Trust and legitimacy in police and criminal justice – a brief overview of selected research after 2010

Abstract: A paper presents a literature review on trust in police and police legitimacy in Europe. Trust and legitimacy in police and criminal justice have been quite researched topics recently – in the times of the economic crisis in Europe. Stratification, diversification and differentiation and marginalisation of some social groups of the present society leads to new challenges in policing and dealing with suspects, victims and other people involved in police procedures.

Trust and legitimacy of police and policing

Jackson (2010) argues that trust refers to public beliefs about the trustworthiness of the authorities (usually police and courts) to act effectively and fairly. Furthermore, Jackson (2010: 1) emphasizes that ‘subjective legitimacy’ presents the belief of people that police and courts possess the right to govern and dictate appropriate behaviour.’’  In the case of trust of the police, we talk about public beliefs concerning trustworthiness of the police to act in specific ways in specific situations: ‘‘to trust in the police is to believe that police officers have the appropriate motives and intentions to be technically competent and to carry out their fiduciary obligations’’ (Jackson, 2010: 6).

Discussions on legitimacy and compliance with the law, procedural justice theories emphasize different, rather specific, relationships between the following subjects (Hough, Jackson, Bradford, Myhill and Quinton, 2010: 204):

  • ‘‘the treatment people receive at the hand of the police and justice officials;
  • the resultant trust that people have in institutions of justice;
  • the legitimacy people confer, as a consequence of this trust, on institutions of justice;
  • the authority that these institutions can then command when they are regarded as legitimate;
  • people’s consequent preparedness to obey the police, comply with the law, and cooperate with justice.’’

Jackson (2010) feels that legitimacy is more than merely an excuse for power. Legitimacy is also the justification of power, known also as ‘moral alignment’ between individuals and the criminal justice system they use. For this reason when considering legitimacy, researchers have to pay regard to a normative, ideological or moral element of legitimacy. Besides, the fact that legitimacy is based on an expression of commonly shared values should not be ignored; therefore Jackson (2010) based his framework of the legitimacy on the cognition that ‘‘individual confers legitimacy on the justice system when that individual feels: a) an obligation to obey the authority; b) that the authority expresses shared morals; and c) that the justice system follows its own internal rules’’ (Jackson, 2010: 10-11).

Jackson and Bradford (2010: 1) argue that the legitimacy of the police is one of the crucial conditions for justifiable use of state power, whereby legitimacy represents the foundation of police authority (Tyler, 2006). What is more, public compliance with the law and obeying legal authorities can be crucial for the maintaining of social order in general. Jackson and Bradford (2010: 1-2) emphasize three important aspects of legitimacy in policing:

  1. legitimacy is seen as important key in securing public feelings of obligation and responsibility toward the law;
  2. legitimacy is perceived as granted by the public (and by the political system) to specific spheres of police action and power;
  3. legitimacy inside the police organisation has an important influence on officer behaviour and police culture. Jackson and Bradford (2010: 4) stress that the above described elements of police legitimacy are interconnected and all three have to co-exist when establishing the legitimacy of the relationship between police and public.

Jackson and Bradford (2010) go even further in their discussion about legitimacy – described as ”public perception of police conformity to a set of rules, of public perceptions of the justifiability of those rules, and the expressed consent of the public” (Jackson and Bradford, 2010: 5) – and divide legitimacy into: 1) high-level legitimacy (i.e. originates from a so called deep connection between individuals and the legal or social control systems round them), and 2) low-level legitimacy (i.e. operates almost immediately at an everyday level, such as police official procedures). Based upon the above classification of legitimacy, Jackson and Bradford (2010: 6) describe police legitimacy as a dynamic process, originating from deeply entrenched structures of power, but being experienced and tested through daily experiences. 

Police and criminal courts carry out different important functions in society. Jackson, Hough, Bradford, Pooler, Hohl and Kuha (2011: 3-4) emphasize that ”citizens, ‘outsource’ deterrence and justice functions to these institutions, and in return expect them to be fair, impartial, efficient and effective.” It can be summarized that trust in justice is the  ”belief that the police and criminal courts can be relied upon to act competently, to wield their authority in ways that are procedurally fair, and to provide equal justice and protection across society.” (Jackson et al., 2011: 4). At the end of 2010, The European Social Survey conducted a survey in 28 European countries, which included 45 questions about justice and trust in it. In November 2011, from this basis a comparative data set for 20 European countries was selected by Jackson et al (2011) and approximately 39,000 face-to-face interviews were completed across the selected 20 countries.

In the case of contact with the police, results show that personal contact with police officers is a key predictor of people’s trust judgements, where significant variation in the proportion experiencing a police-initiated contact was detected across the 20 countries. In Finland, people reported the highest rates of police-initiated contact and in Bulgaria the lowest. Respondents were asked to evaluate their contact(s) with the police, and the results show that Israelis, Russians and Hungarians were least satisfied, while people in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Belgium were most satisfied. The Authors conclude that there is no necessary connection between the number of the contacts people have with the police and levels of satisfaction with the police. For example, Sweden and Finland have high rates of contact and high levels of satisfaction; while in Switzerland a high level of contact but a lower level of satisfaction is observed (Jackson et al., 2011: 4-5).

In the survey trust in police, trust was studied from three perspectives: 1) trust in police compliance; 2) trust in police procedural fairness; and 3) trust in police distributive fairness. Results show that opinions of the procedural fairness of the police vary widely across Europe. Those in Israel, the Russian Federation and Bulgaria have the most negative opinions about the way that the police treat people, while people in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Spain have the most positive opinions. Furthermore, people least trust the police in Russia, Israel, Bulgaria, Portugal and Poland (Jackson et al., 2011: 5).

The final part focused on perceived legitimacy of justice systems, and was divided to three dimensions: 1) obligation to obey the police; 2) moral alignment with the police; and 3) perceptions of the legality of the police. The findings suggest that ”countries with a relatively strong sense that the police share a common moral framework with its people also tend to have a populace who feel a relatively strong duty to obey police directives.” (Jackson et al., 2011: 7). For example, in Israel, Hungary and the Czech Republic, people reported relatively low levels of moral alignment but higher levels of obligation. Views about the probity of the police and courts are similar within the countries. Comparison between the countries show that public perceptions of corruption in the criminal justice system is low in Scandinavian and Northern European countries, but much higher in ex-Communist countries (Jackson et al., 2011: 7-8).

Jackson et al (2011: 8) concluded that people in the Nordic countries report the highest levels of trust in their police and courts and believe that their institutions are legitimate holders of power and authority. On the contrary, citizens in the Eastern and sometimes in the Southern European countries report lower level of trust of authorities.

Based on results of the European Social Survey on Trust and Justice, Jackson et al (2011: 8, 10) concluded that trust and legitimacy have a multi-dimensional nature. They assume that trust is revealed by public assessments of the trustworthiness of institutions along three dimensions: effectiveness, procedural fairness, and distributive fairness. Likewise, legitimacy is revealed by people’s consent to power and their sense of the normative justifiability of power. 

Police are powerfully linked to the law, therefore their unfairness ”undermines people’s sense that the law defines appropriate behaviour” (Jackson, Bradford, Hough, Myhill, Quinton and Tyler: 2012: 1062). Police abuse of power and wielding their authority in unfair ways can negatively affect a person’s sense of obligation to obey authority (i.e. police) directives and as stressed by Hough, Jackson, Myhill and Quinton (2010) to people’s perception of ”moral authority and therefore the moral right of the law to dictate appropriate behaviour.” Such behaviour on the part of the police or other authorities, breaking generally accepted social norms, can generate powerful cynicism, justified with the well-known saying: ‘if the police can behave however they please, and ignore the rules, so can I.’ On the other hand, if police perform their authority via fair procedures, they influence the sense of normative commitment to the police and enhance compliance with the law (Jackson et al., 2012: 1063).

A recent book on trust and legitimacy (Meško and Tankebe, 2015) explores even further and presents trust and legitimacy perspectives in regard to the needs for the improvement of criminal justice professionalism.

Research on trust and legitimacy in Central and Eastern Europe

Reisig, Tankebe, and Meško (2013) studied procedural justice, police legitimacy and public cooperation with the police among young adults in in Ljubljana and Maribor in Slovenia. The authors found out that trust in the police (i.e. fair and just interpersonal treatment by police) is a significant factor influencing the process of the youth’s cooperation with the police. Finally, the study revealed that police legitimacy is not invariant across different forms of cooperation (Reisig, Tankebe, and Meško, 2013: 160). Reisig, Tankebe, and Meško (2013: 161) conclude that ”in dealing with crime the police can rely more on area residents if they cultivate legitimacy by exercising their authority in a fair and just fashion.”

A recent special issue of the Journal of Criminal Justice and Security (Meško, McGarrell, Ažman and Eman, 2014) presents finding from studies on trust in police and police legitimacy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Macedonia (FYROM), Poland, Slovenia and USA presents findings from national surveys (except the USA) on young adults (law students) and their perception of police and criminal justice institutions. The results of the studies in South-Eastern Europe support the majority of Jackson et al findings regarding the importance of trust, legitimacy, procedural fairness, legal compliance and other factors related to trust and legitimacy. 


Trust in police and legitimacy of criminal justice are very important issues of formal social control, especially in the times of the econimic crisis. Austerity measures in public sector, including the police and criminal justice insittutions, have a significant impact on the quality and quantity of formal social control.  Recent economic challenges present a real test of legitimacy not only the police and criminal justice but also the entire political arena in Europe and especially countries facing serious economic problems which require more discipline in all spheres of social life and ruling in a contemporary society.

To draw a tentative conclusion, the police should strive to improve their authority and increase procedural justice, especially their interactions with the public generally and with vulnerable social groups. In addition, police effectiveness should also be improved, but not only by presentation of police statistical data but with successful convictions of criminals and professional treatment of victims. In a wider perspective – a debate on legitimacy and trust in the powerful also have a political connotation because the police are an extended arm of the state. In this regard Ponsaers (2015) questions the police legitimacy as the only property of the police but implies that the police legitimacy is in fact legitimacy of the powerful, the government and governance as the police are the most visible representatives of the state power.


  1. Hough, M., Jackson, J. Bradford, B., Myhill, A., and Quinton, P. (2010). Procedural Justice, Trust, and Institutional Legitimacy. Policing, 4(3), 203–210.
  2. Jackson, J. (2010). Trust in justice and the legitimacy of legal authorities: Pilot data from a comparative European analysis. Retrieved from:
  3. Jackson, J. and Bradford, B. (2010). Police legitimacy: A conceptual review. National Policing Improvement Agency. Retrieved from  
  4. Jackson, J., Bradford, B., Hough, M., Myhill, A., Quinton, P., and Tyler, T. R. (2012). Why do People Comply with the Law? Legitimacy and the Influence of Legal Institutions. British Journal of Criminology, 52, 1051–1071.
  5. Jackson, J., Hough, M., Bradford, B., Pooler, T., Hohl, K., and Kuha, J., (2011). Trust in Justice: Topline Results from Round 5 of the European Social Survey.European Social Survey. Retrieved from:
  6. Meško, G., and Tankebe, J. eds. (2015). Trust and Legitimacy in Criminal Justice – European Perspectives. NY: Springer. 
  7. Meško, G., Mcgarrell, E., Ažman, B., Eman, K. (2014). Editorial: Trust and Legitimacy in Policing and Criminal Justice. Journal of Criminal Justice and Security4(16), 383-384.
  8. Ponsaers, P. (2015). Is Legitimacy Police Property?,  In Meško, G. and Tankebe, J (eds.), Trust and Legitimacy in Criminal Justice – European Perspectives (pp. ), NY. Springer. 
  9. Reisig, M. D., Tankebe, J. and Meško, G. (2012). Procedural Justice, Police Legitimacy, and Public Cooperation with the Police Among Young Slovene Adults. Journal of Criminal Justice and Security, 14(2), 147–164.

Gorazd Meško