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Kearns -

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American Journal of Criminal Justice



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Scholarly debate on how best to conceptualize legitimacy and trust in police has generally assumed these conceptualizations are stable across demographics. Recent evidence, however, suggests that this may not be the case. We examine how the public conceptualizes legitimacy and trust in police, how public conceptualizations relate to academic debate on these terms, and how public views differ between and within racial groups. This work is exploratory, though it is rooted in differences found in theoretically driven empirical work on the subject. Data are from online, national samples of White (N = 650), Black (N = 624), and Hispanic (N = 626) adults in the United States that are approximately representative of each racial group on key demographics. We asked participants to define legitimacy and trust and to indicate whether or not they view the terms as synonymous. We found numerous between-race and within-race differences in citizen-driven conceptualizations of legitimacy and trust. Results suggest that legitimacy and trust mean different things to different groups of people. Additionally, results show that public definitions of legitimacy and trust align with some academic conceptualizations but not others. We expect this research to inform the academic literature on defining legitimacy and trust.


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