Enhancing Police Legitimacy

Jordan C. Pickering and David A. Klinger
Purpose Drawing from literature on organizations that function efficiently
and effectively while maintaining low levels of errors and occupational
injuries and deaths, we argue that police departments can enhance
their legitimacy by adopting the practices found in such organizations
because doing so can reduce the frequency of unnecessary force against
citizens and lower officer injury rates.
Methodology/approach To support our argument, we review literatures
on the causes and avoidance of errors in organizations, identify
how well-run organizations in high-risk environments are able to operate
safely, and describe how police departments can adopt similar practices
as a mechanism to enhance officer safety and lower the rate at which
officers use force against citizens.
Findings By adopting the practices of successful organizations in
other fields, police departments and their officers can promote and
enhance their safety while simultaneously reducing their use of force
The Politics of Policing: Between Force and Legitimacy
Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Volume 21, 2139
Copyright r 2016 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1521-6136/doi:10.1108/S1521-613620160000021002
Copyright 2016. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or applicable copyright law.
EBSCO Publishing : eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost) – printed on 4/7/2021 7:27 PM via NEW MEXICO STATE UNIV
AN: 1258901 ; Mathieu Deflem.; The Politics of Policing : Between Force and Legitimacy
Account: s8481449.main.ehost
against citizens. By doing so, police can raise the level of legitimacy they
hold in the eyes of the American public, which has arguably decreased in
the wake of recent events involving police gunfire.
Originality/value Our ideas contribute to the policing literature by:
(1) highlighting a preexisting body of literature and outlining its application
to police organizations and (2) detailing how both the police and the
public can benefit from improved police practices.
Keywords: Police; safety culture; high reliability organizations;
The use of deadly force by police officers, long a topic of interest and
concern in some quarters of American society, has recently emerged as the
single most visible and concerning aspect of the American criminal justice
system. The protests and related civil unrest following the shooting of
Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in the St. Louis suburb of
Ferguson, MO in August of 2014 (Thorson & Giegerich, 2014) captured
the nation’s attention. Both the visibility of police firearms usage and public
concern about the issue grew since August of 2014 as other instances in
which police officers shot citizens drew notable media attention. Officerinvolved
shootings such as those of James Boyd in Albuquerque, NM
(Donaghue, 2014), Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH (Fitzsimmons, 2014), and
Tony Robinson in Madison, WI (Simon, 2015), added to concerns in many
sectors of American society that the police are shooting too many citizens,
and often under dubious circumstances.
These concerns have frayed police-community relations in many places
and thus weakened the level of legitimacy that the police have in the eyes
of many Americans. This, in turn, is highly problematic because effective
policing requires a goodly amount of buy in on the part of community
members (Tyler, 2004). A large body of literature has established that a key
source of police legitimacy is the perception among the citizenry that officers
are treating the people with whom they interact fairly (e.g., Gau, 2013;
Sunshine & Tyler, 2003). The relevant literature often uses the term “procedural
justice” when referring to this matter of the degree to which members
of the public believe that the police treat people fairly: the impression that
EBSCOhost – printed on 4/7/2021 7:27 PM via NEW MEXICO STATE UNIV. All use subject to https://www.ebsco.com/terms-of-use
officers treat people fairly equates to a sense that the police are exhibiting a
high degree of procedural justice, while the impression that officers are acting
in an inequitable fashion translates to a sense that procedural justice is
low (e.g., Gau, 2013; Tyler, 2004). The importance of citizens’ sense of procedural
justice in framing how they view the police (as well as other entities
of the criminal justice system) is evident in Tyler’s report that “proceduraljustice
assessments are consistently found to be more strongly linked to
legitimacy judgements than are evaluations of … effectiveness … or fairness
of … outcomes” (2004, p. 91).
Some part of what people feel about the degree to which the police carry
out their duties in a procedurally just fashion comes from specific interactions
they have with officers; but the larger slice of the perceptual procedural
justice pie comes from what citizens have heard and seen about
others’ interactions with officers, which comes through word of mouth and
via media coverage of (and commentary on) high-profile police activities
(Gau, 2013). That this general or “global” (Gau, 2013) sense of procedural
justice holds such sway, and that it can be so strongly influenced by
media attention, means that single police-citizen interactions can have
substantial influence on how citizens perceive the police far beyond the
immediate locale where they occurred.
Research on how people feel about their own contacts with the police
has established that citizens’ perceptions of how the officers treated them
during interactions have an asymmetrical effect on their assessments of
police legitimacy. Citizens’ sense of how legitimate the police are were not
notably enhanced by interactions that they viewed as procedurally just, but
citizens’ sense of police legitimacy dropped markedly in the wake of interactions
they defined as negative (Skogan, 2006). It is logical to believe that
this same asymmetry applies to how perceptions of police behavior regarding
events in which people were not directly involved affect the degree of
legitimacy they accord the police. And there is evidence that this is so in at
least one important realm, as research indicates that citizens’ exposure to
media portrayals of police misconduct increases their sense that officers are
biased against minorities (Weitzer & Tuch, 2005).
And this is directly relevant to the current situation where deadly force
goes. The aforementioned media attention on instances where police officers
have shot citizens focuses on controversial shootings such as those
involving unarmed individuals (Michael Brown and Tony Robinson), mentally
disturbed individuals (James Boyd), and children (Tamir Rice, who
was 12 years old). That the vast majority of people killed by the police are
criminals armed with deadly weapons (Washington Post, 2015) gets largely
Enhancing Police Legitimacy by Promoting Safety Culture 23
EBSCOhost – printed on 4/7/2021 7:27 PM via NEW MEXICO STATE UNIV. All use subject to https://www.ebsco.com/terms-of-use
lost in the shuffle. In this environment where controversial police shootings
get a disproportionate amount of national visibility, it is no wonder that
many people have come to doubt that America’s police are exhibiting procedural
justice where their use of deadly force goes, and that police legitimacy
has consequently taken a hit. It is also no wonder that one response
among those whose faith in the police is low is to call for the police to be
more restrained concerning their use of deadly force.
But deadly force in American police work is not a one-way street. Police
officers across the land are regularly assaulted by citizens in various ways
that threaten to do them grave harm. While some such assaults involve cutting
instruments (such as knives, machetes, and hatchets), blunt weapons
(such as baseball bats, crow bars, and lumber), and even unarmed attacks
(officers have been severely beaten by attackers who have punched and
kicked them), the most lethal threat that officers face comes from firearms.
FBI statistics (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2014), for example, show
that during the decade ending in 2014, 520 police officers were murdered
by assailants who shot them (a total of 562 officers were murdered during
this decade). And while fatal attacks with firearms are the most dramatic
aspect of the threat environment that officers face, it should be noted that
for the years 20052014 local and state police departments reported to the
FBI well over half a million (563,030) instances in which officers
were assaulted.
That American police officers are regularly attacked sometimes
fatally frames the police experience in crucial ways that must be taken
into account when seeking to understand how and why police officers use
deadly force against citizens and why some police actions that do not make
sense to many laypeople are implicitly understood as apropos by most
police officers. A key component of this experience is that officers are
trained that their work is inherently dangerous and that they therefore
must always be alert to the possibility that virtually any citizen with whom
they interact might seek to attack them, possibly with lethal intent. And
police training includes the further tuition that it is appropriate to use
deadly force against citizens when officers reasonably believe the citizen
might cause them or another

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