The Society for the
Psychological
Study of Social Issues

    
Among Police Officers Harsh Attitudes Toward Illegal Immigrants May Result from Belief in Just Results

Biennial conference press release, June 23, 2012 – Individuals who strongly believe that other people receive fair outcomes are more likely to support harsh policies for illegal immigrants, according to a recent study by a team of researchers from the United States and Canada. The study, which was carried out using police officers as subjects, brings a new perspective to an issue that sharply divides opinion in the United States and which was examined in the US Supreme Court’s review Arizona’s controversial immigration bill SB 1070.

“Scientists already know quite a bit about how different motivations and personalities can shape support for social policies, including those related to immigration”, says Todd Lucas of Wayne State University, lead author of the study which is due to be published at the end of this year. “We have found that temporarily activating a specific kind of justice concern can lead law enforcement officers to endorse stricter policing of suspected illegal immigrants.”

The findings, which were presented today at the Biennial Conference of The Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) in Charlotte, North Carolina, suggest that immigration policies can influence law enforcement officer attitudes of how deserving immigrants are of tougher policing.

In the study, 181 police officers from the state of Michigan were asked to think about a past experience of justice or injustice.  Officers were further instructed to think about either a personal experience of fairness, or an experience of fairness for others.  Finally, officers were asked to think about fairness either in terms of fair or unfair outcomes (“Was this outcome justified given your/this person’s actions?”) or procedures (“Were you/they treated with dignity?”). Officers were then told about and asked to rate their support of Senate Bill 1388; a proposed Michigan law that has similarities to Arizona’s SB1070 in its tough approach to the policing of suspected illegal immigrants. Officers rated their support for statements in favor of the Bill (e.g.,“I would support a decision to adopt SB1388”) using scales that ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).

Interestingly, officers expressed stronger support for stringent policing of suspected illegal immigration only when asked to first think about distributive justice for others.  Thinking about past experiences of justice and injustice for the self, as well as thinking about procedural justice for others, did not produce any greater support for SB1388.  

This result suggests that thinking specifically about how others receive fair outcomes or allocations may trigger police officers to believe in strict action against others, and to feel threatened by immigrant groups. The findings have significant implications for social attitudes and their potential to be influenced by messages from the everyday advocates, opinion leaders, and policy makers.

Lucas and the study co-authors note that language about justice and deserved outcomes occurs frequently in North American public discourse and that this may run counter to the efforts of policy makers to create policies that enable economic and social integration of immigrants and ethnic minorities. Policy makers can achieve goals of assimilation and cooperation by remembering that highlighting justice by outcomes or by procedures can produce very different psychological effects. 

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