Legitimacy is the recognition of power as being valid (Coicaud, 2002; Weber, 1978). Police organizations risk losing their legitimacy if they are perceived to have violated or abused their recognized authority, which can happen if they exert their powers in ways that are viewed as inappropriate. This description implies that legitimacy is both conditional and dynamic, requiring police managers to work continuously at nurturing it (Bottoms and Tankebe, 2012). Nurturing legitimacy requires police agencies to consistently and regularly identify citizens’ expectations and perceptions of police service and develop mechanisms to meet those expectations. However, citizens’ expectations of the police will likely vary across societies and groups and over time (Bottoms and Tankebe, 2017; Tankebe, 2013). Thus, a “dialogic” approach to developing interventions to nurture legitimacy also includes being sensitive to country contexts and dynamic expectations (see Bottoms and Tankebe, 2012, 2020).
In this chapter, the committee outlines four pillars of legitimacy, based on four “basic legitimation expectations,” as identified by Bottoms and Tankebe (2017, 2020): effectiveness, lawfulness, distributive justice, and procedural justice. This chapter briefly describes the theories behind each pillar.
Constituting the first pillar, people expect the police to be effective in using their authority to address threats to public safety. The more effective the police are in meeting that objective, the more likely they will sustain their legitimacy. Starting with effectiveness is useful, because helping to resolve social disorder is arguably why police exist. The other pillars can be seen as placing normative constraints on what the police can do in their attempts to reduce crime and disorder. These normative constraints help
differentiate the effectiveness of police from that of non-state actors operating to provide security to communities.
A second pillar is that police act lawfully by eschewing dishonesty and illegalities in their conduct.
Third, police legitimacy is shaped by expectations of distributive justice—that is, fairness of policing outcomes across social identities of involved parties (e.g., race, gender, social class).
Fourth, police legitimacy also depends on procedural justice—that police officers listen to citizens, show care for them, and treat them with respect and fairness. Research using survey and interview data from Ghana, the United Kingdom, and the United States has substantiated the four basic policing legitimation expectations (Kearns, Ashooh, and Lowrey-Kinberg, 2020; Tankebe, 2013; Tankebe, Reisig, and Wang, 2016).
The committee notes that an evidence-based approach to policing outlined in the committee’s first report (NASEM, 2021) can be used to enable police to examine how well they achieve these four pillars of legitimacy. At the core of an evidence-based approach is that police try to link actions to outcomes and do so transparently. As with the other reports in this series, we argue that police organizations and donors should not guess at whether the four pillars of legitimacy are achieved. Instead, accurately measuring effectiveness, lawfulness, and procedural and distributive justice and their connection to the outcomes sought is needed to achieve and sustain the four pillars of legitimacy.
Different communities may differ in their priorities and demands of the police. Pressing problems may include: corruption, domestic violence, drug crimes, organized crime, public order, street violence, sex offenses, or any combination of these and more. For whichever priorities are chosen, police legitimacy includes expectation by the public that the police should be reasonably successful in achieving results (Bottoms and Tankebe, 2017; Kearns, Ashooh, and Lowrey-Kinberg, 2020; Tankebe, Reisig, and Wang, 2016). Effectiveness may be questioned if, for example, the police cannot address public concerns satisfactorily, which may result in widespread vigilantism (Cohen and Jung, 2020; Harnischfeger, 2003; Moncada, 2021; Smith, 2019).
The next logical question is how police can improve their effectiveness. There have been multiple academic assessments of effectiveness, typically viewed within the context of one or more of the other pillars of legitimacy. The report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ad hoc consensus committee on proactive policing (NASEM, 2018) presents a broad example of what is known about the effectiveness of various forms of proactive policing against the backdrop of police legitimacy (see also NASEM, 2021, 2022b).
As noted in the committee’s first report (NASEM, 2021, p. 16):
a fundamental component of the rule of law is that the state itself be held accountable to the law. The police institution… has great responsibility to act in ways consistent with laws and international human rights norms and standards…. Promoting the rule of law therefore requires laws and policies that establish clear limits to police authority and actions—particularly regarding the use of force—as well as mechanisms for meaningful oversight and accountability.
Beetham (1991, p. 16) recognized legality or lawfulness as “the first and most basic level of legitimacy.” Legality is concerned with the issue of whether power has been obtained and wielded in conformity with the existing rules in a given society. Lawfulness, as explored in the Bottoms and Tankebe (2020) approach to criminal justice legitimacy, concerns the expectation that authorities will adhere to the rule of law, exercise only the powers explicitly provided in law, and act within relevant legal boundaries.
The law must also be applied as expected so that individuals being subjected to power can know when they are subjected to coercion (Tamanha, 2004). Beetham’s (1991) condition for lawfulness therefore implies that powers that allow police officers to carry out actions that deprive individuals of their freedoms (e.g., stops and searches, intercepted conversations, and uses of force) should be supported by and not deviate from existing legal standards (Bottoms and Tankebe, 2012; Tankebe, 2013). Another critical component of lawfulness is how these powers are exercised. There is an expectation that the police will respect the due process rights of citizens, and will exercise their police powers in a manner that is “unbiased, free of passion, prejudice, and arbitrariness, loyal to the law alone” (Tamanaha, 2004, p. 123). Note that this means there is an overlap between the lawfulness pillar of legitimacy and the pillars of procedural justice and distributive justice (Bottoms and Tankebe, 2017, p. 83).
Law enforcement officers do not always adhere to the rule of law. Their unlawful actions may come in the form of a breach of formal legal requirements or of informal conventions as to how law enforcement officials should operate. Such breaches can include years of unlawful and unfair law enforcement practices and the culture of targeting minorities for harassment (U.S. Department of Justice, 2015); police acts of violence and corruption (Blair and Morse, 2021; Cruz, 2015; Gingerich and Oliveros, 2018); and inappropriate conduct in undercover operations (Loftus, 2019). These actions can and have historically reduced confidence in the police in certain communities, particularly minority and/or underprivileged communities (Brunson and Wade, 2019; Desmond and Papachristos, 2016; NASEM, 2018).
Notably, unlawful behaviors can also stem from instances of “cognitive ethical failure.” This type of failure occurs when people persuade themselves that rules do not apply to them, possibly because they see themselves as critical to the success of an organization, or because they believe a particular situation requires them to “bend the rules” to achieve a desired outcome (Price, 2006). This may manifest in policing through “noble cause corruption,” where police officers use illicit means to achieve organizational and socially approved ends (Klockars, 1980; Punch, 2000). While this behavior may seem socially beneficial and while it may sometimes command public support (see Calderia, 2006; Ramos and Musumeci, 2005), it can lead to loss of legitimacy. Existing evidence reveals that a gap often exists between the legal requirements of policing and the actions of police officers on the job (see Beek and Göpfert, 2013; Blaustein, 2015; Faull, 2017; Jauregui, 2016). Closing that gap is a fundamental component of police legitimacy.
Distributive justice may be defined as “the fairness and equity of the police delivery of services to persons across social and demographic groups” (Tyler and Fagan, 2008, p. 239). These groups can be distinguished by race, gender, sexual orientation, class, political affiliation, or religion. The differential treatment of minority populations or marginalized communities and the victimization of these groups is a pervasive concern across countries, but manifests differently in different contexts. As noted in Blair (2022b), studies in the United States consistently show that racial and ethnic minorities (especially African Americans) express lower trust in the police and view the police as less legitimate than members of majority groups (Bell, 2017; Schuck, Rosenbaum, and Hawkins, 2008; Weitzer and Tuch, 2005). In other countries, racial and ethnic minorities often express less favorable attitudes toward the police, particularly in settings where the police have been deployed as instruments of repression by authoritarian regimes (Blair et al., 2022). Women are similarly wary of the police, perhaps in response to masculine cultures that dominate most police departments and notably where the police have a reputation for ignoring or dismissing crimes that disproportionately affect women (e.g., gender-based violence) (Jassal, 2020; Karim et al., 2018).
For the purposes of exposition, we will refer to failures to provide distributive justice in two ways.1 The first is over-policing or over-enforcement, and the second is under-policing or under-enforcement.
1 Here we build on earlier research to contrast over-policing and under-policing in regard to challenges in achieving equality of policing outcomes. Recent research (Prowse, Weaver, and Meares, 2019) has started to examine the simultaneous over-policing and under-policing experienced by Black communities in U.S. cities, what the authors call distorted responsiveness.
Over-policing occurs when the amount of police attention and resources devoted to a particular criminal incident, group of people, or set of spaces exceeds the amount that a reasonable person would objectively expect or desire, based on the harm associated with the crime. Over-policing occurs when individuals or groups are subject to disproportionate police attention, being more likely than others to be stopped and searched and to be detained, arrested, have force used against them, or prosecuted. Related to this, over-policing occurs when local communities are subjected to intense and aggressive policing practices. In some cases, a category of “suspect communities” is created, groups that the state considers “problematic […and] may be targeted, not necessarily as a result of suspected wrong doing, but simply because of their presumed membership to that sub-group” (Pantazis and Pemberton, 2009, p. 647). Over-policing violates the dignity of individuals and reinforces illegitimate hierarchies in society (Sklansky, 2007), creating resentment and eroding the emotional attachment between the police and local communities.
The second failure of distributive justice is under-policing or under-enforcement. This occurs when the amount of police resources and attention devoted to an incident, person, or place is less than what a reasonable person would expect or desire based on the associated criminal harm (Natapoff, 2006). Frequently referenced examples of under-policing include police not responding to hate crimes, sexual violence, or white-collar crimes. The police are likely to lose legitimacy among those who perceive that the police are not offering sufficient protection or do not take their victimization seriously. Perceived over- or under-policing can lead people to resort to non-state actors for protection (Cohen and Jung, 2020; Harnischfeger, 2003; Moncada, 2021; Nivette, 2016).
In an examination of multiple policing projects over a 16-year period in the United Kingdom, Charman and Williams (2022) reported consistent barriers to justice for victims and potential victims of crime, precluding either the opportunity to initiate the justice process or the realization of a satisfactory outcome from police interactions. The study revealed that cultural conceptions of deservedness leave some victims without the opportunity to engage in the justice process or seek justice outcomes (Charman and Williams, 2022). The findings suggest that unfair and inequitable distribution of police resources to victims and potential victims appears to be driven by stigmatization of people and place (Charman and Williams, 2021). This study illustrates that fair and equitable justice can be undermined by police abuse of their discretionary authority. Consequently, strategies to minimize distributive injustice may involve policies and measures to limit such abuses and improve accountability and transparency in police work.
The pillar of procedural justice has the broadest empirical base in relation to how it might contribute to police legitimacy. However, demonstrating a causal relationship between perceptions of fairness and perceptions of legitimacy, as suggested by procedural justice theories, has been difficult (Blair, 2022b; Nagin and Telep, 2017, 2020). The procedural justice perceptive, as popularized for the case of policing by Tom Tyler (2006), is a dominant view of police legitimacy that focuses on the quality of everyday interactions between officers and civilians, and the fairness of decision-making procedures during those interactions (Gau, 2014; Sunshine and Tyler, 2003; Tyler and Blader, 2003). Studies propose that “parties to disputes may be satisfied with procedures that they regard as fair even when the outcomes are not favourable to them” (Worden, Bonner, and McLean, 2018).
In Why People Obey the Law, Tyler (2006) differentiated between instrumental and normative assessments of legal authorities. In making instrumental assessments, citizens care about the control of the decision-making process to induce an outcome that is favorable to them—for example, whether a stolen vehicle or laptop has been recovered, a suspect of criminal damage has been arrested and convicted, or they themselves have been released from penalty for a minor infraction. However, in the case of normative assessments, citizens are said to be more concerned about the quality of the treatment they received. In other words, how fairly the police treat them, regardless of the actual outcome.
The research evidence suggests that people’s assessments of the quality of the interactions center on four key expectations. Tyler and Meares (2019) summarize them as follows:
First, people want a voice. The public wants the police to allow people to express their views or tell their side of the story before determining policies or making decisions. Second, people care about neutrality. People want the police to act in a transparent and impartial manner by making decisions based upon facts, not prejudices. Neutrality is also related to whether the police explain what their policies are, and how they are being applied. Third, people want interpersonal respect. This includes respect for people’s rights as citizens and for their dignity as people... Fourth, people care about trustworthy motives. It is important to people to feel that the police are motivated to do what is good for the people in their community. They want to believe that the police are sincere and benevolent, and focused on the needs and concerns of the public, and willing to acknowledge and address people’s concerns (pp. 74–75).
A significant body of research evidence shows that improved treatment during police interactions makes it more likely that citizens will view police officers and police organizations as legitimate, and citizens become more likely to comply with the law and cooperate with police (Bolger and Walters, 2019; Mazerolle et al., 2013; Peyton, Sierra-Arévalo, and Rand, 2019).