Why Doesn’t Everyone Trust the Police?

by Brendan Kennedy

In the debate over black lives matter and police reform, it’s hard to find common ground about what role the police have in our lives. Activists put the burden on the police, wondering why they harm and alienate communities. Critics of the BLM movement, on the other hand, wonder why protesters can’t give more respect and deference to the police, who serve and protect.

What leads to these huge differences in levels of trust for the police? Why can’t they see things from each other’s perspective? In my opinion, the split is over whether or not police are legitimate. I have spent much of this year researching attitudes toward police and surveying residents of San Antonio about their views on the police. In both, I found that the legitimacy of police was a key component in public approval.

Understanding why these two groups are divided, then requires an understanding of legitimacy itself.

An institution’s legitimacy refers to the idea that it ought to be deferred to or obeyed. For police, legitimacy is crucial: it means that citizens are more likely to comply with orders, report crimes, act as witnesses, assist in investigations and support police power. But, like a teacher on the first day of school, police only acquire a limited amount of respect from their title alone. The rest can be earned through their actions. Analyzing police legitimacy, then, means analyzing the actions of modern-day police.

Modern policing evolved in the late 1960s, and concepts of police legitimacy developed along with it. Criminologists recognized that a shift in policing was occurring and sought to define and establish police legitimacy for the new era. Failure to do such could yield dire consequences, as the lessons from the Watts Riots, the Kerner Commission and general unrest during the era demonstrated.


If you like The Contemporary and want to help us empower collegiate journalists across the country, please consider donating here


As the Johnson administration’s anti-poverty initiatives lost credibility, theories of deterrence and social control took over. As a result, and experts viewed them as key to establishing legitimacy. In the 1973 book Deterrence, Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins described that harsher punishment and increased police presence could “establish a condition of habitual lawfulness” through “fear or moral influence.” The book used the examples of a military straightening out recruits or an occupying army controlling a population through fear, with police using the same principles to gain “automatic compliance” from citizens. You had to show you meant business- only then would people respect you. Deterrence and social control were seen as bringing legitimacy by demonstrating “that the legal system really meant what it said.”

However, this theory assumed that the population already agrees with whatever the legal system dishes out, and simply wants it enforced. That is very often not the case. To illustrate this fact, it is worth taking a step back to examine the history of relations between police and people of color.

Initially, many modern police forces evolved from slave patrols, especially in the South. As time progressed, police played a role in the lynchings that terrorized people of color during the Jim Crow Era. Such lynchings affected minorities of many different ethnicities and often involved the police turning a blind eye or, occasionally, playing a more direct role. As the Civil Rights Movement unfolded, police routinely met nonviolence with inexcusable brutality. This was the legacy of the police at the time that deterrence and social control took hold. For good reason, minorities did not want the legal structure to crack down and show it “meant what it said.” They wanted to change the structure itself.

Policies of social control continued for decades, with police believing that they were bolstering their legitimacy each time they flexed their muscles.

Minority communities, which viewed the police with skepticism from the start, only grew more alienated. Soon, however, ideas about police legitimacy began to change.

In 1968, James Wilson wrote Varieties of Police Behavior in an effort to, like those I discussed before, define how modern-day policing ought to look. Wilson identified two types of policing: institutional policing, in which “the law must be vigorously enforced because to do so otherwise would call into question the law itself”, and communal policing, which requires police to act as a part of the community they serve. With the embrace of social control, Wilson noticed that emphasis was being placed almost entirely on institutional policing. He felt that this severely threatened the ability of police to gain cooperation from the public.

As a fix, Wilson and George Kelling created the Broken Windows Theory in 1982. The theory called on police to act more collaboratively with local communities, noting that these actions promote legitimacy. It said police officers ought to patrol on foot more, talk with citizens, and establish collaboration with the “regulars” in an area. The theory combined this communal style with institutional control, arguing that police can earn respect, then prevent crime by stopping minor infractions and suspicious behavior whenever they occur.

The Broken Windows Theory is far from perfect, even harmful. Researchers have debunked the link between disorder and future crime,  the community aspect was largely ignored, resulting practices have encouraged discrimination and George Kelling himself has condemned its implementation. What the theory did do, however, was introduce the idea that police had to engage in the community to be viewed as legitimate. This concept spawned our modern understanding of police legitimacy.

Tom Tyler, beginning in the 1990s, began to take a look at what led people to accept the legitimacy of police. He questioned the notion that strict policing alone would assure legitimacy, and conducted studies to measure citizens’ attitudes. His research, corroborated by others, shows that citizens link legitimacy not with effective policing, but with what is called procedural fairness.

In his book Trust in the Law, Tyler explains the term by saying that “people are more willing to accept decisions when they believe that legal authorities are following fair procedures and have trustworthy motives for their behavior.” These conclusions were not tenuous– various studies showed “procedural justice effects dominating outcome favorability” so much so that it could outweigh “the favorability or fairness of (a person’s) own outcomes.” Even when police action ended badly for a person, it was viewed as legitimate if the person knew that they got a fair shake.

Lit Rev legitimacy-police support 1

This was often the case in my research as well. When discussing the police, citizens with negative views of the police would claim that the police act unfairly, often citing specific examples. Those who viewed the police in a more positive light would mention that police always treated them fairly, and how as a result they were not usually angry when they were pulled over or questioned by police. These same people rarely talked about how well the police controlled crime in their neighborhoods. Instead, the legitimacy of police was linked to the fairness of their actions.

Today, these ideas are widely accepted in criminology. While much of policing is still dominated by a “tough-on-crime” mindset that seeks to catch criminals at all cost, focus has begun to shift to community policing and methods that emphasize fairness in decision-making.

With this understanding, it is easy to see why different communities hold such radically different views on police legitimacy. In the decades of social control, the War on Drugs, sentencing laws, and police militarization all affected minorities at levels that can’t be explained by crime levels or other factors. These policies have violated procedural justice, and their effects have been felt in very particular communities. As a result, these groups trust the police at much lower levels.

As with any discussion on the police, I ought to reiterate that individual officers perform a brave service and take huge risks to do their job. Police reform is necessary precisely because these officers may see their service go unrewarded. Too often, the good work of police officers is undone by decisions made by politicians or police commissioners, which ruin a community’s trust. Repairing this rift will require a change in crime policies on a wide scale. For decades, we policed communities, especially communities of color, with the idea that police could coerce compliance using fear. It’s time to admit that we were wrong, move forward, and reform our policing until we achieve a full commitment to justice.

Brendan Kennedy is a senior at Trinity University from Dripping Springs, Texas, majoring in Political Science.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

Tome Tyler and Jason Sunshine’s study and picture can be found here.

The cover photo depicts protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.  Picture by Loavesofbread – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34772144

3 thoughts on “Why Doesn’t Everyone Trust the Police?

Leave a Reply