Recognizing Police Legitimacy

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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). []

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