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How Can U.S. Police Departments Earn More Public Legitimacy?

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

How can police forces in the U.S. gain more legitimacy from the public? A committee of the National Academy of Sciences. concludes that legitimacy's "multi-faceted nature ... means that a single intervention or program is unlikely to be sufficient."

The panel noted that community policing initiatives, for example, "have shown limited success when relegated to a single program, a select group of officers, a short time period, or without adequate monitoring."

The experts said that achieving legitimacy should embrace "four responsibilities (or 'pillars') of policing in tandem: effectiveness, lawfulness, distributive justice, and procedural justice.

"Efforts made in only one of these and not the others can cause an imbalance that might threaten the ability to achieve legitimacy."

The committee said a common example of police practices that may lead to an imbalance is when police use "illegal or unjust approaches to quell violence."

Another is officers' using procedural justice in one interaction, but then selecting a person for investigation based on discriminatory practices.

A third is police focusing only on following legal guidelines "so much so that they only respond to events

procedurally, failing to protect the public."

The committee recommended an evidence-based approach that "requires a process of constant testing, tracking, and targeting of various interventions, alongside organizational adjustments that facilitate

interventions, programs, and monitoring."

Teaching officers correct procedures "in isolation may not be enough to achieve procedural justice; officers need to practice it in the field, they need mentorship and guidance on how and when to exercise procedural justice, and police agencies need systems of accountability to ensure officers are using these skills," the committee said.

It added that implicit bias training must be followed by monitoring of officer actions and "accountability systems to ensure they are not discriminatorily using force or providing less service to some than others"

The panel concluded that police departments "should be encouraged to actively seek and adopt policies that simultaneously advance all four pillars, and at minimum advance at least one without degrading others."

The committee was chaired by criminologist Lawrence Sherman of the University of Cambridge, and included

Beatriz Abizanda of the Inter-American Development Bank, Abigail Allen of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Law and Justice, Emily Backes of the Committee on Law and Justice, Yanilda María González of the Harvard Kennedy School, political scientist Guy Grossman of the University of Pennsylvania, John Hagan Northwestern University, Karen Hall of the Rule of Law Collaborative, Cynthia Lum of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, Emily Owens of the University of California, Irvine, Julie Anne Schuck of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Justice Tankebe of the University of Cambridge and Sunia Young of the Committee on Law and Justice and Board on Children, Youth, and Families.


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