Coercive Force, Symbolic Power, and Fragmented Urban Publics: Understanding Democratic Police Reform in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Doctoral Dissertation


This dissertation asks how democratic police reform shapes police legitimacy. It does so by examining three interconnected waves of police reform that occurred in the City of Buenos Aires, Argentina between 2010 and 2018. The first wave (2010-2016) was led by the National Security Ministry and involved an increase in political oversight of the Argentine Federal Police (PFA). The PFA had been the main police force in Buenos Aires for more than a century and, at the time reforms were initiated, was widely denounced as violent, corrupt, and inefficient. The second wave of reform (2010-2016) was led by the Buenos Aires City Government and involved the creation of a new, more modern force with a mandate for community policing: the Metropolitan Police. The PFA and the Metropolitan Police operated in parallel in Buenos Aires until they were merged, in 2017. The third wave of reform (2017-2019) was also led by the City Government and involved the launch of the City Police, comprised of 20,000 ex-PFA officers and 6,000 ex-Metropolitan officers. The launch of the City Police involved dramatic organizational changes, designed to accommodate the disparate internal structures of the PFA and the Metropolitan Police, and other measures aimed at modifying police practices to improve efficiency, criminal deterrence, and, ultimately, police legitimacy.

These three waves of police reform were democratic in terms of both means and ends. Each reform was led by elected political authorities and was guided by citizens’ most pressing security grievances. At the same time, reforms aimed to consolidate ‘democratic policing’ by improving the “operational efficiency and effectiveness” of the police while simultaneously strengthening their “democratic ethos and accountability” (Bailey and Dammert 2006, p. 2). Incrementally and cumulatively, these reforms significantly reduced some of the most egregious historical patterns of police misconduct and contributed to the professionalization of police activity in Buenos Aires. Despite this, the legitimacy of the City Police remains highly contested. What explains this outcome? And what does the analysis of democratic police reform in Buenos Aires reveal about similar processes in other metropolises of the Global South marked by memories of state-sponsored violence and high levels of socio-spatial inequality?

Empirically, I draw on over 100 interviews with differently-positioned actors with intimate knowledge of reforms, including police, public officials, activists, and academic experts. I also draw on data collected through direct observation of dozens of police trainings and local security forums. Theoretically, I conceptualize democratic police reform as a radical field upheaval that upsets established power dynamics and catalyzes new material and symbolic struggles which play out at within the “field of fields” of state power (Arnholtz & Hammerslev, 2013). I argue that, in large capital cities like Buenos Aires, democratic police reforms prompt material and symbolic struggles within the field of policing and in the space of overlap between the field of policing, the field of politics, the juridical field, and the field of organized crime. Through the detailed analysis of each wave of reform, I show how these fields were reconfigured through public deliberations and the “gray zone of politics” (Auyero, 2007) that connects police to politicians, judicial operators, and organized criminal groups through selective application of the law. I show how attention to field configurations can help explain not only the characteristics of reforms but also their effects on police practices, particularly violence and corruption.

In parallel, I trace how these three waves of police reform were experienced and collectively interpreted by what I refer to as “fragmented urban publics.” I argue that in contexts of extreme socio-spatial inequality, like Buenos Aires, differently-situated actors have fundamentally distinct understandings of what is wrong with the police and, hence, what needs to be reformed. Moreover, they may disagree on the ‘right role’ of the police in regulating urban conflict. By prompting debate on these questions, democratic police reforms can reproduce or exacerbate pre-existing social divisions that cluster around class or political-ideological orientation. I conceptualize police legitimacy as a contingent, relational, and multi-dimensional social construct (Bottoms & Tankebe, 2012; Tankebe, 2013), which varies based on peoples’ habitual interactions with the police and their ideologically-mediated understanding of the ‘right’ role of the police. In light of this conceptualization, I argue that democratic police reforms can simultaneously strengthen police legitimacy among certain publics, while undermining it for others.


Attribute NameValues
Author Leslie Elva MacColman
Contributor Ann E. Mische, Research Director
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Sociology
Degree Discipline Peace Studies
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
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Defense Date
  • 2020-07-13

Submission Date 2020-07-20
Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

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