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Trust in the Belgian criminal justice chain - A qualitative empirical study on the trust relationship between the local criminal investigation department, the federal criminal investigation department, the public prosecutor's office and the examining magistrates

This doctoral thesis studies the interorganisational trust process in the Belgian criminal justice system. It is the result of a five-year (2012-2017) study in the context of the IAP project Justice and Populations (IAP VII/22) financed by Belspo. The research takes a public administration perspective and studies the trust process between the local police, the federal police, the public prosecutor’s office and the examining magistrates; these are the central actors. The purpose of the study was twofold. The first goal was descriptive. The meaning of the trust process was examined from the perspective of the central actors. The second goal was explanatory. Here, the (sub)antecedents that might influence on the trust process were examined. The study thus tries to fill the gaps in the literature on ‘trust within justice’. On the basis of these goals, 4 research questions were formulated:

RQ1. What is the formal-legal context of the relationships between the local police, the federal police, the public prosecutor’s office and the examining magistrates, henceforth called the actors?

RQ2. How do the actors reflect on the specific aspects of the trust and distrust process?

RQ3. How do the actors interpret the three central elements of the trust process in their relationship with the respective other actors?

RQ4. What are the (sub)antecedents of the trust process (for the three elements separately as well as for the process as a whole) in the relationship between the actors?

The trust process as defined as follows in this study: the willingness of the trustor to be vulnerable (passive trust), based on the positive expectations regarding the intentions and the behavior of the trustee (the perceived trustworthiness), which can lead to actual actions (active trust). The terms between brackets are the central elements of the trust process. A central proposition of this study is inspired by Dietz and Den Hartog  (Dietz, 2011, p. 215) and states that the trust process starts with the perceived trustworthiness, and runs through passive trust, to active trust. This means that there is only active trust when the trustee is perceived to be trustworthy and when there is passive trust. Hence, when the trustee is perceived as trustworthy, this does not automatically imply that there will be passive trust and active trust. The trust process can be influenced by different antecedents, that were further subdivided into different subantecedents in this study.

In order to answer the research questions, an exploratory qualitative study was done, consisting of 6 parts:

Part 1: development of the initial conceptual framework

Part 2: selection of central actors

Part 3: outline of the formal-legal context

Part 4: first refinement of the initial conceptual framework by means of an analysis of legal sources

Part 5: second refinement of the initial conceptual framework by means of an analysis of scientific literature, other relevant documents and 6 expert interviews

Part 6: third refinement of the initial conceptual framework by studying the embedded cases, based on 32 semi-structured interviews

No comparison was made between the different parts of the study and thus between the different data collection methods. On the other hand, the different parts did not follow sequentially, so it is possible that they somehow influenced one another. In part 1, the initial conceptual framework was developed by studying the scientific literature. In part 2, the central actors of this study were determined by means of an analysis of the criminal procedural law. In part 3, we described the formal legal context. This part gave more insight in the relationships between the central actors and served as a background for the empirical research. Part 4 consisted of the analysis of legal sources. This resulted in a list of tentative propositions regarding the influence of the (sub)antecedents on ‘trust’. This list was the basis for part 5. On the one hand, further information on these propositions was sought in the scientific literature and other relevant documents. On the other hand, the propositions from part 4 were presented to 6 experts. In part 5 we examined whether the (sub)antecedents had specific properties that could explain their influence on the trust process and whether there were interactions between the different (sub)antecedents in their impact on the trust process. This resulted in a new list of propositions. Part 6 of the study concerned the study of the embedded cases. Here, 32 semi-structured interviews were conducted with the central actors of two departments of one judicial district. Specifically,  interviews were conducted with the local police (the police chiefs and members of the local police), the federal police (the “dirjuds”, i.e. judicial directors, and the members of the federal police), the public prosecutors, and the examining magistrates. These interviews had two aims. First, they were used to explore respondents’ views on four specific issues regarding the trust process: the definition, negative trust and positive distrust, the connection between interpersonal trust/distrust process and the interorganisational trust/distrust process, and the model of Lewicki, McAllister and Bies (1998). Second, the interviews were used to investigate the impact of the (sub)antecedents on the trust process. This part also resulted in a new list of propositions.

These different parts made it possible to formulate an answer to the different research questions. As the answer to research question 1 merely described the formal legal context, this will not be covered here. Concerning the answer to research question 2, four conclusions were made. First, most respondents agreed with the definitions of the trust and distrust process. When it comes to the definition of the trust process, it was remarkable that - according to the respondents - the expectations do not necessarily need to be positive in order to trust someone. Regarding the definition of the distrust process, many respondents found the word ‘distrust’ too strongly formulated. Moreover, it was mentioned that it was not possible to avoid actions, because a lot of cooperation in justice is mandatory (hexagon in figure). Second, many respondents found that too much trust can lead to naivety and a lack of insight in what is really happening. In some cases, distrust can be healthy. According to certain respondents it can be necessary to have a critical attitude, or to protect or cover themselves. Third, most respondents thought that there is a connection between the interpersonal trust/distrust process and the interorganisational trust/distrust process. According to the respondents, interpersonal trust or distrust relations can lead to trust or distrust in the whole organization. Two factors that can play a role here were pointed out: the number of personal trust or distrust relations and the function of the trustee. Fourth, most respondents found some value in the two-dimensional model of Lewicki, McAllister and Bies (1998), and specifically of quadrant 4 where there is high trust as well as high distrust in the same actor.

For research question 3, regarding the interpretation of the central elements of the trust process, the following important findings were done. First, about the perceived trustworthiness of the local police and federal police, in general it was mentioned that they are improving, among others, their investigative actions and interrogations. There is, however, still room for improvement. The respondents considered the public prosecutor’s office and examining magistrates to be more and more open to the input and ideas of police officers, but they seem to have limited knowledge in matters that do not belong to their specialization. Second, regarding the element of passive trust, respondents found that actors are willing to work together. However, the remark was made that this is usually not a choice but a requirement. Third, concerning the element of active trust, many examples were given. For example, information, ideas and knowledge are indeed shared and sometimes police officers are granted significant autonomy in doing the investigation. There were, however, also indications of less active trust, such as tighter control on the police’s investigative work or ‘shopping’. The latter means that the trustor will choose when and whom to contact in the trustee organization. For example, members of the local and federal police will only contact the public prosecutor’s office or the examining magistrates when the magistrate they like is on duty. Also, regarding the cooperation between the local police and federal police, sometimes a specific member within that organization is sought for.

Concerning research question 4, most (sub)antecedents indeed have more or less influence on the trust process. We briefly address the (sub)antecedents that seemed to have the strongest impact. First, the involvement of the trustee in criminal or disciplinary procedures could lead to a negative assessment of the trustee. Second, the mutual communication about police cases could increase or decrease trust, depending on a such aspects as the tone, the communication medium or the way in which the meeting is substantiated. Third, the feedback/explanation that the trustee gives to the trustor about a decision taken could create more understanding for that decision, because the trustor would acquire a better understanding of the rationale for that decision. Fourth, positive experiences of the trustor with the trustee can increase trust and negative experiences can the decrease trust. This would be dependent on the number of positive or negative experiences. Fifth, the subantecedent ‘closed or open culture of the trustee’ could have a strong influence. Respondents report that members of the public prosecutor’s office and examining magistrates evolve from an ivory tower mentality towards an open culture, characterized by availability, deliberation and participation. Sixth, a combination of increasing workload and decreasing means could lead to actors pushing tasks/assignments/files around to each other, leading to a transfer of workload, not a reduction.

On the basis of these findings, we could formulate some recommendations for future research. First, it would be interesting to look at certain remarkable findings of this study in detail. For example, it would be interesting to further investigate the importance of interpersonal trust- or distrust relations within the criminal justice chain, given the frequency of one on one cooperation there. This could be combined with a more in-depth study of the antecedent ‘characteristics of the trustor’. Indeed, this study sporadically reveals that not only the (sub)antecedents outside the trustor play a role, but also the personality traits or mentality of the trustor. Moreover, the adapted conceptual framework of this study could be tested in other countries, districts, and/or departments. In future research the focus could be on those (sub)antecedents with the strongest influence. It is also interesting further to research the feedback loop from active trust to perceived trustworthiness. Second, it would be interesting to expand this type of research to other actors within the criminal justice process, like public prosecutors or lawyers. It could be useful to distinguish between the cooperation on policy level and the cooperation on operational level. Third, it is interesting to make use of other data collection methods like observations to get more insight in the interactions between the actors or of standardized surveys to further test the formulated propositions.

Finally, some policy recommendations can also be formulated. First, a diagnosis can be made of the relationships in other divisions or departments with the aid of the conceptual framework. On the basis of this framework, certain problems but also positive points could be exposed. Second, with the aid of the list of (sub)antecedents from the conceptual framework, factors that increase or decrease can be sought. Efforts can then be focused on particularly those factors, because it is difficult to influence the trust process as a whole. Third, there are also some more general policy-relevant findings. For example, the negative effects of an increased workload and decreased means were pointed out. Furthermore, the importance of communication was mentioned, not only during the investigation or judicial research, but also afterwards. Likewise, the phenomenon of shopping deserves attention. It is particularly important to reflect about its effect on the efficiency, effectiveness and duration with which cases are handled.


Date:10 Dec 2012 →  1 Feb 2018
Keywords:Interorganisational trust
Disciplines:Sociology of organisations and occupations
Project type:PhD project