Turning the corner on procedural justice theory: exploring reverse causality with an experimental vignette in a longitudinal survey

Rick Trinkner, Ryan D. Mays, Ellen S. Cohn, Karen T. Van Gundy, Cesar J. Rebellon

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    19 Scopus citations


    Objectives: Traditional police procedural justice theory argues that citizen perceptions of fair treatment by police officers increase police legitimacy, which leads to an increased likelihood of legal compliance. Recently, Nagin and Telep (2017) criticized these causal assumptions, arguing that prior literature has not definitively ruled out reverse causality—that is, legitimacy influences perceptions of fairness and/or compliance influences perceptions of both fairness and legitimacy. The goal of the present paper was to explore this critique using experimental and correlational methodologies within a longitudinal framework. Methods: Adolescents completed a vignette-based experiment that manipulated two aspects of officer behavior linked to perceptions of fairness: voice and impartiality. After reading the vignette, participants rated the fairness and legitimacy of the officer within the situation. At three time points prior to the experiment (1, 17, and 31 months), participants completed surveys measuring their global perceptions of police legitimacy and self-reported delinquency. Data were analyzed to assess the extent to which global legitimacy and delinquency predicted responses to the vignette net of experimental manipulations and controls. Results: Both experimental manipulations led to higher perceptions of situational procedural justice and officer legitimacy. Prior perceptions of police legitimacy did not predict judgments of situational procedural justice; however, in some cases, prior engagement in delinquency was negatively related to situational procedural justice. Prior perceptions of legitimacy were positively associated with situational perceptions of legitimacy regardless of experimental manipulations. Conclusions: This study showed mixed support for the case of reverse causality among police procedural justice, legitimacy, and compliance.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)661-671
    Number of pages11
    JournalJournal of Experimental Criminology
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - Dec 1 2019


    • Delinquency
    • Juvenile justice
    • Legitimacy
    • Police
    • Procedural justice
    • Reverse causality

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Law


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