Recognizing Police Legitimacy

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

There has been a lot of emphasis on building trust and legitimacy in policing over the years. With some arguing that the public recognizes legitimacy only when they believe the police are acting in a “procedurally just” way. And others explaining that people are more likely to obey the police when they believe that police have the legitimate authority to tell them what to do.

So, when is that? When do the police have the legitimate authority to tell people what to do?

A recently released video of a 2017 traffic-stop out of Denver, Colorado, highlights the importance of answering this question.   And, if you’ve seen the video, you know it is hard to watch.

You’re Not the Boss of Me

When Denver police attempted to pull over a car for a traffic violation, the driver failed to stop and instead drove to her house, where her boyfriend was waiting in the driveway.  It quickly became clear that neither the man nor the woman believed the police could tell them what to do.

They would stand where they wanted; get in and out of the car when they wanted; yell, scream, and curse at the officers when they wanted.  They would attempt to ridicule and intimidate the officers; even going so far as to give the officers direct and repeated orders to “back up!”  The amount of confidence this couple displayed was extraordinary.

Predictably, the couple was arrested.  They resisted.  They were forced into handcuffs.  They hired a lawyer.

When the City of Denver agreed to pay $500,000 to avoid the lawsuit, the president of the Denver police union expressed concern that individuals stopped for routine traffic offenses will believe that they don’t have to comply with police orders.  That’s a legitimate concern.  But what about the police? 

What messages have the police been getting about their own authority?  Do they know what orders they can give and lawfully enforce?  Do they know how to defend them?

Fortunately, the courts have been very clear about the legitimacy of police authority, and as it turns out, society has every right to expect compliance with the lawful orders of its police.

No Time to Talk

De-escalation, persuasion, and efforts to achieve a sense of procedural justice should be commended. But the often-unpredictable chaos that police are called to manage does not always lend itself to securing on-scene consensus.

And when racism, malevolence, and injustice are believed to be motivating the police, even the most routine enforcement actions can generate intense emotional responses, violence, and outrage; leaving the police little time to discern the cause of the contempt or dissuade its holder

When time and circumstances prevent the police from safely engaging in extended conversations, they should be confident in their authority to establish and maintain control.  The legitimacy of that authority is never contingent on securing agreement from suspects or witnesses.  Police are not required to sacrifice safety, control, or security in order to answer questions or defend their decisions.

The Luxury of Time

Officers frequently decide to slow things down and “buy time” for active listening and crisis counseling. They exercise tactical patience as they wait for the added deterrence of additional officers. 

But these efforts to generate voluntary compliance, avoid force, and save suspects from the consequences of their bad decisions depend on an officer’s ability to first establish containment and control. They are response options, not prerequisites.

Consider how clearly this point has been made by our courts:      

“During transactions that may give rise to sudden violence or frantic efforts to conceal or destroy evidence, the risk of harm to both the police and [citizens] is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.”

U.S. Supreme Court1

“A police officer at the scene of a crime, arrest, or investigation will not let people move around in ways that could jeopardize his safety.”

U.S. Supreme Court2

“It goes without saying that the police may take all reasonable steps to maintain safety and control, secure crime scenes and accident sites, and protect the integrity and confidentiality of investigations.”

U.S. Federal Court of Appeals3

Unquestioned Command and All Reasonable Steps 

“Unquestioned command” and “all reasonable steps” define the authority that society expects its police to exercise.  Courts demand that orders be reasonable and support a legitimate law enforcement purpose.  That “reasonableness” is assessed through the lens of reasonable officers.  Officers who are ideally screened, hired, trained, and then lawfully empowered to recognize and immediately act when the risk of allowing an individual’s behavior to continue becomes too great.  Officers who also appreciate that some of the most challenging people to manage, are innocent people lawfully stopped.

This balance between government interests and individual rights is imperfect and relies on the experience, discretion, and judgment of on-scene officers.  Officers who are trusted to responsibly exercise the immense authority recognized by the Supreme Court, and to comply with any state and local laws, regulations, or agency policies that properly limits this authority.

Reason to Believe

Reasonable people can debate the ranking of government priorities.  They can disagree on timing and the responsible acceptance of risk.  And they can certainly argue the appropriateness of weapons and tactics. 

But, if it is true that people are more likely to obey the police when they believe that police have the legitimate authority to tell them what to do, then it is up to our schools, media, politicians, families, and police leaders to end the debate. The legitimacy of the police is not in question; the courts have already given us reason to believe.   

  1. Michigan v. Summers, 452 U. S. 692 (1981). []
  2. Id. []
  3. American Civil Liberties Union of Ill. v. Alvarez, 679 F.3d 583 (7th Cir. 2012) (citing Colten v. Kentucky, 407 U.S. 104 (1972); a Supreme Court case that recognizes officers are entitled to enforce laws free from interference or interruption from bystanders). []
7 Responses
  1. Michael Lumbard

    Legitimacy is an important topic to consider in police operations, however, I don’t believe the challenge is in the legality of police control and authority, rather the ability of the police to convince the citizenry of that authority. As mentioned in this article, the nation’s highest courts have consistently held that the police are in fact empowered with the authority to control and direct the actions of others. In routine patrol and enforcement activities as well as investigations, the challenge is securing the willing cooperation of the public. Citing court cases to citizens who perceive a history of disrespect and discrimination is useless and police officers need to be armed with the verbal tools to demonstrate the mutual benefit to their cooperation, before, during, and after an encounter. While it is true that this stigma needs to be addressed at every level and in every possible venue, it is up to individual officers to use whatever tools are at their disposal to have an effect on their own encounters.

  2. Excellent as usual. The articles tone includes an emphasis on officers knowing ‘their rights’.

    Von, you do such a good job crafting your message. Your efforts go to good use.

  3. Robert Burns

    If the City of Denver paid $500k to settle claims that were brought by these two people shown on the video, then the City needs new defense counsel handling their Sec. 1983 claims. Admittedly, I don’t know the full story of what all was involved with the particulars of this stop, or the back story on the woman stopped and the male. But, having handled similar cases to this, it is almost inconceivable to me any money, let alone $500k, was paid to settle this claim in order to avoid a lawsuit.

  4. John Light

    That decision will just encourage more of this type of behavior. We went through this for years in Illinois until we became self-insured and began resisting this type of settlement. It all stopped after that or was reduced significantly. Some attorneys are known as ambulance chasers. They contact people who had been arrested,(via newspaper incidents) suggesting “too tight handcuffs” and other complaints.

  5. Richard Nascak

    “This balance between government interests and individual rights is imperfect and relies on the experience, discretion, and judgment of on-scene officers.”

    Are you so sure about that?

    “We know of no other enumerated constitutional right whose core protection has been subjected to a freestanding “interest-balancing” approach. The very enumeration of the right takes out of the hands of government–even the Third Branch of Government–the power to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the right is really worth insisting upon. A constitutional guarantee subject to future judges’ assessments of its usefulness is no constitutional guarantee at all. Constitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them, whether or not future legislatures or (yes) even future judges think that scope too broad. We would not apply an “interest-balancing” approach to the prohibition of a peaceful neo-Nazi march through Skokie. See National Socialist Party of America v. Skokie, 432 U. S. 43 (1977) (per curiam). The First Amendment contains the freedom-of-speech guarantee that the people ratified, which included exceptions for obscenity, libel, and disclosure of state secrets, but not for the expression of extremely unpopular and wrong-headed views. The Second Amendment is no different. Like the First, it is the very product of an interest-balancing by the people–which JUSTICE BREYER would now conduct for them anew. And whatever else it leaves to future evaluation, it surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.”

    United States Supreme Court
    No. 07-290
    Argued: March 18, 2008
    Decided: June 26, 2008

  6. Limu Feldagast

    It would be helpful for Mr. Kliem to include a description of how to recognize an illegitimate order by police and how best to defend against such violations.

  7. James Neeley

    I am of the opinion that there is a problem of epidemic proportions across the nation. Police departments have promoted administrative types to leadership positions to which they have no business being appointed to.

    If people are in leadership positions and have to ask themselves if they think this comment was about them, then they are part of the problem. This is strictly my opinion based on observations and experiences , believe it or don’t.

Leave a Reply


  • Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy

Effective date: January 06, 2019

Force Science Institute, Ltd. (“us”, “we”, or “our”) operates the https://www.forcescience.org/ website (hereinafter referred to as the “Service”).

This page informs you of our policies regarding the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data when you use our Service and the choices you have associated with that data. Our Privacy Policy for Force Science Institute, Ltd. is based on the Privacy Policy Template from Privacy Policies.

We use your data to provide and improve the Service. By using the Service, you agree to the collection and use of information in accordance with this policy. Unless otherwise defined in this Privacy Policy, the terms used in this Privacy Policy have the same meanings as in our Terms and Conditions, accessible from https://www.forcescience.org/

Information Collection And Use

We collect several different types of information for various purposes to provide and improve our Service to you.

Types of Data Collected

Personal Data

While using our Service, we may ask you to provide us with certain personally identifiable information that can be used to contact or identify you (“Personal Data”). Personally identifiable information may include, but is not limited to:

  • Email address
  • First name and last name
  • Phone number
  • Address, State, Province, ZIP/Postal code, City
  • Cookies and Usage Data

Usage Data

We may also collect information on how the Service is accessed and used (“Usage Data”). This Usage Data may include information such as your computer’s Internet Protocol address (e.g. IP address), browser type, browser version, the pages of our Service that you visit, the time and date of your visit, the time spent on those pages, unique device identifiers and other diagnostic data.

Tracking & Cookies Data

We use cookies and similar tracking technologies to track the activity on our Service and hold certain information.

Cookies are files with small amount of data which may include an anonymous unique identifier. Cookies are sent to your browser from a website and stored on your device. Tracking technologies also used are beacons, tags, and scripts to collect and track information and to improve and analyze our Service.

You can instruct your browser to refuse all cookies or to indicate when a cookie is being sent. However, if you do not accept cookies, you may not be able to use some portions of our Service. You can learn more how to manage cookies in the Browser Cookies Guide.

Examples of Cookies we use:

  • Session Cookies. We use Session Cookies to operate our Service.
  • Preference Cookies. We use Preference Cookies to remember your preferences and various settings.
  • Security Cookies. We use Security Cookies for security purposes.

Use of Data

Force Science Institute, Ltd. uses the collected data for various purposes:

  • To provide and maintain the Service
  • To notify you about changes to our Service
  • To allow you to participate in interactive features of our Service when you choose to do so
  • To provide customer care and support
  • To provide analysis or valuable information so that we can improve the Service
  • To monitor the usage of the Service
  • To detect, prevent and address technical issues

Transfer Of Data

Your information, including Personal Data, may be transferred to — and maintained on — computers located outside of your state, province, country or other governmental jurisdiction where the data protection laws may differ than those from your jurisdiction.

If you are located outside United States and choose to provide information to us, please note that we transfer the data, including Personal Data, to United States and process it there.

Your consent to this Privacy Policy followed by your submission of such information represents your agreement to that transfer.

Force Science Institute, Ltd. will take all steps reasonably necessary to ensure that your data is treated securely and in accordance with this Privacy Policy and no transfer of your Personal Data will take place to an organization or a country unless there are adequate controls in place including the security of your data and other personal information.

Disclosure Of Data

Legal Requirements

Force Science Institute, Ltd. may disclose your Personal Data in the good faith belief that such action is necessary to:

  • To comply with a legal obligation
  • To protect and defend the rights or property of Force Science Institute, Ltd.
  • To prevent or investigate possible wrongdoing in connection with the Service
  • To protect the personal safety of users of the Service or the public
  • To protect against legal liability

Security Of Data

The security of your data is important to us, but remember that no method of transmission over the Internet, or method of electronic storage is 100% secure. While we strive to use commercially acceptable means to protect your Personal Data, we cannot guarantee its absolute security.

Service Providers

We may employ third party companies and individuals to facilitate our Service (“Service Providers”), to provide the Service on our behalf, to perform Service-related services or to assist us in analyzing how our Service is used.

These third parties have access to your Personal Data only to perform these tasks on our behalf and are obligated not to disclose or use it for any other purpose.


We may use third-party Service Providers to monitor and analyze the use of our Service.

  • Google AnalyticsGoogle Analytics is a web analytics service offered by Google that tracks and reports website traffic. Google uses the data collected to track and monitor the use of our Service. This data is shared with other Google services. Google may use the collected data to contextualize and personalize the ads of its own advertising network.You can opt-out of having made your activity on the Service available to Google Analytics by installing the Google Analytics opt-out browser add-on. The add-on prevents the Google Analytics JavaScript (ga.js, analytics.js, and dc.js) from sharing information with Google Analytics about visits activity.For more information on the privacy practices of Google, please visit the Google Privacy & Terms web page: https://policies.google.com/privacy?hl=en

Links To Other Sites

Our Service may contain links to other sites that are not operated by us. If you click on a third party link, you will be directed to that third party’s site. We strongly advise you to review the Privacy Policy of every site you visit.

We have no control over and assume no responsibility for the content, privacy policies or practices of any third party sites or services.

Children’s Privacy

Our Service does not address anyone under the age of 18 (“Children”).

We do not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from anyone under the age of 18. If you are a parent or guardian and you are aware that your Children has provided us with Personal Data, please contact us. If we become aware that we have collected Personal Data from children without verification of parental consent, we take steps to remove that information from our servers.

Changes To This Privacy Policy

We may update our Privacy Policy from time to time. We will notify you of any changes by posting the new Privacy Policy on this page.

We will let you know via email and/or a prominent notice on our Service, prior to the change becoming effective and update the “effective date” at the top of this Privacy Policy.

You are advised to review this Privacy Policy periodically for any changes. Changes to this Privacy Policy are effective when they are posted on this page.

Contact Us

If you have any questions about this Privacy Policy, please contact us:

  • By email: support@forcescience.org
  • By visiting this page on our website: https://www.forcescience.org/contact
  • By phone number: 866-683-1944
  • By mail: Force Science Institute, Ltd.