Cause of Police Legitimacy Research Paper

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Police legitimacy plays a crucial role in promoting a variety of crucial, pro-social outcomes. Research demonstrates the capacity of police legitimacy to promote law-abiding behaviors, cooperation with police, reporting crime and suspicious behaviors, support for police, and public collaboration with police (Fagan and Tyler 2004; Fagan and Tyler 2005; Gau 2011; Kochel et al. 2011; Reisig et al. 2007; Sunshine and Tyler 2003; Tankebe 2009; Tyler 1990; Tyler 2006; Tyler and Fagan 2008). These outcomes are particularly important to the efficiency and effectiveness of police within democratic contexts. Police rely on public support for resources and authorization, and even more importantly, police are expected to generate voluntary compliance to the law and to police directives by a majority of citizens, rather than using force and fear to coerce cooperation (Tyler 2004). Jackson and colleagues (2012) suggest that normative-based compliance (such as that motivated by perceptions of police legitimacy) is more stable than instrumentally motivated compliance. Police cannot be at all places at all times, thus minimizing the potential effectiveness of a deterrence-approach for securing order. Instead, police in democratic contexts rely on a social culture supportive of law-abiding behavior and order. Police legitimacy serves as a basis for this social culture. Views about police legitimacy and other judgments about police tend to be fairly stable in the United States and elsewhere, but scholars have reported declines in police legitimacy in recent decades LaFree 1998; Tyler et al. (1997).

Thus, understanding the causes of or contributors to police legitimacy and whether patterns of police legitimacy and the factors that promote it vary under different contexts or across different characteristics of people has important practical implications for police, the public, and democracies in general. Tyler (1990) suggests that policing style and the process of policing may influence individuals’ judgments about police legitimacy. This research paper describes, based on past theoretical and empirical research, three factors that may contribute to police legitimacy – procedural justice, crime control effectiveness, and distributive justice. The paper describes the three models, their relative impacts, and whether these effects vary under different conditions.

Background: Defining Legitimacy

Police legitimacy is a normative perspective that police authority is valid and ought to be obeyed and respected. Police have legitimacy when members of the public believe police have a right to their authority and thus that citizens have a moral obligation and civic duty to honor, accept, and adhere to that authority (Tyler and Huo 2002). The concept of institutional legitimacy originates with Max Weber (1947). He first explained that citizens who view an authority as legitimate feel a personal sense of responsibility to act consistently with that authority’s expectations, even in the absence of that authority and even when the compliant behavior contradicts self-interests.

Although this definition of legitimacy is widely acknowledged, research examining the correlates and consequences of police legitimacy has suffered from construct validity problems (Gau 2011; Reisig et al. 2007). Scholars have sometimes operationalized legitimacy to include the anticipated consequences of police legitimacy, such as compliance with the law or cooperation with police, and at other times, legitimacy measures incorporate theorized antecedents, especially elements of procedural justice. Additionally, while most studies of police legitimacy incorporate into the measure a perceived obligation to obey, some of Tom Tyler’s studies (the present day scholar who refocused the criminologists and criminal justice practitioners on this issue with a series of survey studies) and other studies incorporate moral trust or institutional trustworthiness as a component to legitimacy. This component is not part of Weber’s initial construct, and recent psychometric studies have suggested that trust does not combine with views about the obligation to obey to form a legitimacy measure (Gau 2011; Reisig, et al. 2007). Thus, this research paper aims to provide the status of current research on police legitimacy conceptualized as the perceived moral obligation to voluntarily obey police, while avoiding some of the construct validity pitfalls experienced by it.

Key Issues

One way individuals form opinions about whether and the degree to which police authority is legitimate is based on personal or vicarious experiences with police. While Tyler (1990) found that only about four percent of the variance of legitimacy in a Chicago sample was explained by individual personal experiences with police, Tyler and Huo (2002) and Tyler (2001) saw a much stronger impact of personal experience on legitimacy judgments, explaining up to 34 % of the variation in legitimacy. Other sources include stories and media coverage about police behaviors and accomplishments, peer assessments of police, generalized understandings about the institution of police, and demographic and cultural characteristics of the individual and context that may color individuals’ perceptions. Past scholarship has focused on how three aspects of these experiences and attitudes may contribute to police legitimacy. Procedural justice, distributive justice, and police effectiveness are the three antecedents expected to promote police legitimacy.

The Process-Based Model/Procedural Justice Model

Procedural justice refers to an impartial process that is not affected by race, gender, age, or other demographic characteristics: one in which people have a voice, one where different people in similar situations are treated consistently, a process whereby decisions are based on facts, one in which people are treated with dignity and respect, and a process protected by accountability to higher authorities (Leventhal 1976). The process-based model or procedural justice model purports that when members of the public perceive that police behave fairly and respectfully toward citizens, this generates a perception that the police and the public share similar values and beliefs. Lipset (1959), writing about the time of Weber, suggests that social institutions acquire legitimacy based on whether the institution’s values align with its constituents.

Gau (2011) explains that being treated well by police may indicate to people that they are a valued member of society, affirming the individual’s status as a member of the group, which includes police. This belief in a common moral perspective with police or common group membership encourages acceptance of a moral obligation to obey police authority and promotes a cultural value supportive of lawfulness (Tyler and Huo 2002). Tyler (1997) links this process back to social identity theory, whereby individuals gain information about their identity and status by how authorities treat them. When individuals feel that they have been treated respectfully by an authority, this action signifies their accepted group status and they respond with deference.

Of course, not all members of the public experience personal contact with the police from which to assess procedural justice. Tyler and others assert that residents can draw on their general perceptions about the character of police to form opinions about procedural justice and thus legitimacy. Additionally, the process-based model does not require an objective assessment of the fairness of police procedures. Rather, what matters are individuals’ subjective opinions about police fairness, which derive from a variety of perspectives and experiences.

The types of measures that are typically used to operationalize procedural justice include items asking whether police treat people fairly or with dignity and respect, make decisions based upon facts, explain their actions, listen to people before making decisions, respect people’s rights, try to help people solve problems, or have the best interest of a group or area at heart. Some studies also include whether police fairly decide whom to stop and question or arrest or whether police apply too much force under certain circumstances.

The Instrumental/Performance-Based Model

Lipset (1959), who advocated the importance of the process-based model, also contends that social institutions gain legitimacy when they can demonstrate prolonged effectiveness. Lipset suggests that both shared values and effectiveness can provide the source of legitimacy, but prolonged effectiveness in the absence of shared values offers only an unstable form of legitimacy for a social institution.

The instrumental or performance-based model of legitimacy suggests that residents accept and conform to police authority when they perceive that doing so will produce beneficial outcomes or avoid negative ones. To gain benefits, residents must see police as a useful resource. Residents who perceive that police are competent and capable of reducing crime, bringing offenders to justice, creating and maintaining order, reducing fear of victimization, and improving neighborhood conditions will grant them legitimacy and subsequently provide their cooperation and adherence to police authority because they believe that doing so will achieve anticipated goals of better safety and less crime. In other words, they see police as an authority with the capacity to secure compliance and thus grant them legitimacy. Thus, when members of the public experience positive interactions with police or perceive these favorable outcomes are being and can be obtained, the performance-based model expects higher police legitimacy. However, when residents doubt the capacity of police to produce order, control crime, and hold criminals accountable, an instrumental model predicts that residents will be less inclined to acknowledge or feel obligated to conform to police authority, because they have little to gain.

The types of questions that are typically used to measure police performance address assessments about response time, the effectiveness of police at addressing social disorder, crime, or citizen fear, as well as general assessments about the safety of a neighborhood and other neighborhood conditions.

The Distributive Justice Model

The distributive justice model suggests that residents are more apt to view police as legitimate when they perceive that police services are equitably distributed and not motivated by characteristics about people or places (e.g., wealth, social class, race/ethnicity, political affiliation, geographic location) that are unrelated to the police mission. This is not to suggest that police attention would have to be evenly or equally allocated, rather that the allocation of resources is perceived as appropriate. The distributive justice model suggests that police will have greater legitimacy when residents perceive everyone is getting suitable attention and services from the police. Judgments about what is equitable are subjective and, like the other models, do not require personal interactions with police in order to form them.

The types of questions that are typically used to measure distributive justice generally ask whether groups are treated equally based on social characteristics such as race or wealth, or whether a certain group is treated better by police or receives better quality outcomes from police.

Weight Of The Evidence

Much of the evidence about the antecedents of police legitimacy is based on citizen surveys across cities in the United States. Tom Tyler conducted a series of these studies in Oakland, California, Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago (Sunshine and Tyler 2003; Tyler 1990; Tyler 2001; Tyler and Huo 2002; Tyler and Fagan 2008). Since this initial contribution, other scholars have also contributed, examining the antecedents of legitimacy in other US cities (Gau 2011) and in other developed and developing countries such as Australia (Hinds 2007; Hinds and Murphy 2007; Murphy et al. 2008), England (Hough et al. 2010; Jackson et al. 2012), Ghana (Tankebe 2008), Israel (Jonathan-Zamir and Weisburd 2011), Jamaica (Reisig and Lloyd 2009), and Trinidad and Tobago (Kochel 2012; Kochel et al. 2011).

Past research has shown some support for each of the three antecedents of legitimacy, suggesting that the pathway to legitimacy is not one dimensional. For example, Papachristos and colleagues (2009) show that a measure combining elements of police performance, procedural justice, and distributive justice was a strong positive predictor of legitimacy. Hinds and Murphy (2007) as well as Murphy et al. (2008) found a positive association among Australians between legitimacy and each of procedural justice, police performance, and distributive fairness. Tyler’s (2002) New York sample showed the same result. Generally, however, these predictors do not have equal influence.

Past research strongly supports procedural justice as the most consistent and influential antecedent: the primary mechanism for promoting police legitimacy. Studies conducted by Sunshine and Tyler (2003); Fagan and Tyler (2004); Tyler et al. (2010), as well as Van der Toorn et al. (2011) in New York, Tyler (1990) in Chicago, Tyler and Huo (2002) in Los Angeles and Oakland, by Hinds (2007), Hinds and Murphy (2007), and Murphy et al. (2008) in Australia, by Hough and colleagues (2010) as well as Jackson and colleagues (2012) in England and Wales, Kochel (2012) and Kochel et al. (2011) in Trinidad and Tobago, and by Reisig and Lloyd (2009) in Jamaica have all found support that when individuals perceive the police as being more procedurally just, they also view them with higher levels of legitimacy and that procedural justice is a stronger predictor than distributive justice or perceived effectiveness. Kochel (2012) further demonstrates that these relationships carry through to the neighborhood level. In Trinidad and Tobago neighborhoods, when residents perceived higher levels of procedural injustice, a smaller portion of residents reported normative obligations to accept police decisions. Other studies demonstrating the important positive influence of procedural justice on legitimacy, but without accounting for either distributive justice or performance include Fagan and Tyler (2005), Tyler and Fagan (2008), and Gau (2011).

Limited past research also indicates a positive relationship between distributive justice judgments and perceptions about police legitimacy; however, the evidence is not nearly as clear or consistent as that for procedural justice. Tyler and Fagan (2008), Tyler and Huo (2002), Murphy and colleagues (2008), and Hinds and Murphy (2007) show a positive association between distributive justice and police legitimacy. However, Reisig and Lloyd (2009) and Tyler et al. (2007) found no significant effect. No studies of police legitimacy have reported a significant negative effect of distributive justice.

Similarly, past research shows mixed findings for the instrumental model; the influence of performance effectiveness in fighting crime, improving neighborhood conditions, and reducing fear of victimization on police legitimacy is not clear. However, Sunshine and Tyler (2003) (see the pre-crisis sample) and Van der Toorn and colleagues (2011) suggest that while performance effectiveness is less important than procedural justice, it can play a substantive role in forming legitimacy judgments. In particular, Van der Toorn and colleagues (2011) show that perceptions about police performance are nearly as important to their sample as procedural fairness in predicting police legitimacy. (Although Hinds and Murphy (2007) and Murphy and colleagues (2008) also support this association and suggest that in their study in Australia, police performance is nearly as influential as procedural justice on perceptions of police legitimacy, their measure of legitimacy is not well aligned with how it is defined in this research paper as it includes components of satisfaction and performance and confidence in police.) Fagan and Tyler (2004), Tyler and Fagan (2008), and Tyler and colleagues (2010) did not show a significant effect of police performance on legitimacy judgments in New York among residents overall, or Muslim-Americans specifically. Hough and colleagues (2010) and Jackson and colleagues (2012) did not find a significant influence of effectiveness on legitimacy in a survey of British residents. No studies of police legitimacy have reported a significant negative effect of performance effectiveness.

Panel studies that have examined views about legitimacy over time suggest that individuals have fairly stable opinions about police legitimacy – their views about police legitimacy at the earlier timeframe are the best predictor of the present views about legitimacy. Often, more recent assessments about the fairness of police procedures also matter (Murphy et al. 2008; Tyler 1990; Tyler and Fagan 2008). In a few of these studies, some of the other models are also supported. Tyler and Fagan (2008) and Murphy and colleagues (2008) show support for performance effectiveness, while Murphy and colleagues also support the role of recent distributive justice assessments. Tyler and Fagan (2008), who conducted a panel study in New York City, reported that legitimacy judgments at time two were influenced by their initial views of police legitimacy at time one, as well as both procedural justice components and distributive justice opinions at time two, but not by police performance. Hinds (2007) conducted a study among Australian youth and found that procedural justice considerations outweighed the other significant predictors including police performance, youth-police relationships, expectations of police, negative contact with police, and fear of property crime.

Among the three models purported to influence police legitimacy, the process-based model is the clear champion. More research is needed to better understand the nature of the relationship between legitimacy and both distributive justice and police performance. In addition to these factors, favorable outcomes and prior positive interactions with police also have positive relationships with legal institution legitimacy (Tyler 1990; Tyler and Huo 2002; Sunshine and Tyler 2003).

Demographic Characteristics And Police Legitimacy

Individuals with different cultural, demographic, and experiential backgrounds often differ in their views about police legitimacy. For example, recent studies by Hough and colleagues (2010) and by Jackson and colleagues (2012) found a significant relationship between London residents’ moral values (a cultural measure of the degree to which the individual viewed certain behaviors as morally wrong) and their sense of duty to obey police. Independent of perceptions of procedural justice or police effectiveness, individuals with a stronger sense of personal morality had a greater sense of obligation to obey police. Other personal characteristics, discussed below, have shown similar independent effects.

Cherney and Murphy (2011) caution, however, that background characteristics may not only be associated with different levels of legitimacy, but in forming legitimacy judgments differently. They assert that when individuals have diminished legitimacy about the law, procedural justice qualities of police may not promote police legitimacy and in fact may have a backfire effect (They base this on their study, reported in Murphy et al. (2009), that found that among ethnic minorities who have reduced legitimacy for the law, procedural justice had a negative relationship on willingness to cooperate with police – an anticipated outcome of legitimacy and often used proxy for legitimacy).

Conversely, Tyler and Huo (2002) have suggested that people form opinions about legitimacy in the same way across different background characteristics. They theorize that even if people vary in the level of legitimacy that they ascribe to police, they tend to follow the same psychological process in coming to that conclusion.

Several studies have found relationships between views about police legitimacy and demographic characteristics. For example, a series of studies have shown a positive link between being Caucasian and higher levels of police legitimacy. Sunshine and Tyler (2003) found that white residents viewed police with more legitimacy than African-American and Hispanic residents in New York. Kirk and Papachristos (2011) found similar results in Chicago. Gau (2011) found that White residents feel a stronger obligation to obey police than Asian individuals. In spite of these differences, Tyler (2001), Tyler and Huo (2002), and Sunshine and Tyler (2003) found evidence that residents of different racial and ethnic backgrounds all rely primarily on procedural justice judgments to inform their legitimacy assessments. In these studies, different ethnic groups relied on similar psychological processes to form legitimacy judgments.

Additionally, older individuals tend to perceive the police with more legitimacy than younger people (Murphy et al. 2008; Papachristos et al. 2009; Tyler 1990; Tyler and Fagan 2008). Yet, Fagan and Tyler (2005) report that the adolescents they sampled relied on procedural justice to form views about legitimacy, as did adults in the many surveys conducted by Tyler across cities in the United States. Individuals of different ages rely on a similar process, even if they grant police different levels of legitimacy.

Past research by Tyler (1988) found that residents in Chicago who had recent experiences with police but with different demographic backgrounds (age, gender, race, income, education, and political ideology) used the same criteria when they assessed the fairness of their experience with police. Also in the New York sample, residents who had citizen-initiated contact with police and residents who had police-initiated contact, both reported that the quality of the treatment they received had a significant influence on their perceptions of police legitimacy, when accounting for other demographic characteristics (Tyler and Fagan 2008). Furthermore, a sample of Muslim-Americans relied on procedural justice judgments when forming opinions about legitimacy, just as has been found in samples that do not distinguish religious affiliation (Tyler et al. 2010). Finally, a sample of law enforcement officers and a sample of soldiers each also relied on the procedural justice model to form their views about legitimacy (Tyler et al. 2007). Thus, based on available research, preliminary indications favor Tyler and Huo (2002), suggesting that while some demographic groups have significantly higher or lower opinions about police legitimacy, different groups form their opinions relying primarily on procedural justice judgments.

Context And Police Legitimacy

Under certain contextual conditions, the strength of the factors predicting legitimacy or what is most important may vary. Prior research addressing a variety of individuals’ attitudes toward police (e.g., satisfaction with police, support for police, confidence in police, views about fairness and effectiveness) suggests that neighborhood characteristics such as concentrated disadvantage, community disorder, collective efficacy, and the violent crime rate are important factors affecting individuals’ opinions (Bradford and Jackson 2010a; Cao et al. 1996; Dunham and Alpert 1988; and Kirk and Papachristos 2011; Kochel 2012; Reisig and Parks 2000; Sampson and Bartusch 1998; Sun et al. 2004). So, it may be reasonable to expect that perceptions about legitimacy will also be impacted by these contextual factors and the realities and feelings that they generate, and that different antecedents to legitimacy may matter more in one context than another (Hough et al. 2010).

Dunham and Alpert (1988) found that generally, attitudes about police practices were more similar within neighborhoods than across neighborhoods. Kochel and Tankebe (forthcoming) find support that this holds true for police legitimacy. A variety of neighborhood qualities may explain this, including shared experiences with poverty, victimization risk, police contact, and sanctions, which may affect residents’ fears about safety, feelings of marginalization or acceptance, desires for police assistance, and other attitudes that may be important in forming legitimacy opinions. Supporting this notion, Kochel (2012) found that neighborhoods with a higher proportion of victims, fewer negative police contacts, as well as fewer extremely wealthy residents had more residents who viewed police with legitimacy. Sun, et al. (2004) reported that police legitimacy is lower in areas of concentrated disadvantage.

Other scholars have looked at the related measure of legal cynicism within a neighborhood context. Sampson and Bartusch (1998) and Kirk and Papachristos (2011) found that people living in neighborhoods with concentrated disadvantage were significantly more likely to express legal cynicism. In Chicago, Kirk and Papachristos (2011) also identified high proportions of youth and residential stability as predictors of legal cynicism.

However, none of these studies examined whether residents of different kinds of neighborhoods or other varied contexts not only hold different views, but also rely on different processes in making legitimacy judgments. Two past studies offer the only indications about this issue. Both studies attempt to determine whether different legitimation processes are used when security is threatened.

Sunshine and Tyler (2003) conducted a survey of New York City residents immediately prior to the terrorist crisis on September 11, 2001, and then shortly after the attacks. They found that under the different security threat circumstances, the relative importance of the three models differed somewhat. The first survey revealed that procedural fairness and to a lesser degree performance effectiveness were the antecedents to police legitimacy. In this survey, the effect of procedural justice was nearly five times stronger than performance. Subsequently, residents who viewed police with more legitimacy also were willing to empower police to undertake a variety of actions, including actions that limit the freedoms of citizens. Shortly after the terrorist attack, a second survey found that the influence of distributive justice on legitimacy was statistically significant and was about half as important as procedural fairness to predict perceptions of legitimacy. Performance effectiveness during this time of crisis was not a significant antecedent of legitimacy; instead, it was directly related to residents’ willingness to empower police to perform a variety of actions, some intrusive, including stopping and questioning people on the street and searching homes without permission from a judge. Empowerment was also still predicted by legitimacy, but in this context, performance drove empowerment to action, not perceptions of legitimacy (Similar results are reported in Ghana by Tankebe 2009).

Jonathan-Zamir and Weisburd (2011) studied a community in Israel that was located in close proximity to the Gaza Strip and subject to severe threat for missile attacks compared to other communities in Israel, who lacked similar threats. In both communities, police legitimacy (actually a measure of trust in the police) was positively predicted first by procedural justice and second by performance. The difference was that within non-threatened communities, but not in the community undergoing crisis, negative encounters with police and offenders’ risk of getting caught also impacted their legitimacy measure.

Thus, early indications are that the process of forming legitimacy assessments may not drastically vary across social contexts. Procedural justice judgments are extremely important under a variety of situations and appear to be the primary influence on legitimacy. However, more research is needed on the process of forming legitimacy judgments within different contexts.


The important outcomes of police legitimacy substantiate careful consideration of the factors that promote it. Three models dominate theory: the process-based model, the instrumental model, and the distributive justice model. Available research strongly supports the consistent and strong influence of fair procedures in forming positive views about police legitimacy. This model is supported across individuals with a variety of different background characteristics as well as across social contexts, including in developed and developing countries, across a variety of cities in the United States and in places of severe security threats and those lacking such threats. Mixed evidence on the role of police performance effectiveness and distributive justice on legitimacy assessments speak to the need for further research in those areas.


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