Research Output

Police legitimacy in context: an exploration of “soft” power in police custody in England

  For the most part, the procedural justice model has been found to generalise across different social groups and social contexts in the Anglo-American world (e.g. Jackson et al. 2013: 17). However, police custody is qualitatively different from other police settings as a result of the deprivations of liberty, autonomy and certainty that detainees’ experience making it, in some respects, more similar to prison than other police settings. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to examine how police authority is used and understood in police custody, examining how these meanings are shaped by the context of police detention. To explore these matters the paper draws on 532 hours of observation and 97 interviews (47 with staff and 50 with detainees) in four police custody suites in England, which were part of a broader study of ‘good’ police custody. One way that staff used their authority in these suites was softly and innocuously; this entailed for example staff communicating in a respectful manner with detainees, such as by being deliberately polite. We conclude that this ‘soft’ power was a dynamic, processual matter, shaped in particular by the physical conditions of the suite, the uncertain and insecure nature of detainees’ circumstances, as well as by the sense of disempowerment they felt as a result of being deprived of their liberty and autonomy. This suggests that police custody may be the ultimate ‘teachable moment’, meaning that interactions in the suite may be particularly potent in shaping citizens’ understandings of their relationship with the police.

  • Type:


  • Date:

    31 July 2017

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  • DOI:


  • Cross Ref:


  • ISSN:


  • Library of Congress:

    K Law

  • Dewey Decimal Classification:

    364 Criminology

  • Funders:

    Economic and Social Research Council


Skinns, L., Rice, L., Sprawson, A., & Wooff, A. (2017). Police legitimacy in context: an exploration of “soft” power in police custody in England. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 40(3), 601-613.



Legitimacy, coercion, power, uncertainty,

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