Legitimation of the Police: A Practitioner’s Framework

– Executive Summary

Legitimacy is vital for any institution to fulfill its mission and achieve its goals. For the police, whose mission is essential to a well-functioning society, legitimacy is of primary importance. This fact is underscored in the 2015 report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing that declares “Building Trust and Legitimacy” as the first pillar of law enforcement.[1] The report’s recommendations have become dogmatic and have been widely adopted by American police departments, especially by progressive urban agencies. Foremost of those recommendations is the implementation of procedural justice practices, which are promised to garner legitimacy.[2] However, as the national dialogue on the role of the police in society has intensified in recent years, public confidence in the police has reached historic lows, and calls to disempower the police have gained widespread support. Interestingly, many jurisdictions that have broadly adopted reforms such as procedural justice practices have seen significant challenges to their legitimacy, facing defunding, hiring freezes, and legislative restrictions to their authority. The continued delegitimization of progressive departments indicates that law enforcement’s prevailing understanding of legitimacy and the methods of building and maintaining it is incomplete.

This thesis seeks to answer how law enforcement practitioners should conceptualize and operationalize legitimacy to facilitate the legitimation of the police. To that end, it conducts a conceptual analysis of established and emerging literature on the topic. A thorough review of the leading works in political philosophy and the social sciences reveals a history of the concept of legitimacy that is complex and nuanced. This thesis then analyzes the function of the police in society, proposing that to legitimize an institution successfully and sustainably, its role must be clearly defined. Finally, the work of the most prominent scholar on procedural justice theory is reviewed, as is the growing body of research that indicates that theory is inadequate to the task of legitimizing law enforcement. This comprehensive analysis is synthesized into four elements that form a framework for the legitimation of the police.

First, an adequate definition of the concept of legitimacy is foundational, and the research suggests that it must incorporate several aspects. It must be both empirical and normative, describing what legitimacy is and what it should be.[3] This thesis proposes that these considerations should be sequential—practitioners should ask whether social groups believe their agencies to be legitimate, and if groups do not, they should then ask why. The formulation must also capture the conditional and defeasible nature of the concept, indicating that it must be earned and can be lost.[4] The police practitioner’s definition of legitimacy can therefore be stated as follows:

An institution is legitimate to the degree to which an audience perceives it as having the authority and right to dictate the audience’s behavior and to the degree to which an audience perceives it as being congruent with the audience’s values and norms.

Second, the research underscores the importance of understanding and asserting the role of law enforcement as the state’s mechanism of non-negotiable coercion during legitimation efforts.[5] Practitioners must be able to competently and confidently explain the necessity and desirability of this function in society. The need for an institution empowered with the state’s monopoly on the use of force makes many people uncomfortable, and it is a topic often avoided in favor of focusing on law enforcement’s ancillary activities. However, an incorrect understanding of the police function invariably results in further delegitimation as community expectations are misaligned with the realities of the profession.

Third, given the significant effects of narratives and social identity revealed in the research, engaging distinct social groups is an essential element of the framework. Social groups arise from the self-identification and self-categorization of individuals based on certain characteristics they share with others.[6] They are powerful motivators of individual behavior, as members align their actions with values and norms that will earn in-group prestige. It is also vital that practitioners engage with superior institutions, such as legislatures, that have the power to materially affect agencies’ power and resources. These sovereign bodies are involved in legitimizing dialogue with the community’s social groups as well and are influenced by special interest groups and other institutions. To earn and retain the legitimacy of their agencies, police practitioners must consistently engage both with relevant social groups and their superior institutions.

Fourth, building on the research of narratives and social identity, practitioners must implement strategies that engage at the collective level. Legitimacy beliefs are formed based on perceptions of whether law enforcement agencies are congruous with the values and norms of social groups.[7] They must see the police as part of their in-group, or at least not as part of an oppositional out-group. To tackle legitimacy deficits, practitioners must either conform to groups’ values and norms or influence them to align with the function of the police. Such engagement is particularly challenging in times of social change, and practitioners must remain aware of the cultural environment and participate in the formation of narratives.[8] 

Having developed the framework for legitimation, this thesis applies it to real-world cases where police legitimacy was challenged and departments either successfully navigated the challenge or were unsuccessful and faced delegitimation. These tests confirm the framework’s utility, providing a foundation for understanding and applying legitimacy concepts to actual incidents and circumstances. They also highlighted specific themes: the importance of intentional and continuous engagement, the pragmatic power of either conforming to values and norms or influencing them to achieve congruity, and the significance of consistently asserting the function of the police during engagement efforts.

Law enforcement is enduring an era of heightened scrutiny and evolving social perspectives on policing. In recent years, the profession has experienced a legitimacy crisis as the prevalent procedural justice theory has fallen short in the face of concerted efforts to disempower the police. This thesis conducts a detailed analysis of legitimacy’s multi-dimensional nature and synthesizes scholarship on the social dynamics contributing to its formation. It then presents a framework for practitioners to use to assert the function of the police, conform to compatible community values, influence incompatible social norms, and achieve the legitimation of the police.

[1] President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report, NCJ Number 248928 (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015), 1, 9, https://cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/taskforce/taskforce_finalreport.pdf.

[2] President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report, 11–12.

[3] David Beetham, The Legitimation of Power (New York: Palgrave, 1991), 1–25.

[4] Anthony Bottoms and Justice Tankebe, “Beyond Procedural Justice: A Dialogic Approach to Legitimacy in Criminal Justice,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 102, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 125, https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/jclc/vol102/iss1/4.

[5] Egon Bittner, The Functions of the Police in Modern Society, Public Health Service Publication No. 2059 (Chevy Chase, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, 1970), 39, https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/functions-police-modern-society.

[6] John C. Turner and Penelope J. Oakes, “The Significance of the Social Identity Concept for Social Psychology with Reference to Individualism, Interactionism and Social Influence,” British Journal of Social Psychology 25, no. 3 (September 1986): 240–46, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8309.1986.tb00732.x; Henri Tajfel and John C. Turner, “The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior,” in Psychology of Intergroup Relations, ed. William J. Austin and Stephen Worchel (Nelson-Hall: Chicago, 1986), 15–16.

[7] Beetham, The Legitimation of Power, ll.

[8] Mark C. Suchman, “Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches,” Academy of Management Review 20, no. 3 (July 1995): 595, https://doi.org/10.2307/258788.

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