Legitimacy is closely related to trust: The police must be seen as legitimate in order to be trusted, and the extent to which a police organization is trusted is often seen to be an indicator of its legitimacy among the community.  However, the two are not always coexistent – a public may regard its police as legitimate without trusting it. It is useful to consider two types of legitimacy: normative legitimacy and empirical legitimacy.


Normative legitimacy: When authorities act in accordance with formal law in a democratic society, for example in situations where the police is free of corruption.


Empirical legitimacy: When authorities are perceived to be legitimate, even when they do not comply with certain criteria, or operate in accordance with the formal law. This type of legitimacy is subjective and based upon public perception.


In police-community relations, it is useful to understand policy legitimacy from the viewpoint of citizens, looking at citizens’ perceptions of fairness in policing and the impact this has on citizens’ willingness to cooperate with the police.

In post-conflict settings, non-state institutions may be granted more legitimacy than the police. These institutions may be based upon local traditions or customs, where people view traditional or customary authorities as legitimate, either out of habit or precedent.  The legitimacy of these institutions often arises from a shared perception that their members have the knowledge, ability, or moral capacity necessary to fulfill the institution’s tasks and responsibilities – see here for more information.

Examples of non-state institutions with high levels of legitimacy among the local populations can be seen in the indigenous cantones of Guatemala and the jirgas of Pakistan. You may learn more about these institutions from the following digital stories:

The Role of Indigenous Institutions in Guatemala (Guatemala)

Narrated by Arturo Matute

Dispute Resolution Councils in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (Pakistan)

Narrated by Shakir Ullah

Legitimacy may also stem from other factors related to specific local moralities or sympathies for a specific struggle or cause, as is the case of resistance movement or Jihadist groups. Finally, legitimacy may be granted upon territorial control, resource control, or the ability or willingness to use violence. Initiatives that promote COP, and police reform programs more in general, must take these local conditions into consideration. For more, read here.