Proactive Policing and the Principle of Legitimacy

Reactive policing and proactive policing can seem like two opposing perspectives on “how-to-do” law enforcement. They do go together though. Police do a lot of reactive policing; they get called by the public to handle problems.

Whether it’s detectives investigating crimes, traffic cops handling traffic complaints, or patrol officers responding to burglar alarms, reactive policing is what most officers do during their shift. Then, there is proactive policing. But really, what is proactive policing? And are officers doing it in the most effective way?

It can mean many things. And it depends on where you work, time of day, etc. To many officers it means digging into things looking for crime, doing traffic stops that turn into drug investigations, walking neighborhoods (sneakin’ and peekin’) looking for car trespassers, contacting “suspicious people”. It’s possible to develop a mindset that sees everyone as “up to something” or “acting ‘hinckey’”. 

There can be a problem with that. You may start to see criminal activity in people engaged in everyday, legal actions.

Take an incident in Miami, where an officer detained and handcuffed a doctor who was transferring medical equipment between vehicles to return it to the hospital after conducting roadside COVID-19 tests on homeless people. The officer said he based his actions on the recent illegal dumping that has been going in the neighborhood.

While this could be rationalized as proactive policing, this event did nothing to reduce the issue, and only served to create alienation and distrust between the police and the public. This situation could have easily been prevented if the officer had done one basic thing; observe first.

The doctor was in front of his own house and was putting the medical supplies into a hospital-owned van, not removing them and placing them on the street. Had the officer spent a few moments observing the actions taking place, he could have easily determined no crime was being committed. Then he could have done the other, very positive and essential aspect of proactive policing; building relationships and legitimacy with the public. Instead, he presumed criminal activity, for whatever reason, jumping to an incorrect conclusion. He entered the situation prejudiced, only seeing things from one perspective. And it ended up being wrong.

When police officers only see proactive policing as catching the bad guy, they will naturally see the bad guy everywhere. It is like Pee Wee Herman in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. When his bike got stolen, as he went looking for his bike-sad he didn’t have it-he saw bikes everywhere. His focus became a self-fulfilling prophesy. This happens to officers.

If you are only looking for people doing wrong, suddenly everyone looks like they are doing wrong. Then if you think you have to catch the bad guy red-handed, you jump at thing that aren’t there. Often in these situations, the interaction goes south because the officer hasn’t done something basic, but extremely important. They haven’t built their legitimacy. Sometimes the legitimacy is between the individuals involved, sometimes on an organizational scale.

Establishing legitimacy can go a long way towards effective proactive policing by doing two things. First, it builds a relationship between groups. There is a sense of partnership, not of subjugation. In policing, the citizen feels an equal part of the interaction, not just the subject of some investigation. Even if they are being investigated, they feel they will be listened to, that the interaction will be predictable (if they have done nothing wrong and that is determined, they will go free), and that everyone involved is being held accountable equally. If the officer does something wrong, they will have to account, so the officer will act in an accountable, responsible manner (not violating rights, etc.).

Second, establishing legitimacy will encourage people to be voluntarily compliant with the laws. When officers establish that they hold themselves accountable, adhere to the laws they enforce, engage in interactive communication, and give people equal human value, citizens will see them as equal partners in maintaining the acceptable mores in society. Malcom Gladwell explains what legitimacy problems the use of excessive force can create in his book David and Goliath:

“The excessive use of force leads to legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.”

It would seem to be a paradox that a greater force would not compel people to submit, but just think about the rebels in Star Wars. They stood up against and defeated TWO Death Stars. The seemingly overwhelming force superiority of the Empire did not subjugate the rebel alliance it only served to make them more defiant and determined to not be controlled.

Some police officers believe they must be tougher and have “zero tolerance” with criminals. While this may work to a point, this mindset has a tendency to bleed over into the officer’s general behavior and interactions. As I said before, suddenly everyone is committing a crime or getting ready to commit a crime. So, a doctor who has just finished administering virus tests, is tired, and returning the supplies to the hospital, and wearing his scrubs, is perceived as a criminal dumping trash illegally; in front of his own house.

 Proactive policing can be traffic stops that turn into drug interdiction stops. They can be plain clothed details, hiding in bushes and pouncing on would-be robbers. It can be vice sting operations. But proactive policing can also be building relationships with the community. Talking to people as you walk down the street; not to investigate a crime, but just to say hi.

One way will find crime and bust some criminals. But it may also alienate whole segments and subgroups in the community. And it doesn’t establish your legitimacy to citizens. The second way, building relationships, firmly establishes your legitimacy by establishing your level of self-accountability and integrity. It shows you are also human and place yourself equal to the people you work for, and with. But mostly, it creates a better chance for you to catch more bad guys, as the good guys–who know the bad guys–chose to help you in the maintenance of order in their community.

Your job is a lot easier if the people help you do it. By creating and growing human-centered relationships in your community, you can create a force multiplier with the civilians in your efforts to defend against and reduce the wolf population.