How do civil actions against the police and police complaints interact and what does this interaction reveal about police legitimacy?

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


The motivating concern of this thesis is the development of what Reiner has referred to as a ‘necessary evil discourse’ in relation to policing. Allegations of assault, false imprisonment or malicious prosecution by the police can be addressed via the civil legal process or by bringing a formal complaint. This thesis explores what the interaction between these two processes reveals about how police legitimacy is conceived. It delineates two ideal types of police legitimacy, organisational and constitutional, aligning the former with the police complaints process and the latter with the process of bringing civil claims against the police (police actions). The overarching analytical frame is formed by further alignments: one between constitutional legitimacy and Habermas’s conception of legitimacy as vesting in the structures in place to secure a “culturally established background consensus shared by the citizenry” and a second between organisational legitimacy and legitimation of the administration by processes of thick proceduralization as envisaged by Black. The thesis traces the legitimating features of the police from the original office of constable to the establishment of the new police in the 19th Century and the development of a police organisational identity from the 20th Century onwards. It uses the themes identified in that process in textual analysis of government documents generated during the passage of the Policing and Crime Act 2017 and several judgments concerned with damages in police actions. This analysis is then extended to police actions claims data and interviews with police legal personnel and professional standards officers undertaken as part of this research. The thesis concludes that recent changes to the structures aimed at securing police legitimacy have resulted in a shift towards systemic approaches to police regulation which do indeed facilitate the necessary evil discourse that Reiner fears.
Date of Award25 Jun 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorJudy M Laing (Supervisor) & Joanne A F Conaghan (Supervisor)


  • police complaints, civil actions against the police, police legitimacy

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