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When outrage is not enough to generate change

by YAR

When he began his work, the general understanding was that South American countries had not reformed their police forces during their transition to democracy because there was so much more to do. In that version of the story, fixing the police had simply not been a priority.

But when he dug a little deeper, he found that there was actually a lot of public demand for better security and crime control, and often a lot of anger in communities affected by police violence. The police had not been overlooked: they had been protected.

The police were politically powerful because they could selectively withdraw their services, allowing crime and disorder to rise, drawing the ire of elected officials. They also tended to be well connected, able to lobby effectively to protect their own interests. That meant conflict with the police was costly for politicians, who tended to avoid it, leaving police departments and practices largely untouched.

But there were a set of specific and hard-to-achieve conditions that, if met, would lead to police reform, González found. Briefly summarized, his formula was this: scandal + public unity + credible political opposition = reform.

The sequence began with a scandal or crisis that led public opinion to unite a majority of people in favor of reform, he wrote in his book “Authoritarian Police in Democracy.” If there was also a real electoral threat from political opponents calling for reforms, that might be enough to persuade leaders to act to avoid their competition.

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

But if even one of those elements was missing, the status quo continued. In Brazil, the Carandiru massacre was certainly a scandal, and there was quite a strong political opposition that added to the criticism, up to a point. But public opinion on the matter was fragmented: Citing polls at the time, González found that about a third of Brazilians approved of the way the police had handled the situation. The second element of the sequence was missing, the convergence of public opinion. The result: no reform.

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