Reforming to Avoid Reform: Strategic Policy Substitution and the Reform Gap in Policing
By Yanilda María González, Harvard University
Institutional reforms often diverge from substantive problems and societal demands that originally prompted reform, raising questions about democratic responsiveness. Such reform gaps are prevalent in policing, wherein some police forces improve capacity and performance, while extrajudicial violence persists. I argue that police evade pressure for reform through strategic policy substitution, pressuring politicians to replace reforms that threaten bureaucratic autonomy with favorable reforms that preserve it. I describe how police act as veto players, thwarting high-threat structural and oversight reforms demanded by advocates to address violence and corruption by enacting low-threat operational and marginal reforms. Drawing on evidence from Colombia and Brazil, I demonstrate that operational reforms, (e.g., body-worn cameras and community policing) preferred by police can produce constrained institutional change. Such reforms may improve performance, but by preserving bureaucratic autonomy, they increase the police’s structural power and ability to resist future structural reforms, complicating efforts to address police violence.