The Importance of Legitimacy in Hot Spots Policing

photo of community policing logoThe lessons learned from the community policing movement of the 1980s and 1990s offer many important insights for the proper implementation of hot spots policing initiatives. We believe that these lessons suggest that police departments should move away from simple, enforcement-based approaches to controlling crime hot spots and toward more collaborative, community problem-solving approaches to address crime hot spots. If the community is engaged appropriately, we believe that hot spots policing programs can enhance the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the people they seek to protect and serve. In general, broad-based community policing initiatives have been found to reduce fear of crime and improve the relationships between the police and the communities they serve (Skogan and Frydl 2004; Weisburd and Eck 2004). Community policing strategies that entail direct involvement of citizens and police—such as police community stations, citizen contract patrol, and coordinated community policing—have been found to reduce fear of crime among residents and decrease individual concern about crime in neighborhoods (Brown and Wycoff 1987; Pate and Skogan 1985; Wycoff and Skogan 1986).

In contrast to the methodologically rigorous evaluation research on the crime control efficacy of hot spots policing (Braga and Weisburd 2010), the research evidence on community perceptions of appropriate police behavior, procedural fairness and police legitimacy, and related topics presented here is still developing and, as such, not as scientifically strong. However, few observers of American policing would disagree with the statement that police-minority relations remain stressed by ongoing issues involving unwarranted stops, verbal abuse, brutality, and police corruption. As such, we feel that it is important to develop a normative dimension to our discussion of hot spots policing practices. Overly aggressive and indiscriminating police crackdowns tend to produce some undesirable effects, such as increased resentment and fear of police, in targeted hot spot areas. The potential for negative effects needs to be drawn into our broader analysis of hot spots policing initiatives precisely because community reactions to police practices have normative significance to wider society. Indeed, the National Research Council’s Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices concluded that police practices need to be evaluated in terms of their impact on the legitimacy of the police as well as their crime control effectiveness (Skogan and Frydl 2004).

photo of police officer talking with a community residentLegitimacy is linked to the ability of the police to prevent crime and keep neighborhoods safe. If the public’s trust and confidence in the police is undermined, the ability of the police to prevent crime will be weakened by lawsuits, declining willingness to obey the law, and withdrawal from existing partnerships (Tyler 1990, 2004). The political fallout from illegitimate police actions can seriously impede the ability of police departments to engage innovative crime control tactics. While residents in neighborhoods suffering from high levels of crime often demand higher levels of enforcement, they still want the police to be respectful and lawful in their crime control efforts (Skogan and Meares 2004; Tyler 2004). Residents don’t want family members, friends, and neighbors to be targeted unfairly by enforcement efforts or treated poorly by overaggressive police officers. It is, however, important to recognize that legitimate policing is not limited to the fair and respectful treatment of “good” community members.

Studies of personal encounters with the police consistently document that post-experience feelings are determined by the fairness in which the problem was handled (Tyler 2001). The Committee to Review Police Policy and Practices identifies four dimensions of fairness in police–citizen interactions (Skogan and Frydl 2004). First, the citizens need to have meaningful participation in interactions. Importantly, citizens must have the ability to explain situations and communicate with the police. Second, citizens need to feel that the police officers are neutral in their assessments of situations by using objective indicators to make decisions rather than personal views. Third, citizens must feel that they are being treated with respect and dignity by the police during interactions. Fourth, police officers need to inspire trust in the citizenry. If people believe authorities care about their well-being and are considerate of their needs and concerns, they view procedures as fairer. Police can encourage the public to view them as trustworthy by explaining their decisions and accounting for their conduct.

Regardless of the specific approach employed or tactics engaged, hot spots policing will generate an increased amount of police-citizen contacts in very small areas. Police behavior in these areas will greatly influence the amount of support and involvement from the affected community members. To maximize their ability to manage crime problems in these places, police managers should strive to ensure fair police-citizen interactions and the development of strong partnerships with community members. While the work is difficult, long-term community engagement efforts can pay large dividends in improving the quality of police-community relationships and collaborative crime prevention efforts.

The concentration of crime at specific hot spot locations within neighborhoods provides an important opportunity for police to make connections with those citizens who are most vulnerable to victimization and experience fear and diminished quality of life. Regrettably, these community members are often the same people who view the police with suspicion and question the legitimacy of police efforts to control crime in their neighborhoods. In this sense, residents and business owners in high-activity crime places represent “hot spots” of community dissatisfaction with and mistrust of the police. If police departments are concerned with improving their relationships with community members, these residents and business owners seem like a logical place to start. Like crime, poor police-community relationships are not evenly spread throughout city environments. If the police can win the hearts and minds of long suffering community members in hot spot areas, it seems likely this will produce larger impacts on the overall legitimacy of police departments in the city than developing stronger relationships with community members in more stable neighborhoods who are more likely to already have generally positive perceptions of police services.

photo of cop car in hot spotThe potential impact of police crime prevention efforts in problem places on citizen perceptions of legitimacy may depend in good part on the types of strategies used and the context of the hot spots affected. Unfocused and indiscriminate enforcement actions will likely produce poor relationships between the police and community members residing in hot spot areas. We believe that the police should adopt alternative approaches to controlling hot spots that do not rely solely on one-dimensional intensive enforcement. Of course, arresting criminal offenders is a central part of the police function and should remain an important tool in an array of responses to crime hot spots. Our reading of the available research evidence suggests situational problem-oriented policing actions that engage community members and alleviate disorderly conditions can generate both crime prevention gains and positive citizen perceptions of the police. Hot spots policing programs infused with community and problem-oriented policing principles hold great promise in improving police legitimacy in the eyes of community members living in places suffering from crime and disorder problems.

David L. Weisburd is the Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at Hebrew University Law School and Distinguished Professor in the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University.

Anthony A. Braga is the Don M. Gottfredson Professor of Evidence-Based Criminology in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University and Senior Research Fellow in the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard University.


Braga, A.A., and D.L. Weisburd. 2010. Policing Problem Places: Crime Hot Spots and Effective Prevention. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brown, L., and M. Wycoff. 1987. “Policing Houston: Reducing Fear and Improving Service.” Crime and Delinquency 33:71–89.

Pate, A., and W. Skogan. 1985. Coordinated Community Policing: The Newark Experience. Technical Report. Washington, DC: Police Foundation.

Skogan, W., and K. Frydl, eds. 2004. Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence. Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices. Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Skogan, W., and T. Meares. 2004. “Lawful Policing.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 593:66–83.

Tyler, T.R. 1990. Why People Obey the Law: Procedural Justice, Legitimacy, and Compliance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Tyler, T.R. 2001. “Public Trust and Confidence in Legal Authorities: What Do Majority and Minority Groups Members Want from the Law and Legal Institutions?” Behavioral Sciences and the Law 19:215–235.

Tyler, T.R. 2004. “Enhancing Police Legitimacy.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 593:84–99.

Weisburd, D.L., and J. Eck. 2004. “What Can Police Do to Reduce Crime, Disorder, and Fear?” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 593:42–65.

Wycoff, M., and W. Skogan. 1986. Storefront Police Offices: The Houston Field Test. In Community Crime Prevention: Does It Work? ed. D. Rosenbaum. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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Fairness as a Crime Prevention Tool | The Importance of Legitimacy in Hot Spots Policing | The Importance of Procedural Justice | Procedural Justice: High Expectations | Policing and Perceptions of Fairness