Exploring Police Legitimacy


Police legitimacy is now one of the important areas of study in the context of police and community relations (Beetham, 2013). It has implications for the way the community members cooperate with the police and obey the rules or decisions of the police. In this essay, the meaning of police legitimacy, its link to cooperation from the community or public, and the extent to which it is impacted by media coverage, are discussed critically.

Meaning of police legitimacy

Legitimacy has been defined as the “demonstrable expression of consent on the part of the subordinate to the particular power relation in which they are involved, through actions which provide evidence of consent (Beetham, 2013, p. 18). It can be explained as the obligation or the feeling that an individual may have that they need to obey the law and to respect the decisions of the legal authorities, including the police (Beetham, 2013). In that sense, legitimacy is explained or described as a value that is internalised and that may be common to the others in the society, thereby becoming an important social value (Beetham, 2013). When the legal authorities are perceived to be legitimate, the social value that relates to the perception of such legitimacy and the need to obey the decisions of the legal authorities is something that can be relied upon by the authorities to gain public deference and cooperation (French, Raven, & Cartwright, 1959). It has been aptly put by Beetham (2013) that legitimacy concerns the “normative dimension of power relations, and the ideas and practice that give those in power their moral authority and credibility” (p. x). Beetham (1991) has emphasised that the “key to understanding the concept of legitimacy lies in the recognition that it is multi-dimensional in character” (p. 15). In other words, the concept of legitimacy is not limited to any one characteristic but it is multi-dimensional. Beetham (1991) identified three elements that came within this concept: first, there is conformity to established rules; second, actions are justified by reference to beliefs shared by dominant and subordinate groups within the community; and third, there is evidence of consent by the subordinate group.


Tankebe (2014) writes that the “major development in police research in the last two decades is the ‘discovery’ of legitimacy after years of neglect” (p. 238). Police legitimacy is related to the public perception of the police as a legitimate force with the powers to regulate law and order. The extent to which the public views the police as legitimate, is the extent of police legitimacy, and this can be assessed on the basis of the extent to which the public is willing to obey and cooperate with the police (Tankebe, 2014). In other words, the concept of police legitimacy is significant because it signifies the degree of public support for police actions and the cooperation between the public and the police in the latter’s efforts to fight crime (Tankebe, 2014). The significance of police legitimacy is that without such legitimacy, the police may be severely compromised in their ability to fight crime effectively as well as their exercise their authority with legitimacy (Tyler, 2004).

As police legitimacy is directly related to the perceptions of the public about the actions of the police, the way people experience their interactions with police would play an important role in how they perceive the legitimacy of the police. In this context, it has been argued that members of the public who experience more procedural justice in their interactions with the police would perceive the police as more legitimate than those who do not experience procedural justice in their interactions with the police forces (Tyler & Fagan, 2008). Indeed, as the research done by Tyler and Fagan (2008) on the New York police forces indicates, fairness of police procedures irrespective of the outcome for the individual interacting with the police, leads to increase in perceptions of police legitimacy.

The important link between police legitimacy and public cooperation

Cooperation between the police and the members of the public is considered to be essential to the effective functioning of the police because as Tyler and Fagan (2008) put it, “Security cannot be produced by either the police or community residents acting alone-it requires cooperation” and that cooperation involves that the public shall obey the law and work with the members of the police forces to help combat crime in the community (p. 233). There are two models that are usually used to explain the reasons or factors that are responsible for encouraging cooperation from the public with the police: the first model is that of social control, also called as instrumental model; and the second model is the social norms model (Tyler & Fagan, 2008). The instrumental model posits that people cooperate with the police because of the element of self-interest, where people perceive the cooperation with police as something that is of interest to them (Nagin, 1998). The self-interest of the people is driven by sanctions or incentives that are associated with the cooperation with the police (Nagin, 1998). The social norms model is based on the premise of legitimacy of the police, where it is argued that how people view the institutional legitimacy of the police and the law is an important factor in influencing their cooperation with the actions of the police (Tyler & Fagan, 2008).

The social norms model is also based on the criticism of the institutional model wherein it is argued that the same self-interest that may encourage people to cooperate with the police may also be responsible for people to break the law and not cooperate with the police. In other words, if people can make rational choices to cooperate the police because it is in their interest to do so, they can also make rational choices to not cooperate with the police when it is not in their interest to give such cooperation (Tyler & Fagan, 2008). It is also argued that legitimacy of the legal authorities is a social value, which is distinct from self-interest and therefore, the latter cannot be the only basis for explaining the reasons why people cooperate with the police (French, Raven, & Cartwright, 1959). In that sense then, it would make sense to explore how legitimacy perceptions around the police may impact the way members of the public cooperate with the police or not. The concept of legitimacy of police or the perceptions around police legitimacy is particularly significant in democratic societies like the UK. This is because there is a general consensus that power is not legitimate only because it is acknowledged as being rightful by those who are in power, but because it meets certain standards that are related to the rightful or good exercise of the power (Beetham, 2013). To that extent, the perceptions of police legitimacy becomes important to understand the extent to which the police is considered to be right and good in its actions and judgments. The next section of this essay will consider the extent to which the tone and content of media coverage around policing explains perceptions about police legitimacy in England and Wales and overseas.

Perceptions of the police through media coverage

Media is essential to assessment of police legitimacy by the members of the community because media is often the only source of information on police actions (Huq, Jackson, & Trinkner, 2017). Therefore, as aptly stated by Huq, Jackson, and Trinkner (2017):

“If judgements of police legitimacy are founded on information secured not only by direct and indirect interpersonal encounters, but also through a wider range of media and educational sources, it is at least possible that aspects of police organization or behaviour outside the narrow frame of individual encounters will influence legitimacy judgements” (p. 1103).

There is significant research on how the reports on police through traditional media, particularly television news and even entertainment media impact police legitimacy perceptions (Intravia, Wolff, & Piquero, 2018). Internet and social media are also now increasingly understood as having the tendency to affect policing-related outcomes (Intravia, Wolff, & Piquero, 2018). Recent research suggests that those who read news online are more likely to have negative attitudes toward police legitimacy (Intravia, Wolff, & Piquero, 2018). This section discusses how media reports in traditional and contemporary media affects the perceptions around police legitimacy.

Research indicates that order maintenance policing and stop and search powers exercise of the police do appear to reduce police legitimacy among young men (Gau & Brunson, 2010; Tyler, Fagan, & Geller, 2014). In the UK, the interactions between the police forces and the young men belonging to the ethnic minorities in particular have been subject to some controversy with negative perceptions around police fairness. Media coverage surrounding the stop and search procedures of the police also at times have led to the increase in negative perceptions around police legitimacy in the UK. There is research that indicates that increase in negative perceptions around procedural impropriety by police in how they conduct their stop operations leads to increase in delinquency by the young men within the community who have experienced such interaction with the police (Toro, et al., 2019 ). This may indicate that there is a decrease in legitimacy perception in the public with the increase in negative perceptions around police action (Toro, et al., 2019 ).

In the UK, certain research studies have explored how public perceptions about police is impacted by the seemingly unjustified use of exercise of the stop and search powers (Stone & Pettigrew, 2000). There is research that indicates that there is an increased level of dissatisfaction within a community if there is a perception that the police particularly and without justification, targets the members of the community; this may have impact on how far the community members feel themselves bound to give obedience to the police (Skogan & Frydl, 2004). Social perceptions about the police when formed strongly and commonly within the community, can have the adverse impact on social cohesion and control and also impact the legitimacy of the police with respect to the community (Bradford, 2011).

These findings from the UK correspond with similar findings from an American research study conducted by Tyler, Fagan, and Geller (2014). In that study, the authors found that street stops of young men and how they experienced these street stops were associated with a diminished sense of police legitimacy (Tyler,, Fagan, & Geller, 2014). Importantly, the study found that the association between street stops and the negative perception of police legitimacy was not due to the number of stops experienced or the degree of police intrusion experienced by the young individuals, but due to the individuals’ evaluation of the fairness of police procedures and personal judgments about the lawful or unlawful exercise of the police power (Tyler,, Fagan, & Geller, 2014). Therefore, the suggested finding of the study is that it is the perception of the fairness and lawfulness of the police actions that shapes the general perceptions of police legitimacy within the community or among a group of people (Tyler,, Fagan, & Geller, 2014). Another important finding of the study is that perceptions about police legitimacy does influence the extent to which the individuals then abide by the law or are willing to cooperate with legal authorities (Tyler,, Fagan, & Geller, 2014).

With the rise in social media usage, a question may be asked as to whether police forces can take the use of media in their own hands for the purpose of increasing legitimacy perceptions among the public. In the Netherlands, the idea that media can impact perceptions of police legitimacy has already gained ground with the result that the Dutch police has taken to social media (Grimmelikhuijsen & Meijer, 2015). Research from the Netherlands shows that use of social media by the Dutch police has led to the increase in perceived police legitimacy because it has allowed police actions and decisions to become more transparent and enabled more participation by the public (Grimmelikhuijsen & Meijer, 2015). The important finding of this research is that use of media for establishing a direct channel of contact between the police and the citizens and using it to communicate successes can help the police to increase perceptions of their legitimacy; however, the study also suggests that the benefits of social media for increasing positive perceptions about the police are only limited to a small group of citizens who are interacting with the police via social media (Grimmelikhuijsen & Meijer, 2015). The implication of this research study is that police legitimacy perceptions are still greatly impacted by the traditional media which may have a higher outreach to the citizenry. In other words, the police forces may still have to depend on how they are reported on in traditional media rather than how they themselves communicate with the public via social media.

In the US, media has reported on events involving police use of force in different cities, which have implications not only for the public perceptions about police legitimacy but also officers’ sense of self-legitimacy (Nix & Wolfe, 2017). Recent research has revealed that police officers expressed less self-legitimacy due to the negative publicity surrounding police actions and feel less confident about their exercise of authority or level of cooperation from the public (Nix & Wolfe, 2017). Therefore, the impact of negative media reportage on police legitimacy is not only seen with respect to the public perceptions of police legitimacy but also the perceptions of the police officers with self-legitimacy.

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Police legitimacy is defined as the extent to which members of the community feel themselves bound to obey or cooperate with the police. As such, police legitimacy is essential to the effectiveness of the police functioning within a society. Legitimacy is an internalised social value, which means that to a great extent, whether or not people feel that police should be cooperated with also depends on how they feel about how the police functions. The police may indeed not be as effective in a society where the perceptions of its legitimacy are low as compared to those societies where such perceptions are high. Legal authorities like the police must be perceived to be legitimate, if they are to gain public deference and cooperation. In this aspect, media plays an important role because the way police is portrayed in the media can have a significant impact on the way the police is perceived. However, where the police actions are not perceived to be legitimate because of how the police interacts with the members of the society, such direct interactions can also have the effect of creating a negative impression of the police which even the positive media reports may not be able to resolve. Police may take to social media to generate the impression of being a more transparent force, however, traditional media still plays an important role in how the police legitimacy is perceived.


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