Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

The Good Cop: Knowing the Difference between Lawful or Effective Policing and Rightful Policing - and Why It Matters

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

The Good Cop: Knowing the Difference between Lawful or Effective Policing and Rightful Policing - and Why It Matters

Article excerpt


There are two dominant ways to evaluate the police. The first is whether their conduct comports with the law. The second approach assesses whether they are effective crime fighters. (1) The legal domain is the province of lawyers and law professors. Their briefs and scholarly writings depend usually on interpretations of constitutional law and assessments of police conduct with reference to that law. Sometimes other bodies of law, such as police agency administrative regulations, civil lawsuits, or the very law that authorizes police to act in the first place--substantive criminal law--are the subject. But the assumption no matter the body of law is that more lawfulness is the ideal goal. Effectiveness at crime fighting has become the other police evaluation metric. This yardstick is of newer vintage than lawfulness, and those who wield it are primarily social scientists--criminologists and economists --who attempt to find causal connections between various police practices and crime statistics. The theoretical model these social scientists employ typically assumes that offenders are rational actors who are persuaded to desist from criminal behavior when the prospect of formal punishment outweighs the benefits of criminal behavior.

This Essay will present a third view called "rightful policing." Rightful policing attempts to account for what people say that they care about when assessing police agent behavior specifically and police agencies in general. It is different from lawful policing and efficient policing in at least two ways. First, rightful policing does not depend on the actual lawfulness of police conduct. Instead, rightful policing depends primarily on the procedural justice or fairness of police conduct. Second, rightful policing does not depend on an assessment of police as ever more effective crime fighters, although it turns out that rightful policing often leads to more compliance with the law and therefore lower crime rates. Additionally, and critically, it is likely this third way helps us move toward police governance that is substantially, as opposed to rhetorically, democratic.

My Essay will proceed in four parts. First, I will lay out the two often-used metrics of police evaluation, lawfulness and crime-fighting effectiveness. Next, I will explain the theoretical foundation underlying the third way, which is what I am calling rightful policing. In the third Section, I will present an overview of empirical work that I have done in collaboration with my colleague, Tom Tyler, and others. This work demonstrates that ordinary people care a great deal about the theoretical precepts underlying rightful policing. In the Essay's last Section, I will conclude with some implications of both the theory and the empirical results for governing police in a way that is meaningfully democratic. In short, I will sketch out what it could mean to produce the Good Cop.


I begin with Weber, who famously said the state is the entity that "upholds a claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order." (2) Law, then, is what legitimizes Weberian policing. That law authorizes, circumscribes, and shapes police activity is what distinguishes police from vigilantes. According to this view, evaluating policing with reference to its lawfulness is one of the most important aspects of democratic society. (3)

Law suffuses policing. As Rachel Harmon of the University of Virginia has pointed out recently, the laws that regulate police conduct vary from international treaties to federal statutory and constitutional law to state constitutions, statutes, and regulations. (4) There are local ordinances and internal department administrative regulations, too. And these bodies of law do not even encompass those rules providing for police qualification and training, those pertaining to police management and organization, and laws regarding access to information about the police. …

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