When anger by guns isn’t enough to bring about reform

When she started her work, the general understanding was that South American countries did not reform their police forces during their transition to democracy because there was so much more to do. In that version of the story, police reform wasn’t just a priority.

But when I dig a little deeper, I find that there is already a great deal of public demand for better security and crime control, and often a great deal of anger in communities affected by police violence. The police were not overlooked: they were protected.

The police were politically powerful because they could selectively withdraw their services, allowing crime and anarchy to rise, angering elected officials. They also tend to be well connected and able to apply pressure effectively to protect their own interests. This meant that conflict with the police was costly for politicians, who tended to avoid it, leaving police departments and their practices largely unchanged.

But Gonzalez found that there is a specific set of hard-to-achieve conditions that, if met, will lead to police reform. In short, its formula was: scandal + public unity + credible political opposition = reform.

The sequence began with a scandal or crisis that led public opinion to unite the majority of people in favor of reform, as she wrote in her book, “Authoritarian Police in Democracy.” If there is also a real electoral threat from political opponents demanding reform, it may be enough to convince leaders to act to fend off their competition.

In Argentina and Colombia, this sequence led to major reforms after high-profile police killings.

But if one of these elements is missing, the status quo continues. In Brazil, the Carandero massacre was certainly scandalous, and there was a fairly strong political opposition that joined in the criticism, to some extent. But public opinion about it was fragmented: Citing opinion polls at the time, Gonzalez found that about a third of Brazilians approved of the way the police handled the situation. The second element in the sequence, the convergence of public opinion, was missing. Result: no repair.

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