When researchers talk about police legitimacy, they’re usually talking about what the public thinks about the police. What makes people treat officers as authority figures? What makes people think the police will help them solve their problems? The subject of our latest interview, Justin Nix, turns the topic around to focus on what the police think.
Nix describes legitimacy as a dialogue between police and the public: the police make a claim to legitimacy, the public responds to that claim, officers adjust their behavior or views of themselves accordingly, and so on. In his dissertation and several recent articles, Nix picks apart that dialogue, looking for what police feel makes them legitimate in the eyes of the public and what influences how officers feel about themselves.
Nix says police officers know that procedural fairness is important to people, but they may not be as clear on its practical effects or whether it’s equally important to all groups. While they know procedural fairness bolsters their claim to legitimacy, for example, they don’t always see it as the best way to gain cooperation.
The next piece of the dialogue—how officers feel about their own legitimacy and react to public perceptions—is especially interesting in light of the scrutiny surrounding policing over the last two years. Negative portrayals of police do affect officers’ confidence in their authority, Nix says. That can make them not only more reluctant to do their jobs but also more likely to handle situations by using force. Nix says the negative publicity has made some officers less willing to partner with the community to solve problems. But he found that wasn’t the case for officers who viewed themselves and their agencies as legitimate and procedurally fair, demonstrating the importance of self-legitimacy for keeping up the dialogue between police and the public.
Listen to our interview with Nix below, or access the articles he discusses here. As usual, our interviewer is Justine Greve (M.A., American Studies), a staff member with the Kansas Court of Appeals.