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Speaker Series: Yanilda González - Social Service Administration, University of Chicago

  • When: April 3, 2019, 12–1:30 pm
  • Where: ABF Woods Conference Room, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, 4th floor, Lakeside, Chicago, IL 60611

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Reforming to Avoid Reform: How Police Use Strategic Policy Substitution to Constrain Institutional Change

Facing historically high rates of crime and violence, Latin American leaders pursued varied policy responses to address growing citizen demands for improved security. Rather than constituting programmatic responses to a serious challenge to basic governance, however, these policies are often the result of strategic choices by politicians and police bureaucracies. This paper asks why police reforms often end up looking quite different from the demands that emerged from societal and political pressure, leading to a mismatch between the reform that is implemented and the problems that led to pressure for reform in the first place. Widespread mobilization and calls for greater external oversight in response to police violence and corruption, for instance, often result in operational reforms, such as community policing, that are unlikely to address profound structural deficiencies. This paper disaggregates reform, developing a typology of police reform based on the threat to bureaucratic autonomy. It introduces the concept of strategic policy substitution, demonstrating how police forces leverage their structural power to negotiate with politicians to replace structural and oversight reforms with more favorable operational reforms that preserve bureaucratic autonomy. The result is that while police forces may see improved performance due to operational reforms, extrajudicial violence and other predatory behavior toward the citizenry are likely to persist. This strategic policy substitution thus produces constrained institutional change, both substantively and temporally. It limits the institutional deficiencies that will be addressed through reform and, due to the police’s improved performance and increased structural power, makes future reforms to reduce police autonomy less likely. Drawing on evidence from the Colombian National Police and the Military Police of São Paulo State, I use process tracing to elucidate an interactive process whereby powerful bureaucracies exert resistance to reform through strategic policy substitution rather than blocking reform altogether. 

Photo and bio courtesy of the University of Chicago

Yanilda María González is an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. 

Her research explores the consequences of violence and inequality for state capacity, democratic citizenship, and the relationship between citizens and state institutions in the Latin American context.   

González's book manuscript, The Blind Spot of Democracy: How Democratic Processes Reinforce Authoritarian Police, probes the persistence of violent, corrupt, and unaccountable police institutions, and the political and social drivers of institutional continuity and change. Throughout the region, police forces engage in widespread extrajudicial killings and torture that largely target marginalized sectors of society, including Afro-descendants, the poor, and those living in the urban periphery. At the same time, these groups are also underserved by their police, leaving them vulnerable to high rates of criminal violence. While these practices run counter to principles of democratic policing, these patterns of coercion have proven remarkably resistant to reform. Based on nearly two years of immersive qualitative field research in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, González demonstrates how these patterns are perpetuated by, and in turn reproduce, existing societal inequalities. 

González holds a PhD in Politics and Social Policy from Princeton University. Prior to coming to SSA, González was a postdoctoral fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. González previously worked with a number of human rights organizations in the United States and Argentina, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, Abogados y Abogadas del Noroeste Argentino en Derechos Humanos y Estudios Sociales (ANDHES), Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género, and Asociación por los Derechos Civiles.

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