Legitimacy Policing


Legitimacy policing describes a broad set of strategies that are focused on improving the “respect-worthiness” of the police. Legitimacy policing includes interventions conducted to improve community relations and perceptions of legitimacy, as well as help ensure that police are perceived as trustworthy and unbiased (or neutral) decisionmakers. An assessment sponsored by the Campbell Collaboration found that efforts to improve community relations generally work, and the keys to making them work are improving procedural justice in interactions with the public and having ongoing dialogues (active discussions and engagement) with the community.

How Effective Is Legitimacy Policing for Different Kinds of Problems?

  • Legitimacy policing is effective for improving relations with the community.

Procedural Justice

Procedural justice is the practice of ensuring that the outcomes of civilian interactions with police are perceived as fair and provide civilians with the opportunity to be heard, regardless of the outcome. According to Mazerolle et al. (2013), there are four “core ingredients” of procedural justice:

  1. citizen participation
  2. perceived neutrality of the authority
  3. dignity and respect
  4. trustworthy motives.

Interventions typically include training for police to learn the principles, practices, and techniques of procedural justice. Examples of effective interventions include the following:

  • providing civilians with written notification about their rights during and after a stop
  • ensuring that officer training heightens officer awareness of how anger, hostility, or the use of excessive force affect the immediate and long-term perceptions of both individuals and communities
  • assisting an individual or community in getting services from a government or private organization (e.g., providing important information that an individual has had difficulty accessing, providing physical assistance as needed, or providing comfort and assurance as appropriate).

Dialogue with the Community

There is a broad array of interventions that can improve dialogue with the community, including the following:

  • Officers can conduct foot patrols, where they leave their vehicles behind and walk through a community on a frequent basis, spending time talking and working with residents to become more familiar with them (and allowing residents to become more familiar with officers).

    Tip: Engagement with community members should not be limited to visible presence and enforcement actions. Officers should attend important community gatherings (social events, town hall meetings, etc.). While engaging in these activities, officers should ensure that they get to know the members of the community and hear their concerns—and that members of the community respond in kind.

  • “Civilian academies” can be conducted, where interested citizens are provided with organized lessons designed to help them understand the police perspective.
  • Officers can participate in local informal sporting events (e.g., youth or adult basketball or soccer games), engage with children through school events, or attend other events (Mazerolle et al., 2013).
  • Citizen advisory or review panels can be held that are designed to provide direct feedback on community sentiment or a secondary review of police conduct investigations (Kerstetter and Rasinski, 1994; DeAngelis, 2009).

Frontline police should be assigned to a community long enough to become familiar with its residents, patterns of life, etc. The same officers should conduct regular (e.g., daily) patrols, especially foot patrols if feasible for the community. During these patrols, police need to have routine discussions with residents to learn more about them and the issues they face. Officers can then focus their deterrence and investigative resources on the crimes and public nuisances that community members have indicated are most important to them.

Another method of legitimacy policing is called diversionary conferencing or restorative justice conferencing (Mazerolle et al., 2013). These conferences are meetings, administered by a police officer, involving an offender, a victim, and other involved community members to discuss a lower-level or juvenile crime and collectively agree on suitable restitution from the offender. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking provides a training manual on this approach (Umbreit and Lewis, 2015); the International Institute for Restorative Practices (2010) provides a sample script for leading restorative conferences.

Measuring Success

Feedback on these interventions can be gained from community surveys and informal conversations with community members. With formal or quantitative data, additional mechanisms (such as police supervisor conversations with community leaders) could be used to assess the success of the intervention(s). Review of body camera footage (if used) can also provide feedback.