Policing In Comparative Perspective

“Policing In Comparative Perspective” Panel and Presentation,
2016 APSA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA

Police forces are charged with fulfilling the state’s basic function: exercising the legitimate monopoly of violence within a given territory. However, the extent to which police perform this task effectively and in accordance with democratic principles, such as respect for human rights and the rule of law, varies across and within countries, as well as over time. Police often engage in different forms of malfeasance, such as corruption, extortion, and complicity with organized crime, and in excessive use of force and extra-legal violence –including torture or summary executions-, typically against the poor and racial minorities. Nonetheless, political science has long neglected the police, in part due to the difficulties involved in studying this organization, or focused mainly on developing countries or “new” democracies. However, recent manifestations of systemic police violence in the United States and its societal repercussions –most prominently the Black Lives Matter movement- signal the magnitude of this problem and its relevance for political science. The papers in this panel address this issue by looking at the police in three different regions -US, Africa and Latin America- through both quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches.

These papers address two different but interconnected themes. The first set deals primarily with the relationship between police and citizens, as well as its implications for democracy. Laurel Eckhouse (UC Berkeley) uses survey and observational data to reveal the heterogeneous societal preferences in places where community-policing initiatives are applied. She finds that the very “process by which departments seek community input shapes which members of the community participate, and therefore which have influence over police discretion and priorities”, reinforcing existing biases in police treatment. Similarly, Yanilda Gonzalez (Harvard Kennedy School) challenges the notion that security is a public good and shows that the fragmentation of societal preferences over policing and security motivates politicians to grant the police greater autonomy in exchange for cooperation in the selective distribution of coercion. This hinders the prospects for police reform and favors the persistence of institutional weakness and authoritarian patterns of coercion by the state. Finally, Anita Ravishankar (Michigan-Ann Arbor) uses cross-national survey data from sources such as AfroBarometer and the World Values Survey to measure the relation between experiences of state repression and trust in the state’s security institutions, including the police, focusing on the immediate aftermath of long repressive regime spells. The prospect of civilian trust in its security apparatus has, naturally, significant implications for democratic legitimacy across the globe.

The second theme is the relationship between police, politicians, and organized crime, which clearly influences citizens’ trust in the police and the overall prospects for democracy. First, Hernan Flom (UC Berkeley) explores how police and politicians regulate organized crime, particularly drug trafficking, in Latin America. His paper proposes that political competition, particularly partisan turnover and partisan alignment at the subnational level, shapes police levels of autonomy and the extent to which rent-extraction is central to the relation between police and subnational politicians. Such relations condition how the state regulates drug trafficking, with varying results in terms of criminal violence, police violence, and levels of political and police corruption. Finally, Raul Sanchez de la Sierra (Harvard/UC Berkeley) and Kristof Titeca (Universiteit Antwerpen), study the police sources of income. Furthermore, they examine the relative effectiveness of different methods of improving police effectiveness.

Deborah Yashar, Princeton University

Vesla Mae Weaver, Yale University