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Police legitimacy

Bradford, Ben, Jackson, Jonathan ORCID: 0000-0003-2426-2219 and Milani, Jenna (2021) Police legitimacy. In: Barnes, J.C. and Forde, D.R., (eds.) The Encyclopedia of Research Methods and Statistical Techniques in Criminology and Criminal Justice. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, USA.

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The concept of legitimacy has moved center-stage in police research. While students of policing in western democracies have always been concerned with legitimacy in some general sense (e.g. in the interpretation of the famous ‘Peelian principles,’ Reiner 2010; Reith 1952), in-depth consideration of legitimacy as a social science concept is largely a phenomenon of the last two or three decades, with research interest increasing hugely in the past ten years. Underpinning both long- and shorter-term interest is recognition that the question of legitimacy is central to the way we understand policing. The police represent the coercive arm of the state; they are empowered to use whatever level of force is deemed necessary to deal with issues of crime and disorder; questions concerning the rightful use of this power are never far from the surface. Normative concerns about the way officers wield their power are ever-present in the debates that almost continuously roil around policing, yet police in liberal democracies rely on the legitimacy they command and the public cooperation, deference and compliance it engenders, and this raises important empirical concerns about the extent to which the policed hold the police legitimate. In this entry we concentrate on this second concept (Hinsch 2008, 2010) of legitimacy, i.e. empirical rather than normative legitimacy. Taking the perspective of those subject to (and beneficiaries of) police power, we first discuss the conceptual definition of legitimacy as a component of the relationship between police and public. On what basis can it be claimed that people believe that the police have the right to power and the authority to govern? Second, we briefly outline why legitimacy is so important in this relationship, especially in relation to the ways in which it can motivate behavior. Third, we consider issues of measurement. If police legitimacy is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder, how can we assess its quality and quantity? We call for greater standardization in the way legitimacy is measured before bringing the discussion back to the question of what ‘normative concerns’ means when we are thinking about legitimacy. As already suggested, our comments relate primarily to policing in liberal democracies, although much of what is said will likely apply to police in other contexts as well.

Item Type: Book Section
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2017 Wiley
Divisions: Methodology
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology
K Law > K Law (General)
Date Deposited: 14 Jul 2017 12:21
Last Modified: 15 Sep 2023 10:04

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