What’s Next for Policing?


In a recent scholarly monograph, Tom Tyler and Caroline Nobo of The Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School propose legitimacy-based policing as a new model to combat crime and build trust between police and the communities they serve. In Legitimacy-Based Policing and the Promotion of Community Vitality (Cambridge University Press, 2022), Tyler and Nobo demonstrate how police can move beyond the “coercive model of crime control” that has predominated in the United States for decades.

Tom Tyler
Tom R. Tyler

The authors begin by critiquing the national landscape of law enforcement. They note that crime rates across the country have fallen drastically since the 1980s, bringing the coercive model’s dependence upon force into scrutiny. The authors trace how the policies followed by police often presume coercion to be necessary, even though a tiny fraction of the calls made to police reasonably warrant it. Nobo and Tyler find that the coercive model “inevitably leads to the excessive use of force,” because it wrongly assumes that reducing crime requires the exercise or threat of force.

The monograph contends that legitimacy, rather than use of force, determines whether members of a given community will comply and cooperate with police. Drawing upon earlier work done by Tyler, a leading scholar at the intersection of law and social psychology, the authors employ legitimacy as a theoretical lens to understand individual relationships to authority. Reviewing the scholarly literature, Tyler and Nobo explain that people “authorize” authorities they believe to be legitimate.

Caroline Nobo
Caroline Nobo

Citing empirical scholarship, the authors show that legitimacy-based policing counters crime at least as effectively as coercive and carceral approaches to policing. Furthermore, Tyler and Nobo present evidence that procedural justice builds trust with Black communities that have long been policed discriminatorily.

The authors argue that legitimacy confers another significant benefit: fostering economic development and communal vitality. “The reality of policing is that the police provide a variety of social services,” they observe. If structures of authority are to meet the needs of communities, Tyler and Nobo conclude, policing must seek legitimacy from those it purports to serve.

The text aims to give policing a new and transformative premise. “Our goal is to avoid being caught up in the politics of the moment,” the authors write. They introduce legitimacy-based policing as “a new theoretical framework that, if adopted, means that the totality of the system can be reimagined.”

Tyler is the Macklin Fleming Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology, as well as a Founding Director of The Justice Collaboratory. Nobo serves as Executive Director of The Justice Collaboratory and is a Research Scholar in Law. The monograph is published through Cambridge University Press’ Elements in Criminology series.

The monograph is available through Cambridge Core, an open-access platform.