Applying procedural justice theory to law enforcement's response to persons with mental illness

Amy C Watson, Beth Angell
Psychiatric Services: a Journal of the American Psychiatric Association 2007, 58 (6): 787-93
Procedural justice provides a framework for considering how persons with mental illness experience interactions with the police and how officer behaviors may shape cooperation or resistance. The procedural justice perspective holds that the fairness with which people are treated in an encounter with authority figures (such as the police) influences whether they cooperate or resist authority. Key components of a procedural justice framework include participation (having a voice), which involves having the opportunity to present one's own side of the dispute and be heard by the decision maker; dignity, which includes being treated with respect and politeness and having one's rights acknowledged; and trust that the authority is concerned with one's welfare. Procedural justice has its greatest impact early in the encounter, suggesting that how officers initially approach someone is extremely important. Persons with mental illness may be particularly attentive to how they are treated by police. According to this framework, people who are uncertain about their status (such as members of stigmatized groups) will respond most strongly to the fairness by which police exercise their authority. This article reviews the literature on police response to persons with mental illness. Procedural justice theory as it has been applied to mental health and justice system contexts is examined. Its application to encounters between police and persons with mental illness is discussed. Implications and cautions for efforts to improve police response to persons with mental illness and future research also are examined.

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