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.
For more than a year, our website has been posting a Quarterly Research Report featuring the most notable scholarship we’ve found in procedural fairness and procedural justice. The report is edited by Justine Greve, M.A., a staff member at the Kansas Court of Appeals, and Shelley Spacek Miller, J.D., a staff member at the National Center for State Courts.
The Summer 2015 report has just been posted, and one interesting study compares views about police legitimacy among residents of St. Louis County, Missouri, in interviews taken before and after the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. Researchers from Southern Illinois University Carbondale had done extensive interviews of nearly 400 people living in high-crime and disadvantaged parts of St. Louis County for a study on policing in 2012 and 2013. Most of the respondents in that survey lived within six miles of where Brown was killed. So the researchers followed up with new interviews of the same people in September and October 2014 to compare public perceptions before and after Brown’s shooting.
The 2014 questioning came immediately after protests, looting, and violence that followed the Brown shooting. The interviews asked questions related to police legitimacy (defined by the researchers as “a view that police authority is valid and to be respected and adhered to”) and to trust in police and procedural justice (defined by the researchers as “a belief that police act fairly, impartially, and respectfully”).
Overall, perceptions of both police legitimacy and trust/procedural justice declined (by 5% and 17% respectively). But the perception rose slightly for nonblack residents (up 2% for each) while falling significantly (by 8% and 26%) for African-American respondents. Views also diverged in feelings about the public and police responses. A majority of nonblack respondents disagreed with the public’s response to the shooting, while a majority of blacks agreed with it. A majority of nonblack respondents agreed with the police response to protests, looting, and riots in the area, while a majority of black respondents did not.
This study, of course, captures views from only a small geographical area, but the respondents certainly intensely experienced the events of that time. It’s one of many new research articles and reports that you can find in the latest Quarterly Research Report.
Recent events in New York City make it clear that there is widespread and continuing anger over the street stop policies of the NYPD. This ongoing discontent reflects a broader paradox in American policing: the police have become more effective in reducing the rate of violent crime to historically low levels but their success has not led to higher levels of public trust in the police. There are lessons from this police experience not only for police commanders but also for judges, court administrators, and others working in the criminal justice system.
Based upon my own research and that of other social scientists we know why this performance without legitimacy paradox is occurring. Public anger continues because the police have not addressed what actually matters to the public. My research shows that police legitimacy is based upon how fairly the public thinks the police exercise their authority. Until the police change their policies and practices to address public concerns over procedural justice, controversies over police practices such as racial profiling, police street stops and the surveillance of Muslim Americans will not end.
Many cities, including New York City are experiencing dramatically lower levels of violent crime. Despite these gains public trust and confidence in the police is not increasing, nor is the large racial gap in trust and confidence between White and minority Americans closing. Better performance has not lead to greater public legitimacy. Why? Police leaders are failing to take account of public concerns. Evaluations of policies and practices by police leaders ask if they are effective in preventing crimes. The question of whether these policies and practices are viewed as legitimate by people in the community is not addressed. My research findings however tell us that effectiveness is not the key factor that the public considers when reacting to police policies and practices.
What does the public care about? Research shows that the key issue to members of the public is their evaluation of the fairness of the way the police exercise their authority: i.e. to issues of procedural justice. More than anything else people are concerned about whether they feel that the police officers to whom they give the authority to maintain order in their communities act using fair procedures.
What does the public mean by fair procedures? They mean first that when creating policies the police work with the community to identify problems and the strategies that should be used to address them. When dealing with particular citizens they allow those people to tell their side of the story, to explain their situation, before making decisions. When implementing the law the police explain their policies and how they are being applied in particular cases in ways that the public can see are neutral and unbiased.
The public also means that the police should treat people fairly. Fair treatment is respectful and courteous. It acknowledges people’s rights not to be demeaned, ridiculed or insulted by the police. And, the police are trustworthy. They act with integrity, accounting for their actions in ways that show good faith responsiveness to people and their problems.
Why should the police care about this public perspective on policing? Insensitivity to public concerns has led police departments like the NYPD to turn victory into defeat. Instead of being congratulated for lowering the rate of violence in New York City, or reducing the rate of unlawful shootings, the police are reviled by an angry population for mistreating people in the community.
And the police lose the benefits of public cooperation. Studies show that when people view the police as more legitimate they are more willing to defer to police authority; less likely to resist and defy the police; and that complaints against the police go down. Legitimacy further encourages willing compliance with the law and cooperation with police efforts in their efforts to stop crimes and identify criminals. When fairly treated people are more willing to work with the police in efforts that join the police and the people in the community in efforts to maintain order by attending community meetings or joining a neighborhood watch.
If officers dealt with people seeking to communicate respect and deliver fairness they would be working not only to prevent crime but to build public support for the police. And, more broadly legal authorities need to recognize the value of considering their policies and practices from the perspective of public concerns. That perspective emphasizes that people are “seekers of justice” and evaluate their experiences with the police and courts by evaluating how fairly they experience the actions of the authorities they deal with.
Tom Tyler, Professor of Law and Psychology, Yale University