Police-related civilian deaths, either by use of force or occurring during law enforcement custody, pose one of the central challenges to police legitimacy. For example, protesters marched against police funding, sporadic episodes of civil disorder erupted, and police policy reviews commenced in the wake of the May 2020 death of George Floyd while in the custody of members of the Minneapolis Police Department. Police-related civilian deaths are a persistent challenge to the legitimacy of police departments.
Research shows that government institutions function better when they develop and maintain legitimacy, which has been defined as “the judgments that ordinary citizens make about the rightfulness of police conduct and the organizations that employ and supervise them.” Therefore, police organizations, as institutions of government, similarly benefit from establishing legitimacy. Yale Professor Tom R. Tyler, an expert in psychology and law, proposes that legitimacy represents an essential component of successful police organizations and survival in their settings. Tyler posits that “procedural justice,” the public’s perception that the police treat people fairly and act impartially, positively correlates to their judgments of police legitimacy.
However, perceptions that police unfairly or unjustifiably apply force can harm perceptions of legitimacy. Such a challenge to a police organization’s legitimacy can have severe consequences. Deadly retaliatory violence against police and large-scale civil unrest have followed use-of-force incidents perceived as illegitimate, specifically police confrontations that have led to a civilian’s death.
With the legitimacy challenges caused by police-related civilian deaths providing its context, this thesis examines five U.S. police agencies that experienced such events and a subsequent challenge to their legitimacy. The police agencies and civilian deaths selected are as follows:
- New York City Police Department: Eric Garner on July 17, 2014
- Ferguson Police Department: Michael Brown on August 8, 2014
- Baltimore Police Department: Freddie Gray on April 12, 2015
- Baton Rouge Police Department: Alton Sterling on July 5, 2016
- Saint Anthony Police Department: Philando Castile on July 6, 2016
Each incident significantly affected the respective department’s perceived legitimacy and relationship with the community, and received considerable negative attention. Additionally, each provoked either deadly retaliatory violence against the police or substantial, large-scale civil unrest.
This thesis compares each agency’s application of 12 expert-recommended legitimacy-developing policies before and in response to each crisis-inducing fatality. Briefly, these include creating civilian police boards or commissions; improving or replacing agency leadership; systemically adopting community-oriented policing; enhancing community engagement; revising use-of-force guidelines to emphasize de‑escalation and adopting less-lethal technologies; using a well-structured media strategy and publicly directed statements to improve communication with the community; transparency on procedural processes; introducing body-worn cameras (BWCs); publicly releasing BWC footage related to critical events; leveraging social media to increase community interaction; enhancing training; and providing implicit bias awareness training.
The Cynefin sense-making framework, pioneered by consultant researchers David J. Snowden, Cynthia F. Kurtz, and Mary E. Boone, is then applied to categorize each of these implementation efforts. While the framework was initially designed as a business tool, government organizations have used it to assist with sense-making and support decision-making in various situations. Moreover, although police experts provide recommendations to promote legitimacy, implementation varies as police departments operate independently of each other. Thus, the framework provides a standard for sense-making, allowing implementation examination across police departments and individual policy dimensions. Using the framework, this thesis categorizes the sense-making context—obvious/simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, or disorder—of each agency’s implementation of these policies before and after the crisis event, revealing which contexts successfully withstood the legitimacy challenge and which did not.
The analysis resulted in four findings that illustrate the applicability of the Cynefin framework to police-legitimacy policies before and in response to police-related civilian deaths. Across the five police departments examined, the findings are as follows:
- The obvious/simple domain dominated legitimacy-developing policy implementations before the civilian fatality, but most shifted into the complicated domain in response.
- Policy positions that occupied the complicated domain before the crisis of a police-related civilian death mostly remained in that context in response.
- Most policy positions occupied the complicated domain in response to the legitimacy crisis following a police-related civilian death.
- Nearly one-quarter of all policy positions before a crisis-inducing civilian death could not be categorized with a Cynefin context—largely due to absent BWC-associated policies—but most shifted into the complicated domain in response.
The findings reveal that legitimacy-developing polices in the complicated domain best sustained the challenge of a police-related civilian death among the police departments this thesis examined. Further, after such a crisis, these agencies most often opted for sense‑making in the complicated domain to enhance their implementation of recommended legitimacy-developing practices.
Based on these findings, this thesis recommends using the Cynefin framework to evaluate and strengthen police implementation of legitimacy-developing policies. These recommendations comprise surveying policies; categorizing policies into Cynefin domains; shifting away from the obvious/simple domain; embracing the complicated domain; and conducting legitimacy crisis drills.
 Commission on Civil Rights, Police Use of Force: An Examination of Modern Policing Practices (Washington, DC: Commission on Civil Rights, 2018), 131, https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/2018/11-15-Police-Force.pdf.
 Eliott C. McLaughlin, “How George Floyd’s Death Ignited a Racial Reckoning That Shows No Signs of Slowing Down,” CNN, August 9, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/09/us/george-floyd-protests-different-why/index.html.
 National Research Council, Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004), 291, https://doi.org/10.17226/10419.
 Anthony Bottoms and Justice Tankebe, “Criminology: Beyond Procedural Justice: A Dialogic Approach to Legitimacy in Criminal Justice,” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 102, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 120.
 Jason Sunshine and Tom R. Tyler, “The Role of Procedural Justice and Legitimacy in Shaping Public Support for Policing,” Law & Society Review 37, no. 3 (September 2003): 513, https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-5893.3703002.
 Commission on Civil Rights, Police Use of Force, 2.
 Steve Giegerich, Jessica Bogan, and Kim Bell, “Ferguson Day Two Wrapup: Day of Protests, Night of Frenzy,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 11, 2014, https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/ferguson-day-two-wrapup-day-of-protests-night-of-frenzy/article_f9d627dc-e3c8-5bde-b2ab-7f0a3d36a083.html; Larry Celona et al., “Gunman Executes 2 NYPD Cops in Garner ‘Revenge,’” New York Post, December 20, 2014, https://nypost.com/2014/12/20/2-nypd-cops-shot-execution-style-in-brooklyn; Holly Yan and Dana Ford, “Baltimore Riots: Looting, Fires Engulf City after Freddie Gray’s Funeral,” CNN, April 28, 2015, https://www.cnn.com/2015/04/27/us/baltimore-unrest/index.html; Richard Fausset, Manny Fernandez, and Alan Blinder, “Micah Johnson, Gunman in Dallas, Honed Military Skills to a Deadly Conclusion,” New York Times, July 9, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/us/dallas-quiet-after-police-shooting-but-protests-flare-elsewhere.html; Steve Visser, “Baton Rouge Shooting: 3 Officers Dead; Shooter Was Missouri Man, Sources Say,” CNN, July 18, 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/07/17/us/baton-route-police-shooting/index.html.
 Cynthia F. Kurtz and David J. Snowden, “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-Making in a Complex and Complicated World,” IBM Systems Journal 42, no. 3 (2003): 462; David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” Harvard Business Review, November 2007.
 Kurtz and Snowden, “The New Dynamics of Strategy,” 468.