they make a point of treating community members with respect and neutrality, as opposed to relying on the threat of arrest and punishment.

In furtherance of this work, Tyler co-founded the Justice Collaboratory in 2015 to bring together scholars from a range of disciplines at Yale and elsewhere to work toward an evidence-informed justice system.

His books include “Why People Obey the Law” (2006), “Why People Cooperate” (2011), and “Legitimacy-Based Policing and the Promotion of Community Vitality” (2022).

The Stockholm Prize in Criminology was established under the aegis of the Swedish Ministry of Justice. Queen Silvia will award the prize to Tyler, as well as to Gary LaFree, a professor at the University of Maryland and founder of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, at a ceremony at Stockholm City Hall on June 11. (In 2021, Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson received the Stockholm Prize for his pioneering work in ethnography.)

Tyler sat down with Yale News to discuss the work that has garnered him international attention. The conversation has been condensed and edited.

Your research specialty is the psychology of legitimacy, especially around policing. What is the criminology of legitimacy?

Tom Tyler: Start with the question, why would people obey a police officer? Why would people obey a judge? Why, when you walk out on the street, do you not jaywalk or murder anybody? Why do people follow rules or accept decisions? That's the sum and substance of the field of criminology — the study of people who don’t break the law, unlike those who do. Traditionally, there’s been a lot of weight put on: Don’t break the law because you'll get caught and punished. If the police catch you breaking the law, they arrest you, you can be sanctioned, fined, imprisoned. The idea is that the risk of being caught and punished is what motivates you to follow the rules.

What my work says is, there’s a completely different way that people relate to law, which is they feel an obligation and responsibility to follow the law. It’s a value within them: if the law is reasonable and appropriate, it’s my responsibility to follow it. Legitimacy is the idea that people look to see if the authorities are entitled to be obeyed, and if they think they’re entitled to be obeyed, then you don’t have to make them do it. They do it because they think it’s the right thing to do.

You have developed a strategy for establishing that legitimacy: the four pillars of procedural justice. What are they?

Tyler: What we find from research is that people in the community focus on whether the person they’re dealing with is exercising their authority through fair procedures. Procedural justice sounds like a wonky academic term, but what it means is you look at somebody and you think they are or are not acting in ways that are appropriate for someone who’s in authority to act. That’s where the four pillars come in.

One of those pillars is “voice.” Do they let you explain your situation, tell your side of the story? Another is “neutrality.” Do you feel they’re not biased or prejudiced? They’re not letting their personal feelings get involved. They’re consistently applying the law in a neutral, unbiased way. Then there’s “respect.” People feel entitled to be treated with respect by law enforcement authorities. Not demeaning, not insulting, not diminishing you. And then finally, “trust.” Do you think that this authority is trying to do the right thing, that they’re sincerely trying to help the people involved, sincerely trying to do what’s good for the community? They’re not acting out of prejudice or bias.

Taking all that together, what you have is that people are actually pretty ethical. People care about their obligation and responsibility toward law and legal authorities. You don’t have to threaten them or force them.

I was thinking about how the matter of respect figured into my own interactions with police as a very young adult. There were instances in which officers were disrespectful, sexist, dismissive. That shaped my opinion of law enforcement for quite some time.

Tyler: What you just said I’ve heard from an enormous number of the people I’ve interviewed. Most of the interactions that people have with the police they have when they’re young. And those experiences that you had at that time are also typical, because we find in general, that the legitimacy of the police declines among young people across adolescence. Many young people report that the police are demeaning, disrespectful, sometimes racist, sexist, homophobic.

One of the motivations for this whole body of research is to tell the police that that’s really bad, that you’re undercutting your effectiveness as police because you need for people to be willing to cooperate with you. You ask police, what are the problems they have? They say, nobody will cooperate with us, we can’t solve crimes because people won’t talk to us. The police don’t necessarily connect the dots between what they do and the way people feel about them.

What fieldwork have you done to support your theories?

Tyler: We have two methods. One is, we interview people who’ve been stopped by the police or who have gone to court. We ask them what happened. And we look to see how that affected them. Did you get listened to? Did you feel fairly treated? Are you going to accept the decision? Are you going to appeal? Are you angry? Then we do the same thing with surveys of the overall population. I’ve done random samples in California, Chicago, New York, all over the place. It’s the same approach. Call people, ask them about their experiences. Then ask, do they respect the police? Do they obey the law? If they saw a crime in progress, would they call the police? That’s a cooperation question. Would they be willing to testify in court? We know that cooperation is largely motivated by whether people trust the police and trust develops both from their personal experiences and from what they observe and hear about from others in their community.

You’re not undermining law enforcement by telling the police to emphasize legitimacy and not sanctioning and threatening people. What you are doing is creating more of a cooperative relationship so that people are more willing to work with the police. At the same time, it would reduce the level of stress and hostility that police experience and that causes police officers to suffer from all sorts of physical and mental health issues.

In one of your research papers you noted that the laws around policing mainly address what officers can do when they stop people, when they can search people, what kind of force they can use and when. The law says little about how they’re supposed to treat people more generally. Persuading them to shift their emphasis in that direction must be such a challenge. How do you change it?

Tyler: We try to change it in a lot of different ways. We have developed a training program that has been used in many departments. During the Obama administration, the federal government was giving it out to hundreds of police departments. It still exists but it got dampened a bit when Trump was president. We also go to police departments and help them to do audits of their procedures with the idea of creating a better set of procedures from a procedural justice perspective. I don’t want to diminish the point you’re making, though, and it’s certainly unevenly adopted across the United States. One of the things that’s an issue is there are around 18,000 police departments in America. That’s 18,000 cultures. And over half of those departments have fewer than 50 officers. We’ve worked mainly in larger or more progressive cities.

Who is “we”?

Tyler: The main person with whom I’ve worked recently is Tracey Meares, [the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law at Yale]. Together, we founded the Justice Collaboratory. One of its main focus points is police reform. We did a lot with the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. It identified legitimacy as the first principle of policing. The federal effort was more scattered under Trump, who didn’t really endorse these principles. Under Biden it’s been more in our direction but not as prominent.

How might this prestigious award elevate your work?

Tyler: Well, I’m talking to you. And I’m going on this speaking tour in Europe. I’m speaking in England, Sweden, and France. In the United Kingdom, this model of policing is currently very prominent. In Sweden, I have a task to persuade them that this is a valuable approach and the same in France. Some other places like the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia are very much on board with this approach. It depends what country you’re talking about.

In America, I’d say we’re in a period of lull. I mean, it was just the fourth anniversary of George Floyd’s death, and nothing particularly happened. It’s amazing to me how this was one of the biggest issues in America, and then four years later, it’s not an issue at all, even though many of the problems identified at that time have not been addressed. Sustaining change is a big problem.

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