Last October, I posted a blog entitled “All I Really Need to Know about Procedural Justice I Learned in Kindergarten” which compared the four pillars of procedural justice to what we learned in kindergarten. Today, I am taking the leap from kindergarten to higher education, neuroscience to be specific, to explore what a better understanding of neurochemicals can teach us about law enforcement.

Policing as a Culture of Trust

My journey begins with the Harvard Business Review article, “The Neuroscience of Trust” in which Paul J. Zak “found that building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference” in empowering and challenging employees. Through his experiments, he concluded that increased levels of the neurochemical oxytocin “increases a person’s level of empathy,” which can lead to a better ability to trust. However – and important to the police profession – he says that “high stress is a potent oxytocin inhibitor.” If higher oxytocin increases empathy, and stress decreases oxytocin, then Zak’s article makes me wonder: what can police chiefs and supervisors do to increase officers’ ability to empathize and build trust in the stressful environment of police work?

Applying Neuroscience Knowledge to Policing

Zak’s experiments led him to identify eight behaviors that increase levels of oxytocin and foster trust. As in my previous blog, I compare the relationship among Zak’s eight behaviors, the report from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the concepts of procedural justice, especially internal procedural justice to demonstrate how science from other disciplines can inform police practices.

Although Zak describes developing the culture of trust within organizations, the need for a culture of trust within the police department and between the police department and the community is just as strong – if not stronger. Building and maintaining trust between the police and the people that they protect has been fundamental to policing at least as far back as the development of Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Law Enforcement. The concept of procedural justice is derived from these principles. Research shows that practicing procedural justice helps create trust between police departments and the communities they serve and is a key component of ensuring stronger, safer communities. Zak identifies eight behaviors:

1.       Recognize excellence.

According to Zak, “neuroscience shows that recognition [of work done] has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal and public.” To retain employees, police departments also need to recognize employee successes. The publication “Police Recruitment and Retention for the New Millennium” identifies methods to encourage positive behaviors including letters of commendation, thank you notes and posting compliments of the department and officers. Police departments can use this recognition to reinforce behaviors that increase officer-community engagement and help to build trust.

2.      Induce challenge stress.

The author notes that assigning a team a difficult but achievable job releases neurochemicals that intensify people’s focus and strengthens social connections, however, too much stress can have a negative impact. By the nature of the job, police officers experience challenge stress every day. A chief or supervisor needs to be able to recognize when that moderate stress turns more severe. More importantly, supervisors need to recognize stress begins to impact an officer’s health or how an officer interacts with the public. Pillar 6 offers several recommendations regarding officer wellness such as supporting research into the efficacy of annual mental health checks for officers, promoting safety and wellness at all levels of the organization and implementing scientifically supported shift lengths.

3.      Give people discretion in how they do their work.

President Obama’s Task Force Report includes 15 policy and oversight recommendations, but police officers have a great deal of discretion as they patrol our communities and must make independent decisions in often rapidly changing situations. Allowing discretion in police work promotes job satisfaction and, in the right circumstances, allows officers to provide people a second chance, improving the public perception of the police.

4.      Enable job crafting.

While there are many requirements of a police officer’s job, engaging in community policing, problem solving and relationship development as recommended by President Obama’s Task Force necessarily requires officers to be creative, in some respects crafting their own jobs. This “job crafting” allows officers to be responsive to community needs and increases community engagement, which are critical elements of building trust. Departments can support this process by providing direct responsibility for problem solving and community engagement and measuring progress and activity that arises as a result.

5.      Share information broadly.

Transparency is a key element of both internal and external procedural justice. The President’s Task Force notes that “internal procedural justice begins with the clear articulation of organizational core values and the transparent creation and fair application of an organizations polices, protocols, and decision making processes.” Similarly, Task Force Recommendation 1.3 recognizes the importance of establishing a culture of transparency and accountability in order to build public trust and legitimacy.

6.      Intentionally build relationships.

President Obama’s Task Force discusses building relationships throughout the report and stresses the importance of community engagement (4.1), engaging multidisciplinary community teams (4.3) and working with community residents to co-produce public safety (4.5). Developing community relationships both at the department and officer level builds trust and is a key element to successful policing.

7.      Facilitate whole person growth.

The President’s Task Force’s Training and Education Pillar (Pillar 5) recommends that agencies provide leadership training to all personnel throughout their careers (5.3) and encourage and incentivize higher education for law enforcement officers (5.11). The Task Force also encourages law enforcement agencies to provide training throughout an officer’s career. Training and education allows officers to keep up with evolving complexities of police work and enhances their knowledge to enable fair and procedurally just policing.

8.      Show vulnerability.

As President Obama’s Task Force indicates, it is past time to overturn the tradition of officers not sharing their psychological issues. The report encourages Officer Safety and Wellness initiatives that allow officers the opportunity to seek help and not be ostracized or demeaned for seeking help (Pillar 6). When officers feel supported by their departments and are physically, mentally and emotionally healthy, they are more likely to accept and comply with department policies and productively engage with the public.

Corporations and law enforcement agencies are not, of course, the same. Law enforcement agencies are held to a higher standard of public service and officers are the frontline of police-community interactions. Nonetheless, insights into building trust in the corporate world can give law enforcement agencies actionable points to consider when seeking to fulfill their public safety mission, which rests on the need for internal and external trust.

Although policing is more of an art than a science, Zak’s insight into neurochemistry present a welcome opportunity to use neuroscience to inform and improve the art – and heart – of the profession.