Is Police Authority Legitimate?

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Michael Brown

On August 9, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The city erupted in protest after hearing several witnesses who claimed Michael Brown had raised his hands in the air in submission before being gunned down. On November 24, 2014 Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that a grand jury had decided not to indict Officer Wilson. Just nine days later, a grand jury in New York acquitted Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, whom he had wrestled to the ground with an apparent chokehold. In both cases, the police officer was white while the victim was black. These and other cases have caused many in the African American community to distrust law enforcement and question their basic authority.

Origins of Authority

Real authority requires two ingredients: power and legitimacy. At its most basic form, power is the ability to enforce one’s will on another, while legitimacy is the right to exercise power. Where does power come from? In a landmark 1959 study, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven divided power into five distinct forms: Coercive Power, Reward Power, Legitimate Power, Referent Power and Expert Power. Raven later added a sixth: Informational Power.

Coercive Power – Coercive power uses the threat of force to ensure compliance. It is not legitimate because the ruled does not agree to be ruled. The mafia relied on coercive power to force protection money from local businesses.

Reward Power – Reward power results from the ability to give or refuse a tangible reward. A parent can reward a child with $20 for good grades while she can also take away the child’s cell phone for misbehaving. Rewards can be physical, social, emotional or spiritual.

Legitimate Power – Legitimate power is derived from bureaucracy, which elects, selects or appoints an individual to a position of power. The individual is given a certain amount of power to accomplish a specific task but there are limits to how and when that power may be used. A US Senator is elected for a six-year term and during that time may vote to pass or reject federal legislation.

Referent Power – Referent power comes by way of association with a powerful individual or group. A respected Republican Congressman might carry significant power at the Republican National Convention, although that same individual might have little to no power at the Democratic National Convention.

Expert Power – Expert power is a result of knowledge, expertise or special skills in a particular field. Peyton Manning, the celebrated Denver Broncos quarterback, could walk on to the field of any high school football practice in the country and exert a level of power over the players and coaches.

Informational Power – Informational power occurs by controlling access to valuable information. In the digital age, this type of power is increasingly more prominent. Edward Snowden held incredible informational power before he leaked the classified government documents to wikileaks. Informational power disappears after the information has been divulged.

Given authority requires both power and legitimacy, what makes the use of power legitimate? The first step is both the ruler and the ruled must agree that the use of power is legitimate. Max Weber, the noted German sociologist, discovered that legitimacy comes in three forms: legal, traditional and charismatic.

Legal Authority – Legal authority is derived from rules and bureaucracy. Citizens give up some personal freedom to a governing body in exchange for benefits like safety and infrastructure that are more difficult to attain individually. As part of this social contract, citizens recognize the authority of the ruler and the ruler’s agents.

Traditional Authority – Traditional authority is legitimate because it “has always existed.” Feudalism is a good example of traditional authority as is the traditional notion that the man is the head of the household.

Charismatic Authority – Charismatic authority comes from “supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities,” also known as charisma, which separate one individual from the masses.

The Authority of Police

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.”

The Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides the foundation for police power, while State laws provide the legal authority for law enforcement. These laws confer legitimate and reward power on the police. I don’t believe many in the African American community object to the presence of law enforcement, but to the perceived abuse of the powers granted to them.

The Way Forward

For a potential solution, we turn to an unlikely place… Camden, NJ. I’ve previously written how Camden was the most dangerous city in the country, but since it restructured its police force in 2012, murders have dropped by 49%. The key to this turnaround has been a return to old-style policing in which officers patrol the streets on foot and actually get to know residents by name. Through personal interaction, trust is built on both sides.

Law enforcement no doubt has a very difficult job on its hands, but some precincts should move away from a culture of power hungry autocratic rule toward more humane enforcement. As in the case of Camden, such a shift would likely ease the growing levels of distrust.

Photo Credit:  Lemuel Chanyungco

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