Section 5.5: The Crisis of Legitimacy

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

In this Section, we delve into the crisis of legitimacy faced by U.S. policing, tracing its roots from the 1840s to present times. We’ll explore how this profession, emerging in bustling American cities, has evolved amidst challenges of trust and fairness, particularly in our diverse, modern society.

The crisis of legitimacy in American policing refers to a significant challenge where police departments struggle to gain and maintain public trust, particularly among diverse communities. This crisis came sharply into focus in recent years following high-profile incidents where police actions, especially towards people of color, were questioned. These events sparked national debates and protests, highlighting deep-seated issues of fairness, transparency, and accountability in law enforcement. This crisis isn’t just about individual incidents; it reflects broader concerns over systemic biases and the need for fundamental changes in how policing is conducted and perceived in a multicultural society.

Three Big Changes in Policing

Over time, the way police work has gone through some major changes. Think of it like three big chapters in a long book:

  1. The Political Era (1840s – Early 1900s): Picture old-timey cities where the police were just starting out. Back then, police work was really tied up with politics. The folks in charge often decided how policing was done, which wasn’t always fair, especially for communities of color.
  2. The Reform Era (1930s – 1970s): Fast forward a bit, and things started to change. This era was all about making police work more about following the law and less about who you knew in politics. Sounds better, right? But there was still a big problem: communities of color often didn’t get the protection they needed.
  3. The Community Era (1970s – Present): Now we’re getting closer to modern times. The big idea here is teamwork between the community and the police. It’s like a partnership where both sides work together to keep things safe and fair. But, it’s not perfect. In many neighborhoods, especially those with minority communities, this teamwork isn’t as strong as it should be.

Reflect 🔍

What are some ways communities and police can work together to make sure everyone feels safe and included?

Navigating Change in Policing

New Programs and Challenges

Have you ever noticed how things keep changing all around us? Well, the world of policing is no different. Police departments have tried out lots of new programs to tackle different issues. Think about things like community-oriented policing, school resource officers, and programs to reduce drug and gang problems. Sounds cool, right? But here’s a catch: when the extra money that was helping these programs run out, many of them struggled to keep going. Why? Because they were like add-ons, not really part of the day-to-day police work.

The Grant Writing Craze

There’s been a big jump in the amount of money available for these programs, both from public and private sources. This led to a whole new job: grant writing. It’s like hunting for treasure, where the treasure is money to fund these programs. Some police chiefs even got judged on how good they were at getting these grants. Programs like McGruff and D.A.R.E. got famous and did some good, but there were still big issues that these special programs couldn’t fix easily.

Bigger Issues at Hand

Think about problems like finding and training new police officers, dealing with changes in the community, or issues related to immigration and terrorism. These are huge challenges that can’t just be solved with a one-off program. And then there’s the really tough stuff, like when there’s violence between police and citizens. This gets a lot of attention, but it’s not something that a special program can easily fix.

Tech to the Rescue?

Nowadays, there’s fancy software that can track what police officers are doing, like how many tickets they write or if there are any complaints against them. This tech is helpful, but it’s not the whole solution. The real key might be in promoting good values and a better way of thinking about policing.

Focusing on the Complexities

When police and citizens clash, it’s often a complicated situation. Sometimes, the law might fully back the police officer’s actions, even if they had to use force. To really reduce these violent encounters, the focus should be on the police. They’re in a better position to control how these situations unfold. But remember, it’s not simple. Police officers face a huge range of situations every day that make their job really challenging.

Reflect 🔍

How can police departments balance introducing new programs with addressing ongoing complex challenges in their communities?

Policing in Multicultural Communities

The Melting Pot of Communities

Did you know that the neighborhoods we live in are becoming more and more diverse? Thanks to immigration, especially from Asian and Hispanic countries, our communities are now rich with different languages, cultures, and lifestyles. This is a big change from what many people are used to, and it’s happening all over the country.

Challenges of Multiculturalism

With all these new faces and cultures, there are new challenges too. Sometimes, when a lot of people from different backgrounds come together, it can lead to misunderstandings or even conflicts. It’s like a big puzzle where everyone’s trying to fit in. Plus, there’s the issue of some groups forming gangs that cause trouble for others, especially new immigrants. This can lead to some tense situations between the police and the community.

Policing in a Diverse World

So, what can the police do about all this? First off, they need to really understand and embrace the diversity in their communities. This means getting to know different cultures, languages, and traditions. Police chiefs and officers are trying new things like hiring officers from immigrant communities, providing training on cultural diversity, and working closely with community groups. They’re also trying to teach new immigrants about how the U.S. criminal justice system works. This can help build trust and make sure everyone feels safe and respected.

The Balancing Act of Police Work

Now, let’s talk about something a bit more complex. Imagine having to always be on guard for danger while also trying to be fair and follow the rules. That’s not easy! This can lead to a kind of “police culture,” where officers feel like they’re part of a special group that only they can truly understand.

When Things Get Tough

When a police officer has to use a gun or there’s some kind of conflict, the police often stick together. This bond starts right from their training and continues throughout their careers. It’s like being part of a very close-knit family. But this can also make things tricky, especially when the community has questions or concerns about what the police are doing.

Reflect 🔍

How can police departments effectively balance the need for safety and following rules with understanding and respecting the diverse cultures in their communities?

Building Trust Between Police and Communities

The Long Road of Race Relations in Policing

The history of policing in the United States has been rocky, especially when it comes to race relations. Even as recently as 2015, when President Obama set up a special commission, it was clear that trust in the police among people of color still needed a lot of work. The commission pointed out something pretty important: people are more likely to follow the law if they think the police have the right to enforce it. But, trust is earned when police act in a way that’s fair and just.

Four Key Principles for Fair Policing

So, what makes police behavior “procedurally just”? Well, there are four big ideas:

  1. Treat people with dignity and respect.
  2. Let individuals have their say during encounters.
  3. Make decisions in a way that’s neutral and clear.
  4. Show that your intentions are good and trustworthy.

When police stick to these principles, people are more likely to see them as honest, unbiased, and lawful. This builds a strong relationship where the community respects the law and is willing to work together with the police.

Inside Out: Internal and External Procedural Justice

Procedural justice has two sides: internal and external. Internal procedural justice is all about how officers are treated by their own department – their colleagues and leaders. When officers feel respected internally, they’re more likely to respect the rules and apply them fairly when dealing with the public.

External procedural justice is about how officers interact with us, the public. It’s crucial for building trust. A big part of this is understanding and acknowledging biases, both obvious and hidden.

Understanding Biases in Policing

We all have biases based on our experiences. An explicit bias is when you’re aware of your prejudice against a certain group. Implicit bias is trickier – it’s when you have prejudices you might not even realize. Both types can really damage the relationship between the police and the community.

Police training should focus on recognizing and reducing these biases. This way, officers can treat everyone fairly, both inside their department and out in the community.

Changing Police Culture

The first step towards changing police culture is recognizing the need for it. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2015 talked about how police need to focus on what they have in common with the people they serve, rather than just the authority they hold. They emphasized the importance of respectful language and understanding biases, especially in practices like stop and frisk.

Reflect 🔍

How can police officers and departments work to overcome biases and build a more trusting and respectful relationship with the communities they serve?

Key Terms

References and Further Reading

Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  12/11/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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