Police Legitimacy and Police Encounters Research Paper

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Research on police legitimacy is an area of growing interest among researchers and practitioners. The concept of legitimacy ties together issues of compliance, obedience, satisfaction, trust, and order. The fundamental recognition of its importance rests on the idea that police will more easily maintain order when civilians view the police as legitimate. Regimes, organizations, and individual officers lacking legitimacy, conversely, face crises based on undermined public support for their authority. The discussion that follows considers how legitimacy is influenced by individual encounters with authorities and in a reciprocal sense, provides a context for understanding how citizens relate to police in terms of future cooperation and compliance.


Definition Of Legitimacy

Legitimacy is an outlook, with cognitive and affective components as well as behavioral predispositions. People who believe that the police are legitimate trust the police to exercise their authority appropriately, identify with the police (Tyler and Huo 2002), have confidence in the police to do the right thing, and feel an obligation to obey the police. The sense of obligation to obey has been central to discussions of legitimacy, because insofar as legitimacy has behavioral implications, it points the way toward broader and more economical ways for the police to cultivate public support, cooperation, and compliance. More generally, we might say that when police are perceived as legitimate, they are thought to be entitled to have their authority reciprocated with obedience.

From the observation that legitimacy encompasses a sense of obligation to obey, it does not follow that obedience ensues reliably from legitimacy; the association between legitimacy – an outlook – and obedience (a behavior) is imperfect. Many studies of attitude-behavior consistency have reported only rather modest associations, and against that empirical backdrop, the reported relationships between legitimacy and obedience appear quite robust, as we summarize below, but they are far from perfect, and we might surmise that the strength of the relationship depends in part on the nature of the behavior.

Legitimacy, to the extent it is an attitude toward police, likely shares a high correlation with other attitudes, such as satisfaction with the police, which have been studied more extensively. Furthermore, a variety of research points to the likelihood that legitimacy is conceptually multidimensional, comprised of trust in motives, obligation to obey, and identification with the authority. This suggests that legitimacy is a composite of both affect toward authorities and their motives (e.g., trust and identification) and perhaps what might be considered an “action”-oriented component based on whether the authority’s directives should be followed (obligation to obey) or can form the basis for citizen authorization (empowerment).

We would add that legitimacy is a property of different types of authority – of political systems; discrete political institutions, such as Congress or the Supreme Court; legal systems; specific legal institutions or agencies; and even private employers. We focus here on the legitimacy of the police, but we caution that inasmuch as the police exercise a mandate based, arguably, in law enforcement, police legitimacy is difficult to separate from the legitimacy of the legal order in which police are embedded. The police are, thus, tied directly to the concept of legitimacy as they represent the legal order and simultaneously are reliant on deference to that order as a reservoir of public cooperation, obedience to their authority, and trust. The relationship between these concepts and legitimacy is explored below.

Sources Of Legitimacy

Wilbur Miller’s (1977) comparative history of the New York City police and the London “bobbies” illustrates the tie between legal order and legitimacy. In England, for example, the police were viewed as impersonal representations of the established legal order, which was primarily divided along the lines of social class in the relatively homogeneous English society. As such the police had impersonal authority that stemmed from a general civilian deference to the larger political structure in 1800s England. Conversely, in New York, during the 1800s, there was no such easily agreed upon legal order, given the diversity of religious, ethnic, and social classes occupying the city. Thus, in this environment, police authority was believed to emanate from personal authority that was essentially earned respect and deference from the community which accumulated over the course of face-to-face encounters.

Legitimacy of one’s role and action that ties directly to the law would appear to be advantageous to police as the bobbies enjoyed a reluctant respect even among the lower classes with whom they had a more adversarial relationship. However, this simplification glosses over several differences between the US police system and those of much of the remainder of the world. First, centralized authority in England allowed for uniform lawmaking and centralized police forces. The USA, conversely, has a proliferation of thousands of agencies, each which has to build its own reservoir of authority from a local (or State) body of law. Thus, fragmentation and decentralization push legal legitimacy to local levels in the US political system. While one might argue this is a weakness and causes police to diverge from a strictly legal mandate, there is some evidence that police function in such an environment, in the long term, may offer some advantages.

First, no local police agency in the USA represents the legitimacy of law in the United States. Hence, we should distinguish the legitimacy of the legal system, in the more abstract sense, from the legitimacy of police or of individual police agencies in a more concrete sense; the latter is much more proximate to the day-to-day work of police officers. The fragmented and decentralized nature of US policing, instead, gives police a local legitimacy and authority. By contrast, in the Fall 2005, French police chased several Muslim youths, and two were accidentally electrocuted. This situation boiled into many days of widespread riots against French police, since, in the more centralized governmental system, the police represent all of French government in some respects. As one can observe, the source of legitimacy in a political system has trade-offs and costs, some of which are not readily apparent in the day-to-day function of police.

Clearly, in the USA, with a proliferation of local police departments, legitimacy is homegrown by departments and the men and women who serve within those organizations. To paraphrase Tip O’Neill’s keen observation, “Much policing is local.” Thus, important questions to ask are as follows: Where does legitimacy come from, and what are the consequences of legitimacy? As such one might consider legitimacy to be both a dependent variable (something caused by other forces, such as respect for political institutions and the behavior of those institutions) and an independent variable (one that predicts changes in some outcomes, such as citizens’ cooperation with authorities).

Where Does Legitimacy Come From?

The encounter between police and the public has been studied as a petri dish for the creation of legitimacy among the public. Observations of police-citizen contacts as well as post-contact surveys of citizens have formed the basis for a substantial body of literature pointing to the antecedents of legitimacy. These antecedents emanate from the treatment that citizens receive or perceive receiving in those encounters they have with authorities, such as police. The term procedural justice is used to describe treatment that is fair, respectful, and generally thought to lead to a sense that the processing one receives is appropriate and that the authority behind it is legitimate. Satisfaction or the extent to which citizens are content with the encounter is also correlated with legitimacy. These linkages are explored below.

Tom Tyler (2003, 2004) and other researchers have done extensive research to outline the relationship between processing, procedural justice, and legitimacy. Procedural justice has been conceived as encompassing two broad elements: quality of treatment and quality of decision-making.

Quality of treatment encompasses the tenor of interaction between citizens and authorities and includes elements such as voice, or the notion that people believe that they should be given an opportunity to tell their side of a story, explain their situation, and communicate their views, and quality of interpersonal treatment, the notion that people believe that they should be treated with dignity and respect.

Quality of decision-making comprises a set of signals that pass from authorities to citizens about how decisions are being made in any particular instance and whether they appear to be fair. Indicia of quality decision-making include how authorities demonstrate trustworthy motives. For example, people believe that authorities should care about their well-being and consider their needs and concerns, and they draw inferences about that when authorities explain their decisions and justify and account for their actions. Similarly, neutrality is a marker for quality of decision-making, since people believe that decisions should be made evenhandedly and with proper consideration of objective facts.

While it may be helpful for heuristic purposes to describe these elements of procedural justice as distinct constructs, they are conceptually and empirically intertwined with one another. Empirically, these features of police-citizen encounters tend to be strongly or at least moderately correlated, yielding only one (Reisig et al. 2007; Gau 2011) or two (Tyler 1990) factors in factor analysis. These patterns of association are open to (at least) two interpretations: It might be that authorities’ behaviors are correlated (e.g., officers who are polite also tend to listen to citizens and explain themselves) and that citizens’ perceptions are correlated (citizens who judge officers’ actions as respectful also tend to perceive them as attentive), or some combination of both sets of forces.

Survey research has repeatedly shown that the procedural justice that people subjectively experience in their encounters with the police is directly related to their satisfaction with the encounters and, moreover, to the legitimacy that they attribute to the police. People are more satisfied with their encounters with the police when they perceive that police acted in a procedurally just fashion. Furthermore, people have greater trust in the police, and feel a greater obligation to obey police instructions, when they have experienced procedurally just encounters with the police. This is the sense in which legitimacy can be “created” by police in their day-to-day interactions with the public and also illustrates its close tie to citizen satisfaction. Satisfaction and legitimacy can also be eroded by police, if they act with procedural injustice, if they are impolite or disrespectful, and if they interrupt citizens, ignore what citizens have to say, or do not permit citizens to explain themselves. The core linkage posited is that elements of processing which leave citizens unsatisfied (e.g., disrespect, bias) undermine legitimacy, while those which amplify satisfaction (e.g., respectful treatment, explaining decisions) similarly enhance legitimacy.

For example, in one of the earliest studies, Tyler and Folger (1980) surveyed a random sample of Evanston (Illinois) residents in 1979, identifying among the respondents those who reportedly had a personal experience with Evanston police in the previous 5 years, by either calling for assistance or being stopped by police. About each type of contact, they asked respondents to indicate the outcome (police had or had not taken care of the problem, and police issued or did not issue a citation, respectively), whether police treated them fairly, and how satisfied they were with the contact. They found that both outcome and perceived fairness affects citizens’ satisfaction in both types of contacts, and also that perceived fairness affects citizens’ more general evaluations of the police. Similarly, Tyler (1988) surveyed a sample of Chicago residents, nearly half of whom reportedly had a direct experience with Chicago police and/or courts in the preceding year. He found that procedural fairness affects citizens’ satisfaction with both their outcomes and their treatment in the particular case, and also that procedural fairness affects citizens’ more general evaluations of and support for the authorities.

Moreover, this research makes it clear that citizens’ subjective experience is not determined entirely or even primarily by the outcomes that they receive. Put differently, neither substantive justice (whether one deserves what one objectively receives) nor distributive justice (whether one receives what others who are similarly situated receive) is as important to attitude formation as procedural justice (the manner in which justice is delivered). Even citizens whose outcomes are unambiguously unfavorable – who, for example, are cited for a traffic violation – may be satisfied with their experience if police are procedurally fair. It is people’s normative expectations about how authority should be exercised, more than their instrumental considerations about the favorability of outcomes, that drive their assessments of their own experiences.

Since much of the research on this topic is based on cross-sectional survey data, the analysis of which forms the basis for only rather tentative inferences about cause and effect relationships; caution in drawing conclusions is advised. Several studies suggest that citizens’ prior attitudes toward police shape both their subjective experiences, including perceptions of procedural justice, and their more general attitudes toward the police, including legitimacy, thereby contributing to a partially or wholly spurious relationship between procedural justice and legitimacy. But when these relationships have been examined in panel surveys (e.g., Tyler 1990; Tyler and Fagan 2008), so that the temporal ordering of the variables can be properly specified, the results have shown that even while prior attitudes do influence judgments about procedural justice and legitimacy, procedural justice has independent effects on subsequent legitimacy.

The structure and context of police-citizen encounters vary considerably, with respect to visibility, the nature of the issue that prompted police involvement, the “situational status” of the citizen (as complainant, suspected offender, witness), and the neighborhood setting of the encounter. The structure and context of interaction between police and citizens likely contribute both to objective features of the encounter (the routines of interaction or typical procedure) and how the interaction is experienced by the citizen. One structural feature that has an important bearing on citizens’ subjective experience is how the encounter is initiated – at the request of a citizen or on the authority of the officer. Citizen requests may serve, at least to a degree, to legitimate the involvement of the police, as the officer(s) is responding to a request for police assistance. For at least one of the citizens who participate in such an encounter, the encounter is voluntary. When police intervene on their own initiative, however, as they do when they stop traffic violators or other people who arouse police suspicion, citizens’ participation is not voluntary but obligatory, and citizens may be more apt to question the propriety of police involvement (Reiss 1971). Such “obligation encounters” (Moore 2002) pose greater challenges for police in meeting citizens’ expectations for procedural justice. Skogan (2006) found among Chicago residents a significant disparity in satisfaction between those whose contacts with the police were self-initiated (78 % satisfied) and those whose contacts were initiated by police (58 % satisfied). Furthermore, procedural justice criteria appear to have an even greater bearing on citizens’ satisfaction in police-initiated contacts than they do in citizen-initiated contacts. Tyler and Folger (1980) found that procedural fairness has a larger effect when citizens are stopped than when citizens call for assistance. Wells (2007) surveyed citizens involved in any of three types of contacts with the Lincoln (NE) police: victims of crimes, drivers involved in vehicle crashes, and drivers who received citations. He found that in each type of situation, citizens’ judgments about procedural justice affect their ratings of overall police performance in the encounter, though procedural justice mattered less for crime victims, who typically call for assistance, than for motorists who are stopped for traffic violations.

We would also note that the effects of satisfactory experiences many not be as powerful as the effects of unsatisfactory experiences. Skogan (2006) stresses the asymmetry in the effects of positive and negative experiences with the police, finding in survey data on Chicagoans that their confidence in the police is very weakly or not at all related to positively evaluated contacts, but negatively evaluated contacts have a substantial detrimental effect on confidence. Skogan (2005) also found that citizens’ satisfaction with their contacts is shaped by procedural justice. More specifically, whether police were polite and whether they were helpful were the most important predictors of satisfaction with citizeninitiated encounters, and whether police were polite and whether they were perceived as fair were the most important predictors of satisfaction in police-initiated encounters. Satisfaction was also enhanced if police explained what action they would take. These beneficial effects of procedural justice did not, however, translate “up” to confidence in the police. Other studies have also found asymmetrical effects, though not to the degree that satisfactory contact had no effect on more general attitudes (e.g., Reisig and Parks 2000).

No treatment of police legitimacy would be complete without acknowledging the attitudinal disparities across race and ethnicity: African-Americans hold less favorable views of the police than whites do, with Latinos typically in between. For example, Weitzer and Tuch (2006) conducted a national survey and found variations in satisfaction with police across race and ethnicity, as 86 % of White, 80 % of Hispanic, and 73 % of Black respondents reported being satisfied or very satisfied with the police department in their city. More interestingly, perhaps, they also found that the effect of race on satisfaction was mediated by what citizens perceived as police actions. For instance, those believing police were involved in misconduct, such as improper stops, verbal abuse, excessive force, or corruption, were less satisfied with police. Further, they found that beliefs about misconduct were shaped not only direct, personal experiences but also by vicarious experiences (those communicated to individuals by others). Thus, the police-citizen encounter can have far-reaching effects that ripple through a community.

The overriding racial issue in policing for the past 15 years has been racial profiling, with countless police departments across the US collecting and analyzing data on the race of the people stopped by their officers in order to address concerns about racial bias. The analyses are seldom conclusive with respect to bias, but some research suggests that procedural justice plays an important role in shaping citizens’ perceptions of bias. For example, Tyler and Wakslak (2004) surveyed residents of Oakland and Los Angeles who had been stopped by police. Those who thought that police were polite, treated them with dignity and respect, and showed concern for their rights were much less likely to believe that they had been profiled. Other elements of procedural justice had similar, albeit more modest effects on profiling attributions. More recently, Gau and Brunson (2010) interviewed 45 youths from low-income areas of St. Louis, MO, and reported findings consistent with the theme that perceptions of unfair treatment undermined youths’ support for the police.

Thus, legitimacy appears to be causally linked back to the basic concept outlined above: those situations where there is an obligation to obey the authority, which can be boiled down to several simple aspects of police encounters. Were the police invited to intervene (as compared to proactively inserting themselves into a situation)? Did the police clearly explain the rationale behind their decisions? Did police allow the individual to tell his or her side of the story? Did the police listen to the individual? Did the police act courteously and show respect to the individual? These types of questions, when answered affirmatively, illustrate the procedural justice of police encounters; they also represent important antecedents of legitimacy, and, not surprisingly, they are closely correlated with citizen satisfaction.

Legitimacy is intrinsically important, but it is important also because it is consequential. Legitimacy affects citizens’ acceptance of police decisions, their cooperation with the police, and even their compliance with the law more generally. We turn now to a consideration of these outcomes.

Legitimacy And Outcomes: Support And Citizen Self-Regulation

Police rely heavily upon citizens for support and self-regulation. Supporting citizen behavior and attitudes is important to the police for the maintenance of order and the control of crime. Police effectiveness depends upon citizen involvement in community activities, reporting crimes and giving information to the police, which would be considered as cooperation. Empowerment of the police is also a form of (active or passive) support, in the sense that citizens who grant police the capacity to exercise authority with fewer rather than more restrictions, and are supportive of (or do not oppose) police tactics and strategies, offer important if implicit consent from the governed to the authorities.

Self-regulation, that is, obeying laws and complying with police requests, represents another area in which police rely on citizens. Thus, if police request citizens to leave a scene or to discontinue making noise at a party, they are relying on citizen self-regulation (Mastrofski et al. 1996). In the larger sense, police rely on everyday self-regulation or self-control in refraining from committing minor (e.g., littering) and major (e.g., robbery) crimes.

One might think that citizens comply and cooperate due to the overall legitimacy of the legal system in which police-citizen contacts are embedded. This, for example, might help us understand why an English citizen would obey a bobby but someone in New York would be reluctant to obey a police officer in the 1880s. Thus, in that larger sense, legal legitimacy can predict cooperation in face-to-face encounters. Analogously, one might look across US agencies and examine the relationship between the police and the community as an indicator of overall police legitimacy. Thus, in locales where police-community ties are strong, one might expect greater cooperation and compliance from citizens in encounters with police.

Legitimacy And Support

It is a well-understood fact that police rely on the public for information and mobilization to identify and solve problems. Police rely on citizens to report crimes and to act as witnesses and information providers on scene. One question that arises is whether there is a link between legitimacy and the willingness to cooperate with the police. If so, then police that engage in promoting legitimacy will build public support and cooperation.

Evidence linking legitimacy and cooperation has slowly accumulated from the body of research on procedural justice. Tyler and Fagan (2008) used a panel data survey design with 830 respondents to test the relationship between legitimacy and cooperation. This allowed them to measure legitimacy at two points in time and determine how contact with police influenced subsequent legitimacy and self-reports of intention to cooperate with the police. Consistent with other research, procedurally just treatment yielded increases in perceived legitimacy of the police. More specifically, those respondents reporting they had been treated fairly and with respect had measureable increases in legitimacy, controlling for whether they received a positive or negative outcome from the police.

To measure cooperation, the researchers asked citizens how likely they were to call the police and report a crime, help find a criminal, and report suspicious activity. A parallel scale regarding helping the community fight crime was constructed from similar measures asking whether the respondent was likely to volunteer time to help the police, to patrol streets with others, and to attend community meetings about crime. In multivariate analyses, taking advantage of the panel design capacity for causal analysis, Tyler and Fagan (2008) found that those who reported police as being more legitimate were more likely to report intending to cooperate directly with the police and also cooperate with others in efforts to deal with community crime.

Sunshine and Tyler (2003) have examined the relationship between empowerment and legitimacy among a panel of New York City respondents. Empowerment represents the extent to which citizens recognize a greater scope for police action and discretion. The findings from that research indicated that citizen perceptions of legitimacy and to a lesser extent distributive fairness predicted respondents’ extent of empowerment.

Legitimacy And Self-Regulation

Research on self-regulation has focused on whether citizens obey the commands of police immediately as well as in the longer term with respect to both minor offending (e.g., traffic or other violations) and serious crime (e.g., violence). The research on immediate compliance has been derived from observations of what police do in interactions with citizens and whether citizens comply with police requests for self-control. For example, McCluskey (2003) studied face-to-face interactions between police and 939 suspects in St. Petersburg, FL, and Indianapolis, IN. The results of that research indicated that, with regard to immediate compliance, it appears that citizens who are given opportunities to tell their side of the story and are treated respectfully are significantly more compliant than citizens not afforded such courtesies during the police-citizen encounter. This type of treatment and behavioral outcome lends support to the linkage between treatment by authorities, legitimacy, and compliance.

Sunshine and Tyler (2003) collected survey data regarding the link between citizens’ reports of compliance and the legitimacy of police. That research indicated a similar effect of perceptions of legitimacy, which provided a robust explanation of citizens’ self-reported compliance with the law. Thus, observed and self-reported behaviors, among the general public, are influenced by legitimacy. More simply, as legitimacy increases either as measured by perception of citizens, or by the fair procedures consistent with legitimacy, compliance increases. It is important to note that the observed police-citizen contacts and self-reports involve typically more trivial disputes or law-breaking. Thus, one is obliged to ask: Does the perceived legitimacy of the police and law influence serious misbehaviors in a similar fashion?

With regard to legitimacy’s relationship to longer-term patterns of compliance among serious offenders, several studies involving arrestees for spousal assault, intoxicated drivers, and serious delinquents indicate substantial links. Paternoster and his colleagues (1997) were the first to study the influence of procedural justice on serious criminal activity. Using data collected for the Milwaukee Domestic Violence Experiment, they found among a sample of males arrested for spouse assault that perceptions of procedural justice influenced recidivism. All of these offenders experienced an unfavorable outcome (arrest), but some of them perceived their treatment as procedurally fair, and those who did were significantly less likely to recidivate. Moreover, the recidivism rate for those who were arrested and who felt that the process was fair was similar to the recidivism rate for those who had been warned only. These findings suggest that legitimacy impacts long-term legal compliance to the extent that perceived fair treatment reported by these offenders is related to their sense of fair and legitimate treatment.

Based on a sample of offenders arrested for drunk driving in Australia, Tyler and his colleagues (2007b) evaluated the impact of reintegrative shaming and procedural justice on recidivism. Recidivism was based on self-reports in a 2-year follow-up period and on police records for a 4-year follow-up period. The study tested the hypotheses that procedural justice and restorative justice conferences (as opposed to traditional court proceedings) would foster more positive assessments of the law and lead to higher levels of law abidingness. First, they found that the treatment (restorative justice conference) was not associated with lower recidivism (measured in terms of self-reported drunk driving or police records), though they did detect a direct effect on self-reported efforts to curb driving while drunk. With respect to the influence of legitimacy on behavior, they found that those who viewed the police as more legitimate were less likely to recidivate. This held true when behavior was measured in terms of self-reported levels of drunk driving and when it was measured using police records. The extent to which the initial experience was viewed as procedurally just shaped subsequent views of legitimacy, which in turn led to lower levels of recidivism.

Bouffard and Piquero (2010) analyzed the Philadelphia Birth Cohort data follow-up for 212 juveniles with police contacts. Those characterizing their initial contact as unfair had substantially higher frequency and longer periods of offending compared to those who did not. Fagan and Piquero (2007) examined a sample of 1,355 juveniles referred to courts in Philadelphia and Phoenix and found that assessments of procedural justice had a strong direct impact on perceptions of legitimacy among these serious offenders. In turn, legitimacy exercised a substantial direct impact on self-reported aggressive and income offending.

In sum, across multiple methodologies, law-abiding and law-breaking samples, and less serious and serious behavioral outcomes, it appears that where police legitimacy and behaviors consistent with procedurally fair policing are greatest, citizen self-regulation, both immediately and in the longer term, is greater. More specifically, citizen self-regulation is positively associated with police legitimacy.

The Policy Consequences Of Legitimacy And Future Research

As the notion of procedural justice (Tyler 1990) and legitimacy came to the forefront of academic consideration, it was recognized that at least some of what police might accomplish required thinking about the issue of legitimacy and how citizens come to see authorities as legitimate. This sparked research on procedural justice and has led to the recognition that legitimacy is to a significant degree in the hands of police as they relate to the public in everyday encounters. Clearly police misbehavior, corruption, and rudeness can do much damage to legitimacy. But the more optimistic side of the research indicates that police can repair and create legitimacy via politeness, taking time to explain their decisions and treating individuals in a fair manner. This is a very economical solution to the police-community relation issue which has at times seemed intractable and dominated by us vs. them rhetoric.

Field stops by police have attracted considerable attention and generated considerable controversy, especially in New York City, where police have in recent years documented hundreds of thousands of “stop, question, and frisk” contacts annually. Proponents tout the value of such stops in confiscating illegal firearms and, more generally, reducing crime. Critics hold that the stops exhibit a racially biased pattern and, moreover, detract from the legitimacy of the police, as stops for low-level offenses may be viewed by the citizens who are stopped – and by their family, neighbors, and friends – as harassment (Gau and Brunson 2010; Warren 2011). Extant research does not suffice to resolve this controversy, even if it could be resolved with reference to empirical evidence, but we would note that several questions are important to consider in this connection: (1) How often are stops made? (2) For what reasons are stops made? (3) Are stops concentrated in places and at times at which crime occurs? (4) Are the stops conducted by officers in conformance with principles of procedural justice?

Some have called for a “procedural justice model” of policing (Schulhofer et al. 2011; Meares 2009). A procedural justice model of policing does not hold that police platoons become grin-and-wave squads. The coercive authority of police is, as Bittner (1970) observed long ago, their unique occupational prerogative, and it enables them to fulfill their role in society: negotiating or imposing solutions upon emergent problems. Procedural justice is not about whether but how authority is exercised. Police who operate according to a procedural justice model will of course need to exercise their authority, but they do so sparingly, judiciously, and in accordance with principles of procedural justice: They honor legal limits on their authority; they treat the people with whom they interact – even the people whom they arrest – with dignity and respect; they allow – even invite – people to explain themselves and their situations; and they explain their actions.

Police departments that adopt such a model would, we suppose, establish and enforce expectations that their officers will exercise their authority in these ways. Their chief executives make procedural justice an explicit priority. They embody their expectations in department policies and procedures. For example, the Redlands (CA) police revised their traffic stop procedures, as their chief explains, “instead of starting out the interaction between the motorist and the police officer, where we typically walk up and say, ‘Let me see your license and registration, please,’ then we walk back to our car, and the next time you see us is when we’re handing you a ticket or whatever. Turning that around and saying, ‘Good afternoon, my name is Officer Bueermann, and I’ve stopped you because you were speeding. Is there some reason you might have been speeding?’ And then we give you the opportunity to explain to us what was going on in your head, or why you were doing .. .” (quoted in Tyler 2011). They train their officers in proper policecitizen interaction (see, e.g., Rosenbaum and Lawrence 2012). They monitor the available indicators of police performance, such as complaints and uses of force, and recognizing the limits of these indicators, they make supervisors responsible for spot-checking the quality of police-citizen encounters. They might even develop more systematic measures of such performance. And they treat officers with the same procedural justice that they demand of officers in their encounters with citizens, thereby nurturing the legitimacy of the organization and its rules in the eyes of its human resources (Tyler et al. 2007; Wolfe and Piquero 2011).

Beyond these basic suppositions, however, extant research does not provide much guidance for police administrators who are persuaded that their agencies would benefit from systematic efforts to engage in procedurally just policing. Hardly any empirical evidence is available for these purposes. One study showed that police disrespect toward citizens – a form of procedural injustice – is most likely a response to citizen disrespect toward the police, but it is also affected by a citizen’s lack of self-control (e.g., in the form of intoxication) and social status (Mastrofski et al. 2002). The same study also detected some differences across jurisdictions that might be attributable to differences in department administration. But at this time the translation of research on procedural justice and police legitimacy into the practice of procedurally just policing is largely a matter of trial and error.

As research on legitimacy and procedural justice yields more insights regarding the specific content of just and fair processing and its consequences, it becomes imperative to begin developing key elements into the content of everyday police-citizen contacts. Answering questions such as what dosage level and content of procedurally just processing are related to the formation of a “sense of legitimacy” will help to tune police action to desired outcomes. If the current research trajectory on legitimacy matures into an action research agenda, then perhaps the police will find they have always had the tools for building legitimacy, cooperation, and compliance at their disposal. This would have an interesting symmetry with the idea of personal authority and the difference between cops and bobbies outlined at the beginning of this research paper. More simply, the creation of legitimate police authority, in a decentralized republic, does in fact lie in the day-to-day contact between police officers and citizens. Thus, legitimacy is indeed local and continuously recreated or undermined in those everyday encounters.


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