The Potential Impacts of Pandemic Policing on Police Legitimacy: Planning Past the COVID-19 Crisis

The Potential Impacts of Pandemic Policing on Police Legitimacy: Planning Past the COVID-19 Crisis

Daniel J Jones | Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice

The Potential Impacts of Pandemic Policing on Police Legitimacy: Planning Past the COVID-19 Crisis

Daniel J Jones | Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice


One of the biggest challenges facing modern policing in recent years has been the lack of police legitimacy. The tipping point of this phenomenon is often attributed to the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles in 1991, where Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers were videoed assaulting a lone black male. They were arrested and charged but eventually all were acquitted, thereby etching deep distrust between communities and police. Now the Rodney King example is an extreme and criminal act by police but it was the beginning of communities and media focusing on what the police were doing and how they were doing it. This lack of legitimacy coupled with what is referred to as the militarization of policing have lasting consequences and impacts on police–community relations and how interactions between police and community shape society today. In the wake of pandemic policing due to COVID-19, there are tales of two eventualities for police legitimacy that will be explored in this article: (1) The police response to the pandemic results in further militarization and draws deeper divides between police and communities or (2) the police response is compassionate and build on procedurally just operations resulting in the rebuilding of police legitimacy post-pandemic.


The COVID-19 pandemic has put the world into a situation of uncertainty. Many organizations are treading on unknown territory and have no blueprint for how to manage the crisis and its consequences. Police are having to respond to and assist in a public health crisis enforcing new laws and bylaws that are regularly changing as governments take information from epidemiologists and virologists on how to manage this global pandemic. As the government relies on the justice system to ensure community safety and to protect the community not only from common threats to public or individual safety such as domestic violence, gangs, guns, or drugs but also from COVID-19, they afford them with additional powers. How the police carry out those powers and policies during the pandemic becomes of utmost importance as these drastic measures can impact police legitimacy. Whether or not the police can successfully respond to this crisis does not only depend on lawmakers or the government but also on public trust and confidence, and the public is seeing the police as a legitimate power holder. Research consistently shows that whether the public trusts the police and views it as legitimate has important consequences of whether or not people obey the law (Bottoms and Tankebe, 2012; Mazerolle et al., 2013; Terrill et al., 2016). Consequently, in these very uncertain times, the police must understand their impacts, the construct of police legitimacy, the tenets of procedural justice, and put a substantial amount of effort into avoiding to create an us versus them mentality amid this pandemic (Reicher and Stott, 2020).

The concept of police legitimacy implies that the police are seen as a legitimate power holder who uphold the law and operate in the community in a procedurally just way, giving a voice to the people they serve (Bottoms and Tankebe, 2012; Mazerolle et al., 2013; Tankebe et al., 2016). Research has shown if the police are perceived as a legitimate power holder, community members are more likely to comply and cooperate with police and less likely to re-offend (Paternoster et al., 1997; Sunshine and Tyler, 2003,; Bottoms and Tankebe, 2012, Mazerolle et al., 2013). There is also greater satisfaction with the police, less resistance to police, and less support for vigilante violence (Paternoster et al., 1997; Sunshine and Tyler, 2003). Conversely, the opposite is true when police are not seen as legitimate. Community members are less likely to comply and cooperate, show more resistance (Bolger and Walters, 2019), and also more often feel that when they report to the police nothing will be accomplished (Brunson and Wade, 2019; Crehan and Goodman-Delahunty, 2019) In addition to the perception that nothing would be done, communities in which police lack legitimacy tend to have overwhelming fears of abuse by the police.

The police now more than ever need to ensure that their actions are procedurally just and work to build legitimacy with the entire population that they serve. In this, the police must acknowledge that the ‘community’ is made up of several communities that are not homogenous and may require nuanced policing (Rinehart Kochel, 2011; Bottoms and Tankebe, 2012). The concepts of procedural justice and police legitimacy are not new and agencies across the world have worked towards implementing procedurally just practices in order to enhance police legitimacy (Picket et al., 2018; Antrobus et al., 2019). However even with the adoption of procedurally just policing, police legitimacy, or the lack of police legitimacy is a challenge for police agencies (Smith, 2017; Cheng, 2020; Deuchar et al., 2020). In research with incarcerated populations ‘distrust in police’ was found to be one of the main reasons that these individuals never reported their victimizations, even prior to their entry into the criminal justice system (Jones et al., 2019; D. J. Jones, unpublished data). As police agencies pivot due to the need to provide safety to the public with new legislation and enhanced police power, it is crucial the police continue down the path of procedural justice to enhance police legitimacy and public confidence (Picket et al., 2018; Antrobus et al., 2019).

When one analyses policing deployments in conventional times, the police are disproportionately deployed to marginalized communities where they interact with the public in some form on a more regular basis than they do in non-marginalized areas. Unfortunately, research has shown that police are often seen as unjust in their procedures or lack compassion in their interactions, thus resulting in a state of reduced legitimacy (Rinehart Kochel, 2011; Jones and McGuire, 1999; unpublished paper).

The over-policing of marginalized neighbourhoods and communities is particularly worrisome during the pandemic, when the police have to enforce new public health laws and ensure public safety while depending on the public’s willingness to comply with social distancing or lockdowns in a way that they never had to before. At the same time, police are tasked more than ever to prevent civil unrest. Communities that already have strained relationships with the police might have a harder time complying with the new rules and regulations. As police legitimacy is often lower in disadvantaged communities (Kane, 2005; Gau and Brunson, 2010; Mazerolle and Wickes, 2015), there is the potential that the population does not see the laws as necessary. As such, it becomes even more important for the police to be (and be perceived as) legitimate and procedurally just to gain compliance from community members (Murphy et al., 2009). How police respond in this current crisis will have long-lasting impacts on legitimacy and police–community relationships far beyond the reach of the pandemic. In this article, we will discuss two likely eventualities for how police may respond to this pandemic, how this will affect police legitimacy, and then conclude with where this may take modern policing in the post-pandemic era.

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The Potential Impacts of Pandemic Policing on Police Legitimacy: Planning Past the COVID-19 Crisis, Daniel J Jones, Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, paaa026, 2020

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