The legitimacy of the police: a key question?

Sebastian Roché is director of research at the CNRS (Political Science, University of Grenoble). He is a teacher of the Higher National Police School, and of the universities of Grenoble and of Bahcesehir, in Istanbul. His work is focused on surveying crime, analysing public security policies and the compared governance of the police. He is also an adviser to the United Nations. One of his publications is: De la police en démocratie [“Police in democracy”] (Grasset, 2016).

Doctor Roché, you have published a very interesting book, De la police en démocratie [“Police in democracy”], where you talk about legitimacy. What are we referring to, when we talk about the legitimacy of the police?

The legitimacy of the police is the moral right that it has which means that it will be obeyed. It involves two aspects. In the first place, by recognising the police’s moral right, the citizen feels obliged to obey him / her, or does so voluntarily, so to speak, without having to promise anything in return (for example, more security) or with no need to threaten(for example, with sanctions). This first aspect is the one which is normally studied. Then, we find that this moral right bestowed upon the police to be obeyed turns into an agreement with the use of means which are sometimes illegal or violent. This second aspect, which we could call “the hidden face of legitimacy”, is studied less, but is no less real: it is, for example, the one which means that American whites support the police when they kill a black man.

Do you think that legitimacy has practical consequences on the daily work of the police? Isn´t this a rhetorical question which is only of interest to intellectuals?

The legitimacy of the police probably has practical effects, but it is necessary to recognise that these are well demonstrated. The main idea is that trust encourages the idea of recognising the legitimacy of the police, and that, this also encourages the public’s voluntary obedience, an adherence to the demands of officers, even when it isn’t to the citizen’s liking, and ways of cooperation, especially with the reporting of incidents when we are victims, informing of problems, participating in local associations; to sum up, a commitment to collaborate with police officers. The most noteworthy benefit would be a reduction in everyday tension and security for officers.

What can public authorities do to improve the legitimacy of the police? Do you mean to say that this is not a historical and cultural issue which is impossible to change?

The quest for legitimacy involves a quest for satisfaction regarding the service provided and equalitarian treatment. These are the attitudes which encourage trust. It is also about a professional culture, which may evolve, and it has to evolve, in accordance with the society it is part of. A ministry of the interior can establish its own quality control, decide on its own training mechanisms and then what tools to use to control it, and use them to classify officers. Therefore, practices will evolve.

What would a French police officer think when he or she read your book? Do you think they would feel happy about the way you portray them? Would you think differently if you were a police officer?

I think that police officers don’t read much sociology. I can understand them. If they did, they would be surprised at the importance I give to trust and legitimacy. Indeed, their professional culture is, above all, based on the law, and on practical learning of how to impose their vision of things on people, rather than the art of open discussion. This is what their experienced workmates value when they do their initial practical training. But I think that there are officers who have understood the importance of the relationship between the police and the public, and the need for it to advance.

Do you think that police data (crime statistics, connected to a lack of civil behaviour and incidents the police must respond to, the number of officers, etc.) should be public, available on line? Is it a democratic condition/requirement?

Yes, it would be convenient for the databases to be accessible. This would enable us to help analysis to evolve based on objective data. It would be the most normal thing, as it is the public which pays for them.

Do you think the current trend of fining more and limiting citizens’ rights puts the legitimacy of the police at risk? Do you think it’s efficient?

Faced with the terrorist threat, governments feel obliged to give the police more power. The main reason is political: it is all a strategy to avoid criticism from the opposition. We don’t have any evidence of the efficiency of a stricter legislation concerning petty or medium-level crimes, although the police are very often in favour of this type of approach. As far as young people are concerned, we know that penal severity actually even leads to more re-offending. Practical effectiveness and political effectiveness are quite different things.

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