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Ponsaers, P. (2015). “Is Legitimacy Police Property?”, in G. Mesko , J. Tanbeke (eds.), in Trust and Legitimacy in Criminal Justice – European Perspectives , Heidelberg: Springer, 93-110.

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This paper discusses the question whether or not the problem of legitimacy is one that the police themselves can manage. The answer to this question seems obvious: the police have a problem with their legitimacy and should consequently gain public trust and confidence by increasing their effectiveness. Contrary to this position, this paper defends the position that the police are not active agents in the construction on their own legitimacy. The paper begins with the classic Weberian sociological meaning of legitimacy by introducing the distinction between normative and empirical legitimacy. A remarkable geographical variability of empirical legitimacy is observed. The introduction of Community (Oriented) Policing is presented as a police strategy to raise the effectiveness of the police and consequently public confidence. Evaluation studies of COP do not give a satisfactory answer to this relationship. Next, the paper develops the point of view that causal factors for the geographical variability are to be found in structural and individual characteristics of the inhabitants of territorial aggregates. These characteristics are hardly influenced by police strategies or actions. Again the observation is made that the police are not active agents of change in the citizens’ institutional trust. Trust seems to be tied to variations in social mechanisms that are beyond the reach of the police. In this way, the circle is round. While police legitimacy is not police property, it are political decision makers who are responsible for the improvement of causal factors that influence public confidence, institutional trust, and ultimately police legitimacy.
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1
Is Legitimacy Police Property?
Full Name (as it should appear in the printed book): Paul Ponsaers
Affiliation (as it should appear in the printed book): Professor Emeritus Ghent University,
Faculty of Law, Department of Penal Law & Criminology, Research Unit Social Analysis of
Security.
Postal address (street address for shipping a copy of the published book): Maïsstraat 110,
9000 Gent, Belgium
Email address: paul.ponsaers@ugent.be
Abstract:
This paper discusses the question whether or not the problem of legitimacy is one that the
police themselves can manage. The answer to this question seems obvious: the police have a
problem with their legitimacy and should consequently gain public trust and confidence by
increasing their effectiveness. Contrary to this position, this paper will defend the position that
the police are not active agents in the construction on their own legitimacy. The paper begins
with the classic Weberian sociological meaning of legitimacy by introducing the distinction
between normative and empirical legitimacy. A remarkable geographical variability of
empirical legitimacy is observed. The introduction of Community (Oriented) Policing is
presented as a police strategy to raise the effectiveness of the police and consequently public
confidence. Evaluation studies of COP do not give a satisfactory answer to this relationship.
Next, the paper develops the point of view that causal factors for the geographical variability
are to be found in structural and individual characteristics of the inhabitants of territorial
aggregates. These characteristics are hardly influenced by police strategies or actions. Again
the observation is made that the police are not active agents of change in the citizens
institutional trust. Trust seems to be tied to variations in social mechanisms that are beyond
the reach of the police. In this way, the circle is round. While police legitimacy is not police
property, it are political decision makers who are responsible for the improvement of causal
factors that influence public confidence, institutional trust and ultimately police legitimacy.
Keywords: police legitimacy public confidence institutional trust effectiveness
community policing
Index Terms: See separate document
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Is Legitimacy Police Property?
Paul Ponsaers
1 Introduction
This paper discusses the question of whether or not the problem of legitimacy is a problem
that the police themselves can manage. The answer to this question seems obvious: the police
have a problem with their legitimacy and should consequently gain public trust and
confidence by increasing their effectiveness. Contrary to this position, this paper will argue
that the police are not active agents in the construction on their own legitimacy. The paper
starts with the classic Weberian sociological meaning of legitimacy by introducing the
distinction between normative and empirical legitimacy. A remarkable geographical
variability of empirical legitimacy is observed.
The introduction of Community (Oriented) Policing is presented as a police strategy to raise
the effectiveness of the police and consequently of public confidence. Evaluation studies of
COP do not give a satisfactory answer to this relationship. The paper will demonstrate that
perceived justice is more important in the construction of confidence than perceived
effectiveness, pointing to the prominent question of procedural justice in a Weberian sense.
Next, the paper develops the point of view that causal factors for the geographical variability
are to be found in structural and individual characteristics of the inhabitants of territorial
aggregates. These characteristics are hardly influenced by police strategies or actions. Again
the observation is made that the police are not active agents of change of citizens’ institutional
trust. Trust seems to be tied to variations in social mechanisms that are beyond the reach of
the police.
In this way the circle is complete. While police legitimacy is not police property, it are
political decision makers who are responsible for the improvement of causal factors that
influence public confidence, institutional trust and ultimately police legitimacy. In conclusion,
the paper returns to the Weberian meaning of police legitimacy, starting from the observation
that the police are only a refuge, an intermediate stop because the police will never have the
power to set the social injustice straight.
2 Back to basics: the concept of Legitimacy in Weber
3
Weber (1976) introduced the notion of legitimacy in social and political sciences. The starting
point of his thinking lies in the question of how sustainable political power relations can be
introduced and how they can stand firm. Weber asked himself why people submit themselves
voluntarily to public authorities and how does this submission becomes sustainable? Some
elements are essential in this Weberian thinking.
Legitimacy is bound for Weber to the exclusive domain of public authorities. Loader and
Mulcahy (2003) stated that the police are not an enterprise or firm. They write: The
managerialization of the police is based on the assumption that in many respects police
organizations do not differ from any other business organization. According to this view,
police organizations should primarily be evaluated in terms of their output performance.
However, in the long run and almost unnoticed, this may undermine the symbolic power of
the police. In this sense the managerialization is a form of demythologization, which may
erode the police legitimacy and authority.” (Loader & Mulcahy, 2003: 291292) In other
words, in this logic the effectiveness of the public police can never be a consequence of its
legitimacy or vice versa. Even when the public police are not effective in terms of
performance, they can be legitimate.
Legitimacy is - in this classical meaning - attached to the voluntary subjection of citizens to
the power of the state. This is the hard core meaning of legitimacy according to Weber. The
recognition of legitimacy is an act of acceptance and implies the readiness to obey and to
waive, to a large extent, the individual right and capacity to use violence. Weber pointed to
institutions which were supported by a culture that molded these structures. Institutions are
for Weber pillars for political order. The claim for legitimacy (“Anspruch”) stems from a
political system, and by institutions which function herein. It is only when this claim is
recognized, honored and validated by citizens that we can speak of legitimacy. Strong
acceptance leads to solid legitimacy of the political system while weak acceptance can lead to
(political) crisis. In other words: citizens can mistrust the police, but at the same time accept
the legitimacy of the police. Both notions are of a different order and quality (Van Reenen,
2014).
Weber tried to find the causality of political and societal order. He was not interested in the
daily variability of behavior, or the ever changing public opinion, but more precisely in the
stability of phenomena. He tried to understand the shaping of a stable political order and thus
of a stable society. He was interested in the predictability of behavior and consequently in the
reasons why people submit themselves over a long period to political power and the
4
subsequent obedience that results. Legitimacy functions thus on the long run and impacts the
sustainability of relations, on the institutionalization of relations between citizens and public
authorities. Notions as “trust” and “confidence” have another connotation: they are not
sustainable and work in the short run. The attention for sustainability distinguishes Weber
from other scholars (e.g. Jansen, van den Brink, & Kneyber, 2012) who absorb variable
performance indicators of public authorities into the problem of police legitimacy.
It is interesting to consider this in the context of law. Laws are strange phenomena. They are
excellence expressions of the political will of the political class, bound to procedural
demands. Once they are voted and confirmed, the obligation rests with the citizens to obey
them. If necessary, obedience shall be enforced. This is the consequence of the model of
rational legitimacy according to Weber. The strange thing is, however, that the political
character of laws fades away once they are implemented, and they attain an objective and
neutral character. The law exists and you have to behave according to the law. This is the way
legitimacy works according to Weber. The political character disappears and is not recognized
anymore. The acceptance of the political system, the expressions of the political will of this
system and the belief in the rightness of it have the tendency to depoliticize and to make it a
kind of self-evident and objective given.
The order which is created or changed by political acts of will is considered after a while as
politically neutral, as self evident. An independent judge who adjudicates using these laws
enforces this tendency. This is the way legitimacy works and this is the way power will speak
for itself (Weber, 1976). Oomen (2005: 893) observes this mechanism in international
relations: A final factor explaining why the law (be it under the name of human rights or
justice) became one of the main avenues of international engagement in the late 1990s, lies in
the perceived characteristics of the law itself. Often deemed neutral, universal and above all
a-political, the law seemingly has qualities that other forms of intervention (military,
diplomatic) lack.
Legitimacy is also strongly linked to the acceptance of the monopoly of force and violence, of
jurisprudence and the execution of sanctions by public authorities more precisely the
monopoly of legitimate physical violence (Weber, 1976). This also implies without any doubt
the role of the police (enforcement, investigation). Also this monopoly is to a large extent a
claim of power, until it is recognized and accepted by power subjects. It is because of the
massive recognition of this monopoly position and the broad readiness within society to waive
violence, and the willingness to comply, that legitimacy of political power becomes possible.
5
Force and violence become the specific means of the state and the legitimacy of this
monopoly is essential for the functioning of (and in the name of) public authority (Van
Reenen, 1979).
The broader this recognition, the more marginal the violence and resistance become against
the state. This perspective on power and violence and the relation of the police with power
and political legitimacy remain absent in the notion of “trust” or “mistrust”. Different scholars
argue that trust in police results from the conviction that the police will be there when you
need them, that the police operate according to “good” motives, that the police act according
to the “general interest” (Van der Veer, van Sluis, Van de Walle, & Ringeling, 2013). That is
without any doubt a beautiful wish, but this kind of assumption leaves precisely the essential
element out of sight for a good understanding of the functioning of the police; more precisely
the legitimacy of the monopoly of force and violence which is what precisely distinguishes
the police from other public agencies.
3 Empirical legitimacy and geographical variability
In line with this classic understanding of legitimacy, Hough, Jackson, and Bradford (2013), as
Hinsch (2010) did before them, distinguish normative (or objective) legitimacy and empirical
(and perceived) legitimacy. Normative legitimacy is present when authorities correspond to
objective criteria, as for example the absence of corruption. Empirical legitimacy is based on
the perceptions of citizens. In this sense, it is possible that the police do not enjoy empirical
legitimacy, while the institution corresponds to the criteria of normative legitimacy in a
democratic society. In this context it is important to note that only when a public institution
enjoys empirical legitimacy, can it count on the support of the population, according to
Hough, Jackson, Bradford, Myhill, and Quinton (2010).
Hough and his colleagues define legitimacy as the recognition and justification of the right to
exercise power and influence (Hough et al., 2013: 1). This definition is in line with the
definition by Beetham (1991), Tyler (2006b) and Jackson et al. (2012) who define legitimacy
as the right to rule and the recognition by the ruled of that right. Thus, a legitimate authority
does not only mean that citizens recognize the existence of and the right to enforce authority
and to use power (Tyler 2006a, 2006b), but also that this right should be justified (Jackson et
al., 2012). Authority will only be accepted by a citizen when he or she also believes in the
righteousness of it.
6
This belief is based on the perception that the police and the citizens share the same values
and norms (“moral alignment”), that the police act according to the law (“legality”) and the
degree that citizens submit voluntarily to the police as authority (“feeling the obligation to
obey the police”). These are the three dimensions that Hough et al. (2013) are referring to in
relation to the acceptance of the police as an authority.
Citizens obeying the police voluntarily show that they accept the authority of the police.
Authority is not enforced, but accepted given the respect citizens have for the police as
authority (Hinds & Murphy, 2007). Or to state it another way: citizens consider it their duty to
obey the police even when they do not agree with the way the police are acting. Legitimate
police thus means police that (1) are obeyed voluntarily by citizens, (2) act according to the
law, and (3) share the same ideas as the citizens about values and norms in society.
The European Social Survey (ESS) (2014) contains attitudes, values and opinions of
inhabitants of more than 20 European countries and delivers an overview of their
development. This paper brings ESS information together for all available editions, more
precisely on a bi-annual basis from 2002 until 2012. The figures in table 1 include only those
countries which participated in all these editions. The question submitted to the respondents
concerns the amount of perceived legitimacy (“confidence”) they have in police, scored from
0 to 10. In the table only respondents with a high degree of confidence in police are included
(scores 9 and 10).
Table 1: The evolution of confidence in police (European Social Survey 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010,
2012; Norwegian Social Science Data Services, 2012)
7
The table shows two striking things. On the one hand, we notice strong differences between
the countries, on the other hand we see that the variations over time for each of the countries
are fairly marginal. In other words, confidence in police varies considerably between
countries, but is stable over time. This geographical variability is very suggestive of a
contextual interpretation.
4 COP: The relation between effectiveness and confidence
One of the dominant contextual interpretations of this geographical variability of public
confidence is the idea that it reflects to a certain extent the differences in effectiveness of
police organizations in different countries (Bradford, Jackson, & Stanko, 2009; Jackson et al.
2012; Roberts & Hough, 2005; Tyler, 2006b). This is important, because only when a police
force enjoys perceived public confidence, can it count on the support of the population
(Hough et al., 2010), and this support is important in order to be effective.
*** here Figure 1 ***
Figure 1: The mutual relation between Effectiveness of the Police and Public Trust in the Police
In line with this thinking, the police should gain public confidence to become more effective,
and should also be effective to enjoy public confidence. Ultimately the solution for the
problem lies in the hands of the police themselves as it is up to the force to remediate and
break the vicious circle. Or, to state it briefly, the problem of public confidence is in this point
of view police property and a preliminary necessity for the improvement of effectiveness.
This point of view was precisely to a large extent the reason why the police concluded in an
impressive consensus the deficit of traditional police models (Bayley, 1994, 1998; Verhage &
Ponsaers, 2013). The most important critiques on these traditional models, following
evaluative academic research, were: (1) The mere increase in the number of police officers is
not an effective strategy to tackle crime or disorderly behavior. The quantitative assumption
cannot resolve the necessary qualitative change of “how to do good policing” (Greene, 1998);
(2) The police cannot prevent crime, and more generally, cannot function without the help of
8
the population, which means that the population is much more than “the eyes and ears” of the
police (Rosenbaum, 1998); (3) The classic tactics of traditional police models are too reactive,
while they do not affect the circumstances that cause crime and disorder (Ponsaers, 2002); and
(4) Police strategy is frequently too broad and is applied to different problems in one and the
same way (‘one size fits all’ - Skogan, 1998). Observers have advocated for the need of
‘tailor-made responses’ (Ponsaers, Tange, & Van Outrive, 2009; Verhage & Ponsaers, 2013).
All these critiques boil down to the conclusion that it is up to the police themselves to change
strategy and functioning, in order to gain public confidence and become more effective.
The most important attempt for the transformation and reformation of policing in this sense,
during the last decades was without any doubt the introduction of “Community (Oriented)
Policing” (COP). The focus on COP studies during the 90s led to the most influential books
being studies on COP (Skogan & Harnett, 1996), while this focus continued in the early years
of this century (Skogan, 2006). Without any doubt, this had a powerful and lasting effect on
the image and the rhetorical capacity of the police themselves (Manning & Yursza Warfield,
2009). COP was in fact the promise or prophecy of a new form of policing, in which the
police had to orient themselves to partnerships with the citizens and to the improvement of
their effectiveness. COP was, from this standpoint, a working program for the police to solve
the problem of weak public confidence, because an increase in effectiveness would lead to
more confidence.
*** here Figure 2 ***
Figure 2: The promise of the implementation of Community (Oriented) Policing
Despite this evolution, Eck and Rosenbaum observe: There is no simple or commonly shared
definition of community policing, either in theory or in practice.” (Eck & Rosenbaum, 1994)
Writing this, both authors suggest that COP over time became a container-notion. Bayley
(1988: 225), who conducted a lot of research in different countries where COP was
implemented, confirms this: Despite the benefits claimed for community policing,
9
programmatic implementation of it has been very uneven. Although widely, almost
universally, said to be important, it means different things to different people (...) Community
policing on the ground often seems less a program than a set of aspirations wrapped in a
slogan.
After more than twenty years of promotion of this so-called police model (Ponsaers, 2001) by
governments, foundations and leading universities, it is still not clear what effect it has on
police practice (Brodeur, 1998). The results of evaluative research seem to be unimpressive
and in some cases non-existent or immeasurable (Fielding, 1995; Greene, 2000). COP is
stated to have little or no effect on the effectiveness of the police (Mastrofski & Greene, 1988;
Weisburd & Braga, 2006). The most striking results were achieved in programs directed
towards intensive problem solving strategies, focused on so-called “hot spots” (Bayley, 1994;
Braga et al., 1999; Leigh, Read, & Tilley, 1996). The realization of results nevertheless
seemed almost impossible, while the police are confronted with problems they can never
resolve (Brodeur, 1998). Also the frequently used programs of “neighborhood watch” resulted
in limited effects on crime and effectiveness.
Despite this lack of impact in terms of effectiveness, COP tends to improve the contact
between the police and the population. With a minimal use of compulsory measures, it was
deemed possible to improve public confidence. But this coping strategy has only limited
value, because those who are forced to stay in contact with the police (especially victims and
offenders) seem to be precisely those who are mostly discontent with the functioning of the
police.
*** here Figure 3 ***
Figure 3: The relation between COP and Public Trust, Effectiveness
Nevertheless, COP programs seem to have a stronger impact on the improvement of public
confidence and the image than on the effectiveness of the police. This was also demonstrated
in research; the most important effect of the implementation of COP was found in the
improvement of the confidence of the population towards the quality of the service rendered
10
by the police to the public (Brodeur, 1998; Wycoff & Skogan, 1994). Moreover, it became
clear that the improvement of the image of the police resulted in an intrinsic goal and was
often misused to gain more (financial and personnel) facilities (Sacco, 1998).
Also neighborhood watch programs impacted the feelings of security and the communication
is improving between the public and police. As a result of this, the public confidence in the
police was reinforced and the job satisfaction of police officers was raised. But evaluative
research demonstrated also that the majority of these initiatives were implemented in a
defective way. It also became clear that the involvement of citizens in these initiatives, also in
England, was weak (Bennett, 1990).
The difficulties in realizing a more intensive collaboration seem to be more serious than most
advocates of COP expected. The empowerment of the public by means of a professional
marketing strategy is certainly an interesting tool for the improvement of a more functional
partnership between the police and the population. But the problems in mobilizing local
inhabitants are often more structural in nature. In more deprived neighborhoods, the lack of
collaboration by the public is often a result of feelings of despair and powerlessness, the fear
of street gangs, and a deeply embedded mistrust and conflict with the police (Rosenbaum,
1998).
In the long run, according to advocates, COP would lead to a more or less important decrease
in the number of emergency calls by the public (Brodeur, 1998). Instead, COP programs can
have a regressive (instead of progressive) effect, while they are often directed towards the
wrong target groups. Those groups within the population that are already organized succeed
in using the police to their advantage, while the police feel comfortable in this part of society.
In spite of this, research evoked that COP, by means of locally initiated consultations,
structures the active participation of the population in problem identification and prioritizing.
It gives a channel for external accountability for police performance. Often it became clear
that the initiatives were directed towards the wrong territories and the target groups with the
smallest needs (Skogan, 1998).
Some authors come to the conclusion that COP can have some effect on the perception of
crime by the population and on the confidence in the quality of police care. Moreover, the
feelings of insecurity seem to decrease, because of the increased visibility of the police in
public spaces and the intensification of the interaction between the population and the police
frequently lead to more confidence in the police service. COP seems to have an impact when
neighborhood problems are tackled and on fear of crime. In any case, the results (in terms of
11
effectiveness) of COP are not worse than traditional policing in the control of crime, but the
results in tackling incivilities and feelings of insecurity in the communities are better (Greene,
1998).
Bayley (1994: 110), who did a lot of international comparative research on policing,
concludes: “We don’t know if community policing works. Most of the time, a small effect can
be detected, but sometimes also contradictory results. The best results can be observed in
focused activities of problem oriented policing. It is not proven that citizens can act against
insecurity in an effective way. Initiatives as “neighbourhood watch” don’t have an effect on
crime. Most of the time these initiatives work the best there were they are least needed and
least where they are necessary. Nevertheless, most authors conclude that it is not the model
that is failing, but in first instance the deficient implementation of it.
The bottom-line of the implementation of COP is not that the strategy has failed. That would
be an overstatement. COP has brought a lot of useful social side-effects in terms of external
orientation, accountability, partnership, empowerment and democratic weight. But the
original promise, to break the vicious cycle of effectiveness/public confidence was not
demonstrated until now.
Moreover, research has demonstrated (Hough et al., 2010; Tyler, 2003, 2006b, 2007, 2011;
Van Damme, 2013) that perceived justice is more important in the construction of confidence
than perceived effectiveness. In other words being treated honestly and respectfully by the
police is more important for citizens than tackling problems in an effective way.
Two criteria seem to be important for the judgment of procedural justice. On the one hand,
there is the quality of the process of decision making, on the other there is the quality of
personal treatment. Citizens want to have the feeling that the police are treating them in an
honest, neutral and objective way. Also the extent to which citizens get the opportunity to
explain their vision and behavior before the police make decisions seems important (Tyler &
Fagan, 2008). Perceptions about procedural justice are to a large extent influenced by personal
experiences. Bradford (2010) states it in this context: Personal contact is a key moment in the
formation of opinions about the police. Individual encounters can create moments in which
the legitimacy of the police is reinforced or undermined.
Viewing our problem from this point of view, the police become again a constructor of
perceived confidence, this time not from the angle of problem solving, but from a more
Weberian point of view on the neutral position of the police in society.
12
5 The causality of Public Mistrust is not Police Property
It is striking that the discussion about mistrust in different social (public) institutions appears
within social sciences almost completely disconnected from the discussion about the
implementation of COP and its consequences on effectiveness and public confidence. Again,
research has indicated that there were strong geographical differences in cynicism about the
police and penal law and in the lack of trust (Baumer, Rosenfeld, & Messner, 2003).
Important differences in mistrust between countries, but also between cities, municipalities
and neighborhoods were observed. Again this geographical variability was suggestive of a
contextual interpretation; nevertheless this time the problem was tackled from another angle.
In this literature, it was no longer the police who were considered important active actors in
the domain of solving the problem under study. Scholars have started to study causal
background characteristics of the population of these differing geographical aggregates,
which could explain the variability. Since the second half of the 1990s, the number of studies
that have shown the detrimental influence of municipality level characteristics (cities and
neighborhoods) for the citizens of these municipalities has slowly but surely grown (Sampson,
Morenoff, & Gannon-Rawley, 2002). Consulting the literature about institutional mistrust, we
observe a remarkably one-sided attention to the role of background characteristics such as
vulnerability, social capital, feelings of discontent and mistrust. That is why no estimation can
be made of the relative importance of each of these components in regard to mistrust.
*** here Figure 4 ***
Figure 4: The relation between Trust and Structural and Individual Characteristics
On the one hand, geographical differences were considered as a reflection of the differential
composition of municipalities. On the other hand, these differences were understood as the
consequence of environmental influence or contextual effect. Attention was paid to the role of
collective efficacy, defined as social cohesion among neighbors combined with their
willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good (Sampson, 2004). The concept of
13
collective efficacy has been seen as one of the missing pieces of the social disorganization
theory puzzle by many social scientists (Hardyns, 2010).
Social disorganization mechanisms were defined as the mechanisms or processes whereby the
social structure of a residential area encourages crime. Thus, social disorganization could lead
in this logic to greater concentrations of crime. In the field of criminology, Shaw and McKay
(1942) were the first who empirically found an adverse effect of certain structural
characteristics of a residential area such as higher degrees of urbanization and
industrialization, economic disadvantage, residential mobility and ethnic heterogeneity on
concentrations of crime. It is striking that the position or the strategy of the police was only
marginally discussed in this literature, while crime was considered as a consequence of a
multitude of geographical contextual factors that could explain the variations in crime as well
as the variability in mistrust in public institutions such as the police. In these theoretical
logics, the police were no longer active participants in the social construction of the security
problem. Trust in the police, in other words, was no longer seen as police property.
Before the 80’s, the social disorganization theory was used exclusively to explain spatial
variations in crime. Since the end of the 80’s, greater attention has been given to the
interaction between the ecological context (residential area), the social (school, family) and
individual (socio-demographic background characteristics and psychological attitudes)
context. From then on, the geographical context has also been used to explain individual
differences in crime-related characteristics such as fear of crime, differences in victimization
and delinquent behavior. In their Chicago study, Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls (1997)
found that the degree of collective efficacy in a neighborhood is very closely related to
concentrations of crime. It seems that collective efficacy is an important mediating
mechanism which explains why area characteristics, which are seen as social disorganization
mechanisms, lead to greater concentrations of crime. Neighborhoods with a high degree of
collective efficacy seem to offer better resistance and are better able to stand up to all sorts of
disorder.
Positive climate of social trust and solidarity go together with clearly defined shared values
and norms and more informal social control and thus, less crime (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003).
Accordingly, indicators for collective efficacy are informal social control and social trust, or
mutual trust among members of a community, which are absolute conditions for fostering the
willingness to intervene in the common interest of a community (Pauwels & Hardyns, 2009).
14
Both structural and social processes are at the basis of environmental concentrations of illegal
disorder (Wikström & Dolmén, 2001). They all seem to play a part in the development of
individuals’ attitudes (Hardyns, 2010). It can be assumed that a low degree of collective
efficacy goes together with high levels of mistrust in the criminal justice system. In other
words, not only do social mechanisms in terms of geographical aggregates seem to be
important, but also individual characteristics, for example social capital (Lin, 2001).
Furthermore, personal resources (e.g. social networks) were also considered. According to
Putnam (1993), social capital refers to the relationships between individuals (friends,
neighbors, strangers) and social networks which results in convertible norms and trust in
others. Not only Putnam, but also other scholars have pointed to the role of participation in
organizations as a more formal aspect of social capital, referring to formal organizations such
as cultural and social organizations, including voluntary organizations (Hooghe & Vanhoutte,
2011). Both participation in organizations and social ties have been argued to be important
mechanisms in the explanation of individual differences in trust. More than ever, the problem
of public mistrust has increasingly been considered as a social problem, resulting more from
the active intervention or passive non-intervention of citizens and inhabitants, than of absent
police officers (at least in the discussion).
Brehm and Rahn (1997) argued that social capital manifests itself in individuals as a tight
reciprocal relationship between levels of civic engagement and interpersonal trust. The more
that citizens participate in their communities, the more that they learn to trust others; the
greater trust that citizens hold for others, the more likely they are to participate. (Brehm &
Rahn, 1997: 1002) Some scholars argue that a decline of social capital is likely to cause a loss
of trust in political leadership and a loss of trust in the institutions of government (e.g. Norris,
1999; Pharr & Putnam, 2000). On the other hand, Newton (2001) argues that the relationship
between social capital and institutional trust is moderate at best and therefore probably rather
indirect.
Socio-cultural values like ethnocentrism and anomia are supposed to have a negative effect on
attitudes related to trust. Many studies have already pointed to the fact that general feelings of
dissatisfaction with current society (or discontent) are related to a decrease in trust in
various institutions (e.g. McDill, 1961). People with high levels of discontent are supposed to
be much more mistrusting.
He proposed that anomia, authoritarianism and ethnocentrism are all dimensions of what he
called a Negative Weltanschauung (a negative worldview). Several studies of the factorial
15
structure have empirically contradicted McDill’s assumption of the Negative Weltanschauung
(Lutterman & Middleton, 1970; Struening & Richardson, 1965). Anomia is often described as
political powerlessness and has consequently been identified as a predictor of mistrust. This
concept may be defined as an individual’s feeling that he or she cannot affect the actions of
the government, that the ‘authoritative allocation of values for the society’, which is at the
heart of the political process, is not subject to his or her influence.
Ethnocentrism is a basic attitude expressing the belief that one’s own ethnic group or one’s
own culture is superior to other ethnic groups or cultures, and that one’s cultural standards can
be applied in a universal manner. Ethnocentrism is closely related to other attitudinal
indicators for racism, xenophobia, prejudice, mental closure, and more generally, to an
authoritarian personality structure. Ethnocentrism is widely used in research on social and
political attitudes because it is a very powerful and easily identifiable attitude that can be
measured in a valid manner with a limited number of variables. While the relationship
between ethnocentrism and levels of trust is not questioned in the empirical literature, the
causal relationship is. Some authors (e.g. Meuleman & Billiet, 2005), have argued that levels
of trust can explain individual differences of ethnocentrism. Authoritarianism is also strongly
related to trust. While anomia and ethnocentrism are negatively related to trust,
authoritarianism has been found to be positively related to governmental trust (Peterson,
Doty, & Winter, 1993).
Some scholars discuss the relationships between these exogenous variables. From the social
identity theory, anomia is argued to be causally prior to ethnocentrism (Scheepers, Felling, &
Peters, 1992; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). The social identity theory suggests that an individual is
in a permanent state of needing to assume a positive identity for him- or herself. This is done
by identifying oneself with people who have perceived positive characteristics, the in-group,
and contra-identifying with people who have perceived negative characteristics, the out-
group. The link between anomia and ethnocentrism can be explained as follows: “…it may be
argued that anomic people who are subject to powerlessness, meaninglessness and
normlessness and who feel socially isolated, therefore have a strong urge to re-establish a
positive identity by means of social identification, possibly accompanied by social contra-
identification…” (Scheepers et al., 1992: 46). As we interpret this, we may conclude that the
more an individual has anomic feelings, the more he or she has the urge to emphasize
identification with the in-group and contra-identification with the out-group, which equates to
ethnocentrism.
16
To summarize the argument of this part of this paper: an impressive amount of research has
been done on the causality of institutional trust and geographical variability, pointing to a
broad range of structural and individual characteristics of inhabitants. It is striking to observe
that within this literature the position or the strategy of the police stays largely absent. The
police are no longer considered the owners of the road to problem solving, as the active agents
for social change.
In this literature, the causal mechanisms are to a large extent related to characteristics of the
population within neighborhoods and municipalities and consequently a policy directed to
raise institutional trust has to take these observations into account, and thus should be directed
towards influencing social and individual causal factors of the population. It is remarkable
that influencing these causal factors is far beyond the reach police institutions can have on
social reality. It is clear that this is the domain of political decision making power on
problems such as social cohesion, social efficacy, social capital, etc.
This thinking neglects the activism present in police strategy, but is probably a more realistic
approach to social causality. The relationship between the efforts of police forces and
institutional trust is simply weak and determined by a number of contextual factors. The quest
of COP scholars, in search of the ultimate explanation for loss of mistrust of the police, seems
to be in vain. The ultimate explanation can never lie in the functioning of the police
themselves, at the most in a complex set of exogenous variables.
6 Conclusion
This paper began from the classic Weberian interpretation of police legitimacy. In this view,
effectiveness of the public police can never be a consequence of their legitimacy or vice
versa. Even when the public police are not effective in terms of performance, it can be
legitimate from a Weberian point of view. Classic police legitimacy lies in the voluntary
subjection of citizens to the power of the state. Legitimacy is strongly linked to the acceptance
of the monopoly of force and violence, of jurisprudence and the execution of sanctions by
public authorities more precisely the monopoly of legitimate physical violence.
In line with this Weberian standpoint, we made the distinction in the second part of this paper
between normative (or objective) and empirical (and perceived) legitimacy. Normative
legitimacy is present when authorities correspond to objective criteria. In contrast, empirical
legitimacy is based on the perceptions of citizens. We stressed that only when a public
17
institution enjoys empirical legitimacy, can it count on the support of the population. We
observed nevertheless a strong geographical variability in perceived legitimacy.
In the third part of this paper, we wondered if this variability reflects the differences in
effectiveness of police organizations in different countries. This question was tackled by
examining the results in terms of problem solving capacity (effectiveness) of COP, as a
working program for the police to solve the problem of weak public confidence. The lack of
dramatic impact in terms of effectiveness was demonstrated by means of several evaluation
studies. We concluded that COP had several important social side-effects, but did not fulfil
the promise of effective policing. The role of the police themselves in the construction of a
more solid perceived legitimacy seemed to be very limited.
The criterion of effectiveness for legitimacy fits well with the growing culture of evidence
based policy during the last decennia, exaggerating the importance of this tendency. The
successive failures and deceptions in the realization of effectiveness, coinciding with the
demise of the welfare state, illustrate the instability of this basis of legitimacy. Political power
based on effectiveness is unstable power and is in fact a contradiction while the justification
of this power is unstable. It is not less than the institutionalization of political crisis (Breuer,
1969).
Nevertheless, the possibilities in the domain of procedural justice were more important in
relation to perceived legitimacy. Citizens want to have, first, the feeling that the police are
treating them in an honest, neutral and objective way in a more Weberian sense. Here the
police can take an active role again in shaping perceived legitimacy.
The last part of this paper discussed the literature on mistrust in different social (public)
institutions. In this literature, it was no longer the police who were considered important
active agents in the domain of solving the problem under study. Here we see that the
variability of mistrust is explained by causal background characteristics of the population of
geographical aggregates. It is striking that the position or the strategy of the police was only
marginally discussed in this literature. The police are no longer considered as the owner of the
road to problem solving, as the active actors for social change. Causal factors for institutional
mistrust are beyond the reach of the police. It is clear that this is the domain of the political
decision making power.
When the gaining and the maintenance of legitimacy is a specialty of the police, this means in
the long run a politicization of the police. This kind of evolution is not desirable. Police are
18
not specialized in political acting and have another function than the earning or the
maintenance of legitimacy in a democratic context.
The police bring relief during social unrest, but are painfully aware, at the same time, that
they do not have the political power to eradicate the causes of this unrest. The police stay
dependent on politics in this sense. However politicians do not have the power to always find
the right answer to social problems. Nevertheless, social justice is considered to be a political
ideal that must be pursued in the spirit of the age which at the same time is restricted by
feasibility limits. Politics needs the police in this sense. The police must take care of the
unrest that a failing government causes and channel it (Ponsaers & Devroe, 2012).
When the political class does not have the power to offer radical answers, the police power
will become its refuge. It is only a refuge, an intermediate stop because the police will never
have the power to set the social injustice straight. In this sense, the citizen would rather worry
about a weak democracy, than about strong police force. The police become then a permanent
power factor in failing democracies, a barricade that the political class can hide itself behind
up until the moment that the police become a political factor on their own and democracy
ceases to exist.
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... Of particular importance for this paper, though, is the role that context plays in influencing people's perception of the legitimacy of the police. On the one hand, evidence suggests that procedural justice theory generalises across different ethnic groups in London (Jackson et al., 2013, p. 17), different communities in the USA (Donner et al., 2015), different criminal justice settings (Tyler et al., 2015), and across some countries though not all, including the USA, Australia, the UK and Israel (Donner et al., 2015;Ponsaers, 2015). On the other hand, in some settings and for some social groups, procedural justice theory may not apply in the expected ways. ...
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