Exploring police legitimacy

Lorenzo M. Boyd

University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, Lorenzo_Boyd@uml.edu

Police legitimacy considers how citizens judge police actions (on the continuum of fairness). Police legitimacy, like other forms of governmental legitimacy needs to be established in order for cooperative governance to occur. Any government agency which possesses coercive authority over its citizen must be able to articulate the reasons it’s necessary or proper for them to submit to this authority. A police department that can successfully articulate and explain these reasons is said to have legitimacy.

Police legitimacy is not necessarily the same as lawful policing. Because the police are authorized to conduct a certain action, does not always mean that the action is the right thing to do. Often citizens’ perception of the fairness of police actions dictates the behavior citizens towards the police.

Police legitimacy is not determined by the lawfulness of police conduct; instead it is determined mostly by the appearance of procedural justice or the perceived fairness of the specific police action. Research has shown that citizens who see the actions of the police as being legitimate, are more likely to cooperate with officers during the encounters which tends to keep officer and citizens safe. This paper is an exploratory study of citizen’s views of police legitimacy.


President of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (USA) and Criminal Justice Department Chair; University of Maryland Eastern Shore


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