Paul Dale, Carl Williams and our trust in police

Former Victorian detective Paul Dale arrives at the Supreme Court on the first day of his trial in Melbourne, Febr. Julian Smith/AAP

A Victorian Supreme Court jury is currently hearing a case involving former drug squad detective, Paul Dale, who has pleaded not guilty to twelve counts of giving false evidence to the Australian Crime Commission in 2007 and 2008.

In particular Dale is accused of having provided information and possibly “worked with” Carl Williams, the drug dealer and murderer who himself was killed in his jail cell by Matthew Johnson in 2010.

The implications of these suggestions are enormous. Quite simply, how can we trust any police officer if someone as senior as Dale was working with a gangster as brazen as Williams?

Do such allegations against former police officers dent our faith in policing generally, and, if so, does that affect our ability to curb crime? The answer to both questions, according to current thinking, is “probably”.

The ideas emerge from the work being conducted into the concept of police legitimacy, a topic that has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years.

Policing by consent

The idea is that no police force can ever expect to meet its goals unless its members are perceived by the public to be operating legitimately, that is, their actions resonate generally with the public’s particular value system.

The research suggests that perceptions of legitimacy (for example, adherence to proper procedures by police) or illegitimacy (police doing their own thing, outside of the guidelines) will have a greater impact upon an individual’s decision to engage in criminal activity than any fear of being caught or being threatened by a particular form or level of punishment.

Simply stated, people are less likely to break the law if police practices are regarded by them as legitimate. On this view, if we are serious about crime prevention and crime reduction, we should become far more serious about ensuring that police value and practise procedural fairness.

In particular, police should, at all times, exercise restraint, and to be consistent and fair. It would extend to refraining from ridiculing police on the occasions when police treat accused persons with dignity and courtesy, and when they speak publicly about the importance of the presumption of innocence.

Carl Williams leaves the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court in 2003. Williams was murdered in his jail cell in 2010. Joe Castro/AAP

Belief in the system breeds trust

The most prolific writer in the field is US psychologist Tom Tyler. Professor Tyler has argued for a long time, based upon his empirical data, that people are less likely to commit crime if they believe that the justice system is seen to be procedurally fair, and not capricious nor arbitrary.

If people view compliance with the law as appropriate because of their attitudes about how they should behave, they will voluntarily assume the obligation to follow legal rules. They will feel personally committed to obeying the law, irrespective of whether they risk punishment for breaking the law.

“[One will obey] a law because one feels the law is just …[and] because one feels that the authority enforcing the law has the right to dictate behavior,” according to Tyler.

On this view, people will comply voluntarily with the law even if, in doing so, they are potentially acting against their self-interest. The key issue is not whether police have a role to play in reducing crime (which of course they do), but to what extent can they best use their resources for the greater crime reductive effect. Consider for the moment that the current justice system is fraught with spiralling imprisonment rates and relatively high police numbers.

Justice delivered more effectively and cheaply

If Tyler’s position is correct, a society that takes procedural justice seriously would need fewer police and fewer prisons for the same result, and at far less expense. A strategy based upon Tyler’s work is one that encourages police to emphasise trust-based policies, with less emphasis on trying to make people more fearful of being caught and punished.

It flies in the face, of course, of the notion that a police officer should be given a little more latitude in meting out a little rough justice, a notion that surfaces from time to time when people reminisce about the “good old days.”

The bottom line is that, based upon Tyler’s work, policy-makers should be able safely to resist calls for an increase in police numbers and heavier penalties. It is an idea that is worthy of further exploration, debate and consideration.

If the population largely trusts and believes in the legitimacy of its police force, then even the worst of the bad apples will not be able to break that societal bond.

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