How do police develop self-legitimacy? A mixed-methods study of recruits in England

Mr Michael Bryden1,2

1University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Ultimo, Australia


With the international drive towards legitimate policing, Bottoms and Tankebe (2012) point out that the literature has largely ignored the police’s perception of their own legitimacy. They argue that legitimate authority is a perpetual dialogue between power-holders and their audiences (e.g., the public). Since then, a range of studies have explored the relationship between police self-legitimacy and police attitudes. For instance, police fears of appearing racist have been linked to lower self-legitimacy and greater support for coercive policing (McCarthy et al., 2021).

This paper extends the literature by exploring how recruits in a large English police service develop attitudes towards their authority. This cohort study uses a combination of interviews, surveys, and semi-ethnographic data. From the analysis, a few things are clear. First, the recruits hoped to become ethical and effective officers. Second, they argue that use of force powers are necessary, but that they should be constrained and used predominantly to protect life. Third, they view public cooperation as integral to their role, with one recruit referring to them as the ‘first responders’. Finally, they largely view crime as a product of tragic circumstances. In addition, the longitudinal survey data will provide important information about the effects of training on self-legitimacy, police attitudes (e.g., towards the public), and reported behaviour. This data may be useful for developing evidence-based training that improves self-legitimacy.


Michael Bryden is a Criminology PhD candidate at the Cambridge Institute of Criminology and a Research Associate at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, University of Technology Sydney. His research explores police legitimacy, recruit training, harm reduction, and Indigenous self-determination. He also hosts the Rethinking Deviance podcast. Michael holds a BA (Hons) in Criminology and Politics from Monash University and a MPhil in Criminology Research from the University of Cambridge.