When outrage is not enough to bring about change

When she began her work, the general understanding was that South American countries had not reformed their police forces during their transition to democracy because there were so many other things to do. In this version of the story, fixing the police just wasn’t a priority.

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

The police were politically powerful because they could selectively withdraw their services, allowing crime and disorder to increase, angering elected officials. They also tended to be well-connected, able to lobby effectively to protect their own interests. This meant that conflicts with the police were costly for politicians, who tended to avoid them, leaving police services and practices largely unchanged.

But there was a specific, elusive set of conditions that, if met, would lead to police reform, Gonzalez found. Briefly summarized, its formula was: scandal + public unity + credible political opposition = reform.

The sequence began with a scandal or a crisis which led public opinion to unite a majority of people in favor of the reform, she writes in her book “Authoritarian Policing in a Democracy.” If there was also a real electoral threat from political opponents calling for reform, that might be enough to persuade leaders to act to stave off their competition.

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

But if even one of these elements was missing, the status quo continued. In Brazil, the Carandiru massacre was certainly a scandal, and there was a fairly robust political opposition that joined in the criticism, to some degree. But public opinion on the matter was fragmented: Citing polls from the time, Gonzalez found that around a third of Brazilians approved of the police’s handling of the situation. The second element of the sequence, the convergence of public opinion, was missing. Result: no reform.

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