'Virtual policing’, trust and legitimacy

Ben Bradford, Elizabeth Aston , Megan O'Neill, Helen Wells

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


Increasing technological mediation of police-public contact is a significant trend in UK policing. Members of the public are increasingly likely to encounter policing in ways that are, one way or another, technologically mediated, and are very often ‘virtual’. Forces are increasingly using on-line tools – including chatbots – for crime reporting and other reasons, and social media to contact communities, while physical technologies such as body-worn cameras and drones are being inserted into human interactions between officers, victims, suspects and others. This may have significant, and thus far largely un-explored, implications for public trust and police legitimacy. We know that a sense of procedural justice is an important antecedent of trust and legitimacy; procedural justice, in turn, is generated and reproduced during the encounters people have with the police. But what happens when a significant number of those encounters occur online, when new technologies are inserted into encounters, or when people contacting police do not deal with a human actor at all? At the core of procedural justice theory lies the idea that people attend closely to the quality of interactions with authority figures such as police, and an unexplored assumption is that police-public contact is face-to-face, or at the very least is between two humans; but this is now a feature of only a sub-set of such interactions. In this chapter we consider some possible implications of the move towards technologically-mediated and, more specifically, virtual policing. Drawing on the concept of the ‘abstract police’, and existing literature and theory, we consider whether procedural justice might ‘work’ in the same way when police-public interaction is mediated by technology, and the possible implications for trust and legitimacy of policing that is increasingly delivered remotely and/or virtually. Such questions are of fundamental importance to understanding whether new forms of contact, and the police actions they herald, will be viewed as legitimate.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Abstract Police. Critical Reflections on contemporary change in police organizations
EditorsJan Terpstra, Renze Salet, Nicholas Fyfe
PublisherEleven International Publishing
Number of pages27
ISBN (Print)9789462362642
Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2022


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