"If we aren't viewed as legitimate…we aren't going to be effective," Says Police Chief


Mike Davis
Northeastern University

Before Ferguson erupted into violent protest against the police shooting of an unarmed man, Mike Davis (pictured), then Police Chief for Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, told a survey of law enforcement professionals:

I think that the work we've done over the past 30 years has been good, but some of the things we've done have only resulted in ephemeral changes. Many of our historically challenged neighborhoods are still structurally distressed. In our inner cities—in Camden, Philadelphia, Minneapolis—look at who is being killed. It's young black males—the same people that most often view the police as illegitimate.

Davis concluded, "If we aren't viewed as legitimate in these communities, we aren't going to be effective."

The comments by the former chief (now the director of Public Safety at Northeastern University) were published in June of this year in a roundup of professional opinion on Future Trends in Policing compiled by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).

The rest of the publication is mostly devoted to gee-whiz technology, evolving approaches to management issues, and some strategic innovations including greater use of intelligence and "predictive policing" (future crime, anybody?). There's even some worry about how courts will interpret the civil liberties consequences of sticking cameras hither and yon.

But, in a short section that mostly quoted him, Chief Davis voiced concern about legitimacy within the community. The conclusion mentioned that he wasn't the only law enforcement professional to raise the issue.

In the last few years, police chiefs have been discussing the ideas of "legitimacy" and "procedural justice" in policing. These concepts have to do with the judgments that members of the public make about their local police, and whether citizens believe they are being treated fairly and respectfully by the police. Legitimacy and procedural justice sometimes are seen as a new, high-powered version of community policing.

The Justice Department's COPS has already raised concerns about militarized policing and police encounters with dogs. Specifically, an analyst for COPS fretted that garbing police in camouflage and allowing them to act as occupation troops is ruining relations between law enforcement and the people they supposedly serve. COPS also put together guidance urging police officers to find means other than bullets for dealing with family pets.

So some law enforcement professionals were aware of problems even before Ferguson. Maybe recent events will spread the wisdom—and lead to an attempt to rebuild legitimacy.