In a 2011 New Yorker talk, Malcolm Gladwell described the central role “legitimacy” plays in motivating people. Previously, political theorists had focused on “deterrence theory” that treats people as rational actors who decide whether to follow the law based upon a weighing of the pros and cons of compliance.
Protesting Illegitimate Authority
Gladwell cites NYU Professor Tom Tyler’s work on “legitimacy”, and argues that people will fight to the death and even go on hunger strikes against an authority they feel is illegitimate, despite overwhelming penalties that deterrence theorists assume would be effective.
Gladwell identifies 3 factors in establishing legitimacy:
- Does the authority grant one standing and listen to one’s petitions?
- Is authority administered with neutrality or is there one set of rules for one group and a different system for others?
- Is the system trustworthy — does it follow well-defined rules that are sensible and are not subject to arbitrary change?
How Reform Efforts go Wrong:
Society celebrates civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and police reformers such as Jack Maple, but society often fails to recognize how easily reform can falter if succeeding leaders do not follow in the original spirit.
In this article I originally wanted to also include an evaluation of the role “legitimacy” plays in the right’s perception of the anti-racism movement, but this post is already quite long so this post will focus solely on policing.
In the following post, I summarize a number of sources that suggest that while the policing reforms of the 1980s were innovative and effective, the system mutated into an irrational system of “broken-windows policing” that disproportionately harasses and alienates minorities.
When one asks why do minorities not comply with police, I believe that generally an important factor is American policing’s weak legitimacy.
How Policing Reform turned into “broken windows” policing
There is an excellent 2-part podcast series by Reply-all that chronicles how desperate the crime problem was in New York City in the 1980s and how one policeman rescued the city and transformed policing on a nation-wide basis. Unfortunately his reforms were warped into the system that is today referred to as “broken windows” policing.
Please listen to these two podcasts because they are a major influence on my thinking about broken-windows policing.
The Reply-all podcast reports that in the 1980s, when New York City was in crisis, the New York City police only cared about crime that affected white people or rich people.
Police wouldn’t even investigate a theft that was less than $10,000 ($32,000 in today’s dollars). It was during this crisis that a transit-cop named Jack Maple created an innovative COMSTAT database that allowed police to identify the most prolific criminals and treat every crime seriously.
Leadership cares more about image than problem solving
Making Leadership Look Good at Minorities Expense
Making Broken Windows Race Neutral?
Sandra Bland: Arrested for Resisting Arrest
- The Texas police don’t seem to have have the nerve to include the video immediately before the stop where the police officer sets a trap to use a pretext for pulling her over.
- The police officer never responded to Bland’s request when asked for a reason why he was arresting Bland. He was either too zoned-in in demanding she comply or he knew he couldn’t justify charging her with failure to signal.
- The officer later gave the rationalization that she was arrested for resisting arrest (a catch-22).
How Representative are Video Accounts?
- Standing: Do police give citizens a fair hearing and articulate legitimate reasons that support their actions rather than declaring that they have the authority to order citizens around and force them into compliance?
- Neutrality: Do police conduct themselves in a way that persuades citizens that there is a standard of law that applies equally to the police themselves and to all other people?
- Trustworthiness: Is the law arbitrary or likely to change?
One can argue about whether the intention of broken windows policing is racist, but I would argue that is better to first deal with the fact that American policing (like many other American institutions) has legitimacy problems.
White Americans who have a long history of condoning rebellion should not expect minorities to treat them as meek and polite Canadians would. Rather, White Americans should expect legitimate resistance to contemporary policing philosophy. The challenge is to channel legitimate frustration and anger into productive dialog, reconciliation, and reform.