Legitimacy Policing in Depth

“Legitimacy is a feature of legal systems that makes them worthy of respect, so that people living in legitimate legal systems have reasons to accept the use of state coercion to enforce laws that they do not necessarily agree with and may even think quite unjust. Thus, legitimacy means respect-worthiness…”

– Balkin, 2004, p. 486

“The police officer’s job is to respect the citizens that they are in control of.”

– Watson, 2016

Law enforcement officers are more effectively able to carry out their duties and responsibilities if they are perceived as having legitimate authority by the citizenry that they serve. Members of the community are more likely to follow the law (Tyler, 2006; Jackson et al., 2012) and to cooperate with police (Tyler and Fagan, 2008) when they believe that the laws, and the officers enforcing them, are legitimate. Improving relations with the community not only improves legitimacy; it is also a core objective of policing in its own right, as identified by panels of subject-matter experts on policing (Hollywood et al., 2015, pp. 12–13; Hollywood et al., 2017, pp. 36–37).

Legitimacy policing is a label used to describe 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. It can include certain problem-oriented policing and focused deterrence strategies that have components intended to address community relations and legitimacy. For example, Saunders et al. (2016) notes that focused deterrence against drug markets can improve certain legitimacy measures (although residents did continue to have some negative perceptions of police).

An assessment sponsored by the Campbell Collaboration (Mazerolle et al., 2013) compared outcomes in dozens of instances where agencies instituted legitimacy policing approaches and then evaluated (and published) the results. In addition to finding that efforts to improve community relations with the public were generally successful, this assessment found two elements that were especially important in making such efforts work: conducting efforts to improve procedural justice in interactions with the public and carrying out ongoing dialogues (active discussions and engagement) with the community.

There is a major caveat worth noting about legitimacy policing efforts: The amount of available data on them is limited. Thus, there are insufficient data on whether legitimacy policing efforts lead directly to improvements on residents’ perceived legitimacy of the police (as opposed, to, say, questions about satisfaction with the police; see Mazerolle et al., 2013). Similarly, there are insufficient data on whether these efforts lead to improved legal compliance and less crime (Nagin and Telep, 2017). Nonetheless, the potential impacts and demonstrated impacts on the objective of improving community relations makes these strategies worth considering.

Procedural Justice

Procedural justice is the practice of ensuring that the outcomes of civilian interactions with police are perceived as fair and as providing civilians with the opportunity to be heard, regardless of the outcome. Research has shown that people are far more willing to accept the outcome of an encounter with the justice system if the outcome is perceived as fair, regardless of whether the outcome was favorable to them (Tyler, 2011; Higginson and Mazerolle, 2014).

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. The way that officers and agencies are perceived affects the amount of respect that citizens show to officers and the degree to which citizens comply with directives issued by officers and agencies (Dai, 2007). Examples of effective interventions include the following:

  • providing civilians with written notification about their rights during and after a stop (Tyler, 2011). Depending on the contents of the notification and the way it is delivered, this has the potential to exercise all of the core ingredients mentioned by Mazerolle et al. (2013).
  • 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. If done well, this has the potential to involve three of the core ingredients (2–4).
  • assisting an individual or community in getting services from a government or private organization (also noted in problem-oriented policing), which could include providing important information that an individual has had difficulty accessing, providing physical assistance as needed, or providing comfort and assurance as appropriate (Dai, 2007). These activities promote mutual dignity and respect (core ingredient 3) and raise a community’s level of trust with respect to agency and officer motives (core ingredient 4).

The Community Oriented Policing Services office has sponsored a detailed guide on procedural justice (PDF) (Kunard and Moe, 2015), including educational examples of each of the four major components of procedural justice. Kunard (2011) also provides a short slide presentation with examples (PDF) of what sorts of interactions are associated with procedural justice and what sorts of actions are not. Examples are as follows:

Tip: Interactions consistent with procedural justice: asking for and allowing people to explain their side of the story; clearly explaining what is happening, what will happen and why, and what their rights are; offering assistance (such as service referrals); and following through on providing it.

Interactions inconsistent with procedural justice: insulting people; silencing them; not allowing any explanation of their side of the story; and refusing to provide any assistance, especially in a hostile manner.

The National Initiative for Building Community Trust & Justice (undated) provides a core resource for information on procedural justice and how agencies are integrating this into practice. It includes a range of guides on what procedural justice is, tools on specific procedural justice approaches, and articles discussing the research behind procedural justice.

Dialogue with the Community

There is a broad array of interventions that can improve dialogue with the community. Law enforcement agencies might choose to apply these in a variety of ways. In their most basic form, these interventions include those designed to strengthen the social bonds among law enforcement officers and the members of the community that they are sworn to serve and protect. Examples of such interventions include the following:

  • conducting foot patrols, where officers leave their vehicles behind and walk through a community on a frequent basis, which allows officers to spend time talking and working with residents in a specified geographic area (e.g., walking the beat) and to become more familiar with the residents (and the residents to become more familiar with the officers)

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

  • conducting “civilian academies,” where interested citizens are provided with organized lessons designed to help them understand the police perspective
  • participating in local informal sporting events (e.g., youth or adult basketball or soccer games), spending time engaging with children through school events, and attending other events (Mazerolle et. al., 2013)
  • creating citizen advisory or review panels designed to provide direct feedback on community sentiment or a secondary review of police conduct investigations (Kerstetter and Rasinski, 1994; DeAngelis, 2009).

The in-depth essay on problem-oriented policing includes a section on a key aspect of building dialogue—getting, and acting on, information from the community about crime problems.

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 facing them. 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 (Tuffin, 2006; also see the discussion of problem-oriented policing for more on talking with the community to learn about ongoing crime problems).

Another method of increasing dialogue 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 to collectively agree on suitable restitution from the offender. Mazerolle et al. (2013) notes that this class of interventions had larger positive effects on gaining compliance and cooperation than any other method assessed in the meta-analysis. Sherman et al. (1998) found that this type of intervention improves ratings of police legitimacy, as well.

Tip: To implement diversionary conferencing, police should receive training that prepares them to convene and mediate discussions among offenders, victims, family, friends, and other relevant representatives from the community. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacekeeping (Umbreit and Louis, 2015) provides a training manual (PDF) on this approach.

The police officer is often trained to follow a script to facilitate the discussion. The purpose of both the training and the script are to ensure that the focus remains on the results of the crime and ways to address and heal the harms caused by the crime. The International Institute for Restorative Practices (2010) provides a sample script for leading restorative conferences (PDF).

Note that employing this technique will require coordination and cooperation with prosecutors and courts because this is a form of diversion away from traditional criminal prosecution.

All of these approaches, collectively, have been found to be effective at reducing crime and the fear of crime, as well as at improving public confidence in the police (Mazerolle et al., 2013).

Measuring Success

For all of the interventions listed, an important step is gathering feedback on the success of the intervention. This can be accomplished formally through community surveys or through feedback mechanisms after police-civilian interactions. 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).

Tip: When body cameras are in use, periodic reviews of videotaped interactions can also provide sufficient information to inform a feedback loop from civilians to police leadership and back to officers. For smaller communities, this informal feedback loop can effectively be accomplished by ensuring that police leadership remains engaged with the community.

In short, legitimacy policing is about respect and perception. The evidence indicates that, if the police make efforts to show respect to the citizenry, the citizenry’s perceptions of the police will likely improve.


  • Balkin, Jack, “Respect Worthy: Frank Michelman and the Legitimate Constitution,” Tulsa Law Review, Vol. 39, 2004. As of May 3, 2018: http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1240&context=fss_papers
  • Community Oriented Policing Services, Community Policing Defined, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2014. As of May 8, 2018: https://ric-zai-inc.com/Publications/cops-p157-pub.pdf
  • Dai, Mengyan, Procedural Justice During Police-Citizen Encounters, Cincinnati, Ohio: University of Cincinnati, 2007. As of September 26, 2017: http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=ucin1186083725
  • DeAngelis, Joseph, “Assessing the Impact of Oversight and Procedural Justice on the Attitudes of Individuals Who File Police Complaints,” Police Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2009, pp. 214–236.
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  • International Institute for Restorative Practices, “Restorative Conference Facilitator Script,” IIRP eForum, April 20, 2010. As of January 30, 2018: https://www.iirp.edu/eforum-archive/4434-restorative-conference-facilitator-script
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  • Kerstetter, Wayne A., and Kenneth A. Rasinski, “Opening a Window into Police Internal Affairs: Impact of Procedural Justice Reform on Third-Party Attitudes,” Social Justice Research, Vol .7, No. 2, June 1, 1994, pp. 107–127.
  • Kunard, Laura L., “Procedural Justice for Law Enforcement Agencies,” briefing, 2011. As of February 16, 2018: http://www.COPS.usdoj.gov/pdf/conference/2011/ProceduralJustice-Kunard.pdf
  • Kunard, Laura, and Charlene Moe, Procedural Justice for Law Enforcement: An Overview, Washington, D.C.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015.
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  • National Initiative for Building Community Trust & Justice, “Procedural Justice,” undated. As of June 5, 2018 (article is halfway down the page): https://trustandjustice.org/resources/intervention/procedural-justice
  • Saunders, Jessica, Allison Ober, Dionne Barnes-Proby, and Rod K. Brunson, “Police Legitimacy and Disrupting Overt Drug Markets,” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Vol. 39, No. 4, 2016, pp. 667–679.
  • Sherman, Lawrence W., Heather Strang, Geoffrey C. Barnes, John Braithwaite, Nova Inkpen, and Min-Mee Teh, Experiments in Restorative Policing: A Progress Report, Canberra: Australian National University, 1998. As of September 26, 2017: https://www.anu.edu.au/fellows/jbraithwaite/_documents/Reports/Experiments_Restorative_1998.pdf
  • Tuffin, Rachel, Julia Morris, Alexis Poole, An Evaluation of the Impact of the National Reassurance Policing Programme, London: Development Groot-Brittannië, Home Office, Research, and Statistics Directorate, Vol. 296, 2006. As of September 26, 2017: http://library.college.police.uk/docs/hors/hors296.pdf
  • Tyler, Tom, Why People Obey the Law, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Tyler, Tom, “Trust and Legitimacy: Policing in the USA and Europe," European Journal of Criminology, Vol. 8, No. 4, 2011, pp. 254–266.
  • Tyler, Tom, and Jeffrey Fagan, “Why Do People Cooperate with the Police?” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 6, 2008, pp. 231–275.
  • Umbreit, Mark S., and Ted Lewis, Dialogue-Driven Victim Offender Mediation Training Manual: A Composite Collection of Training Resource Materials, Minneapolis, Minn.: Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, 2015. As of January 30, 2018: http://www.rjp.umn.edu/sites/g/files/pua5026/f/media/victim-offender-mediation-manual.pdf
  • Watson, Ben, quoted in Samuel Smith, “NFL Star Ben Watson: Black Men Know Their ‘Leash Is a Little Bit Shorter’ but Everyone Needs to Obey Police,” Christian Post, July 13, 2016. As of May 3, 2018: https://www.christianpost.com/news/nfl-star-ben-watson-black-men-know-their-leash-is-a-little-bit-shorter-but-everyone-needs-to-obey-police-166438/