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CJCCJ/Volume 64.3 (2022)

Good policing: trust, legitimacy, and authority

By Michael Hough
Policy Press: an imprint of Bristol University Press, UK. 2020. 156 p.

History has shown that public trust and police legitimacy form the foundation of democratic policing, yet both are easily lost with implementing authoritarian or coercive “crime fighting” agendas that we see in many Democratic societies today. A brief scan of recent events in Canada and abroad shows us a growing discontent with the use, and over-reliance on, “hard” police power options on people, communities, and within a broad range of public safety and security compliance contexts. Hough unapologetically argues for the adoption of a (more) procedurally just policing model that is based upon the principles of procedural justice and normative public compliance… “since it is the right thing to do.” By comparing the strengths and weaknesses of complex and/or soft police power options and intricate power traps, the author cogently argues his position by painting a picture of what good policing could look like within our current social, civil, and scholarly knowledge contexts. 

As the title suggests, this book links the concept of “good policing” to the principles of trust, legitimacy, and authority. The author starts by asking a fundamental question, which provides the framework for discussion and consideration throughout the book. Instead of asking the question, “Why do people break the law?” Hough asks the more pertinent and provocative question, “Why do most of us obey most laws most of the time?” By asking the latter question, the reader is asked to consider how and why trust and legitimacy can be lost or won within policing, particularly in an environment where procedural fairness, distributive fairness, fair outcomes, and police competence are increasingly seen as core currencies value. Hough supports the reader throughout the book by carefully providing a variety of crime deterrence and public compliance perspectives and by identifying and acknowledging the relative strengths and weaknesses of the associated research, police theories, policies, and practices. This book aims to support further discourse regarding the impact that both negative and positive police encounters have on securing public trust and the goals of achieving public compliance and cooperation. 

The central thesis is that traditional crime control measures, which are often coercive and more costly by nature, tend to diminish the base currencies of Democratic policing: trust, authority, and legitimacy. As Hough suggests, the criticality of building and securing trust in the police cannot be underestimated since conferring trust and legitimacy leads to increased compliance with laws, police actions, and the increased willingness to cooperate with police authorities. Trust, in this case, refers to trust that authorities will follow rules that have been judged fair by both powerholders and those asked to comply. Hough contends that good policing is based on achieving an appropriate balance between hard and soft power measures and by ensuring that police do not fall into “hard power traps.” These traps are created through the overuse of coercive power, which leads to the loss of trust so that softer measures have little to no traction. Thus, a dynamic is created where de-escalation becomes difficult, trust is further lost, and additional hard power is employed.

Alternatively, the author recommends that police (truly) value and adopt a policing model based on procedural justice, which accounts for how and why people comply with authorities, as individuals or organizations, without the need for coercive or divisive measures. Within this procedural justice model, individuals and organizations choose to comply with authorities due to a perceived moral obligation and the alignment of shared values. Interestingly, the author supports the idea that this compliance is more often based on relational factors (e.g., how an individual was treated) versus outcomes of interactions with authorities (e.g., whether a case was solved). This thesis has not only been applied to the external application of power by police but is extended to include the governance of police organizations and the achievement of self-legitimacy.

The concepts of trust, legitimacy, and authority form the cornerstones of this book. Legitimacy shapes how people act and interact with authority figures and organizations such as the police. It is, therefore, fitting that Hough suggests that the nature and quality of policing should be judged in terms of whether decisions made and actions taken enhance or reduce legitimacy, both internal and external to the organization.

This book is essential for several reasons. First, it comes when adversity, complexity, and increased distrust in authority are hallmarks of many civil societies. As a result, people and communities are demanding to be seen, heard, respected, and treated justly by those in authority. Unsurprisingly, there has been a simultaneous call for police reform(s). These calls for police reforms are often not pretty, fully illustrated, or understood in actual goals and outcomes. It is for these very reasons that this book is essential. The current nature and depth of community despair demand that police reforms be based on increased police/community cooperation, trust, and legitimacy. We, as professionals and as community members, have a role to play in re-visioning what is possible and in creating a policing model that is more humanistic, cost-effective, and sustainable. This is a teachable moment for both the police and community members. We have, all too often, failed to reflect on the basic principles of Democratic policing and the power that public trust plays in our every-day lives. Hough reminds us, through numerous illustrations, how and why trust can be lost or won simply by how the police approached a situation or dealt with an issue. Respect, dignity, communication, commitment, and honesty are the trade’s required tools, and coercive measures should be used only as a last resort. Policing that relies primarily on coercive instrumental outcomes, without normative buy-in from the public, is indeed costly on so many levels. 

The author of this book, Mike Hough, is an Emeritus Professor at the School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London, and is a recognized expert in criminal justice policy within the United Kingdom. The topic of procedural justice remains one of his primary research interests, and his 300 (+-) publications, along with his past role as founder, Director, and now a member of the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR) reflects his knowledge of and on-going commitment to effective criminal justice policies in the UK and beyond. 

While the book “Good policing: trust, legitimacy and authority” may be small, 156 pages in total, do not let the page count fool you. This small but mighty book provides many things to consider for anyone who cares about effective and respectful policing, whether criminal justice students, academics, policy analysts, practitioners, or community members interested in knowing more about policing and it’s future. Please read this book; it is the right thing to do.

DOUGLAS E. ABRAHAMSON
CHARLES STURT UNIVERSITY (AU)

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