Legal socialization is focus of psychologist’s work

By Catherine Robertson Souter
August 19th, 2016

How do we, as a society, deal with the problem of racial bias in policing? The issue, like any complex problem, is not black and white. Beyond the numbers of how many more traffic stops, searches and arrests there are for African Americans than whites, lie more questions.

It can be difficult to tease out why blacks are more likely to be arrested and convicted. Are they, in fact, committing more crimes? Or are they more likely to be prosecuted for the same infractions that a white person would get a pass on?

Ellen Cohn, Ph.D., professor of psychology and coordinator of the Justice Studies Program at the University of New Hampshire, conducts research in the field of social psychology of law and looks at why people follow or break rules.

In her work on legal socialization, she has focused on the idea that attitudes towards authority and biases toward minorities by those authority figures both play a part in the ongoing strife and violence.

She spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about her work and her views on current events and steps being taken to create a safer community for all Americans.

Q:  Can you explain a little about legal socialization?

A:  There is a traditional model of socialization where we look at how people’s levels of legal and moral reasoning leads to their attitudes toward the law, how much they approve of rule violating or of enforcing rules and how that leads to following or breaking rules. That is the cognitive model.

More recently, we have been trying to integrate that with a procedural justice/authority relationship model which looks at how fairly people are treated and how that relates to the legitimacy of authority, how much they trust and feel obligated to authority and how that is related, again, to whether they follow or don’t follow the rules.

Specifically, we have been looking at not just legal authority, like police, but also parents and teachers because the first legal socialization comes from your family, then schools and then legal authority.

Q:  How did you get involved in this field?

A:  Some of the work I did as an undergraduate was looking at the development of children’s sense of fairness, whether it was based on treating everybody equally or giving people more if they are more meritorious, they have done more work or giving people more because they are needy.

That falls into the whole area of what is called distributive justice.

When I came to UNH as a faculty member, I continued being interested in issues of justice and fairness and began working in collaboration with Susan White, Ph.D., a political scientist.

Q:  What have you been working on?

A:   Most recently we have been doing a developmental study of middle and high school adolescents whom we followed for seven years to look at how their attitudes, their legal reasoning, their views of procedural justice and legitimacy, all of that, change over time.

We have 930 students and about 20 percent of them represent different races, minorities and ethnicities.

What we find is that the more people feel like they have been fairly treated, the higher their level of legal reasoning and the more they trust and feel an obligation to police and the more they will follow rules.

When they don’t feel treated fairly, they are more likely to break rules because they don’t have the kind of trust we need to have in legal authorities.

We have also been looking at jury deliberation and found that when a case involves a minority person, racial biases tend to play a role and participants are more likely to hold an African American defendant responsible than a white defendant.

However, if you make the racial nature of the case obvious and salient, you find those effects disappear. People probably don’t want to appear to be racist and so seem to act in different ways when it is pointed out.

Q:  You talk about the idea that people may mistrust the police and so, therefore, those people may tend to engage in more rule-breaking behavior. Is it a vicious cycle? If you don’t trust the police and you are more likely to do something then the police won’t trust you and are more likely to pull you over which makes you more likely to not trust the police? How would we break that cycle?

A:   I am not trying to say that just because people distrust the police they are going to commit crimes. What I am saying is that there is a lot of disgust towards police where people don’t feel like they are treated fairly. We don’t know if there are more arrests because people are disproportionately committing more crimes or if police are arresting them for crimes that they might not arrest a white person.

What some people would say is we need to train police, similar to the old idea of community policing, to be more procedurally fair and to focus on developing good relationships with the citizens they come into contact with rather than taking more coercive/punishment kind of model.

The Department of Justice is funding a project in six cities where they are training police to use procedural justice techniques, giving citizens voices, trying to treat them impartially, to see if indeed the models are right: if you treat people with respect they are more likely to trust police and feel obligated to the police and will therefore be more law-abiding citizens.

Q:  Is the problem with a lack of trust in the police something new or is the problem getting more attention?
A: It probably depends on where you live and who you ask about the trust. Many minority communities feel like they can’t trust the police because they have seen evidence of people not being treated fairly.

We know that minorities are pulled over disproportionately by the police. They are also more likely to be arrested. Juveniles are more likely to be sent to adult courts and if convicted, more likely to go to adult prisons than non-minority adolescents. I think people see that happening and that does affect the trust that certain groups have in place.

I think what has changed is the use of social media. This is not new but if you don’t live in those communities and you now see the incidents that have happened, it has suddenly made the general public aware.

Q:  Do you believe we are finally taking a step in the right direction to solve these issues?

A:  These things have happened for a long time and I think the current awareness has led to more willingness to admit we have a problem and to come up with strategies on how to create a society where people don’t feel that there are these implicit biases.

There are new programs for training police to understand some of the issues of ethnic minorities. I know that in some locations they are starting to have police interaction with adolescents with minority and non-minority police and youth to try to get both of them to see the others’ perspectives. I think that is a really healthy direction.

I think in legal socialization there is a kind of coercion approach versus a consent approach. There are two different kinds of positions: one is this idea of a punishment kind of approach which is basically having a relationship built on one person dominating the other. The work I have done is based more on acquiring values and respectful treatment, fair decision making and recognizing that there are limits to authority.

In policing, we need to get away from a coercion/punishment model and move towards a consensual focus that teaching people shared values can make a big difference. Having people feel they are getting fair treatment and they have a voice is important. 

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