BORN IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, Assistant Professor of Public Policy YANILDA GONZÁLEZ moved to New York City when she was seven. Growing up, she remembers, she was struck by stories about police violence—violence usually aimed at Black people—and by the way victims’ advocates and family members would fight for justice. Those experiences were formative in shaping her work. González studies what she calls authoritarian police in democracies. Although her work has obvious resonance in the United States, it is based on a decade of field research in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, and elsewhere across Latin America.
Q: Your work focuses on a central contradiction that exists in many societies we would call free and democratic. Why is that?
When we talk about the United States and many countries in Latin America, we’re talking about countries with elections that are more or less free and fair. Everybody gets to vote. There’s alternation in power. They have legislatures, all these institutions and processes that we associate with democracy. But the police forces don’t quite match. It was that disconnect between the type of regime, the type of government that we have—democracies in many of these places—and the ways that police institutions operate that led me to develop this concept of authoritarian police and to think about how they operate and are actually reproduced in democracy.
One of the contradictions I saw is that democracies create incentives for those types of police forces to emerge. Quite often we find that because of inequality, people see other people—their fellow citizens—as threats, and they see the police as a kind of bulwark, as protection against those other citizens. That immediately gets in the way of having the type of police forces or legal institutions that are out there to protect all of us, so we get into policing that is carried out in behalf of some of us but against others. Politicians who are looking to win elections are going to pick issues that will get votes. When people are concerned about crime and security, policing can become one of those issues. And then elections themselves can generate incentives for politicians to reinforce authoritarian policing.
Quite often we find that because of inequality, people see other people—their fellow citizens—as threats, and they see the police as a kind of bulwark, as protection against those other citizens.
Q: What spurs reform?
What we’re seeing in the United States is very similar to the processes I studied in Latin America. They often happen around or leading up to elections. We see a convergence of societal preferences and demands for police reform—some scandal or some big galvanizing event of police misconduct leads sectors that used to oppose police reform or be neutral on the issue to then support it. Similar transformative moments that I studied in Colombia and Argentina led to reforms along everything from police education and training to recruitment to internal and external accountability. Every aspect of policing was on the table, and we saw very comprehensive and far-reaching reforms.
Q: Do the reforms stick?
You can pass legislation, and that itself is hard enough. You can begin to implement it. But the other side of my research is how those reforms can also become undone. When you go back to those moments of societal division, which I call fragmentation, and fear of crime starts to be more salient again, you get those sectors of society being divided again, and politicians exploiting those political spaces. In both instances, in Argentina and in Colombia, elections gave way to that kind of discourse, and the reforms started to be undone piece by piece.
Portrait by Martha Stewart