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Public Policy and Administration


Karel Kurst-Swanger


Perceptual differences in how citizens and police view police-initiated contacts can result in individual and communal tension, mistrust, and social strife, which complicate the relationships needed in order to thrive and promote safe environments. To examine how police officers interpret these contacts, this case study sought to explore the nature of citizen-police relations from the perspective of police officers in a city in the northwest part of the United States. Social contract and procedural justice theories were used to examine the circumstances that officers cited for taking enforcement actions, including operational definitions of police fairness and legitimacy from the Queensland Community Engagement Trial. Data were collected from interviews with 10 officers during police ride-alongs and from departmental data related to officer performance. These data were inductively coded and then analyzed using a naturalistic inquiry approach. Findings suggest that police officers were amenable to creating formal, quasi-contractual agreements between police and citizens based on a shared understanding of how police exercised power and discretion to guide the citizen-police interaction. Participants perceived that, under certain circumstances, explaining police discretion to citizens may decrease the level of community tension police officers experience. These findings support the theoretical constructs of procedural justice and have implications for social contract theory. This type of arrangement encourages positive social change by strengthening the ties with community members, which in turn promotes officer and public safety.