Limiting aggressive policing can reduce police and civilian violence
World Development, 2022: 105961, p. 1-18.

Abstract Governments in the Americas rely on aggressive policing tactics to fight crime, despite scant evidence of impact. While recent studies depict militarized policing as a driver of violence, few governments have reconsidered their use of it. What impact does a restriction on aggressive policing have on violence, and why? This paper examines limits on police use of force and how they can be implemented to reduce both police and civilian violence. I argue that reforms that require internal, non-police oversight can be effective institutional constraints, minimizing police violence. In settings where organized crime is widespread, these limits can have spillover effects and further decrease civilian violence by (1) slowing the territorial diffusion of criminal conflict and (2) making conflict more predictable. I test these claims by examining an abrupt limit on police raids in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I find that limiting raids – militarized police strikes targeting criminal gangs and communities under their control – led to a 66% decrease in police killings and a 58% decrease in homicides. The effects were concentrated in police precincts where rival criminal groups are in close proximity. Limiting raids did not lead police to be more violent during ordinary patrolling duties, and did not affect property crimes. The implication is that restraining police use of force in high-violence settings may save lives and be no worse than hard-on-crime strategies.

How do Covid-19 stay-at-home restrictions affect crime? Evidence from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
EconomiA, 2022: 147-163. (with Ana Paula Pellegrino).

Abstract How do changes in mobility impact crime? Using police precinct-level daily crime statistics and shootings data from the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we estimate that extortion, theft, and robberies decrease by at least 41.6% following COVID-19 mandated stay-at-home orders and changes in mobility in March 2020. Conversely, we find no change in violent crimes, despite fewer people being on the streets. To address the relationship between crime and mobility, we use cellphone data and split the precincts into subgroups by pre-Covid-19-related restrictions mobility quintiles. We estimate a similar average decrease in extortion regardless of a precinct’s previous activity level, but find that the decrease in theft and robberies is substantially higher for the more mobile precincts while it disappears for the least mobile precincts. Using daily cellphone mobility data aggregated at the police precinct level, we find that changes in mobility while the stay-at-home order is in place only have a meaningful effect on robberies, which increase in likelihood when a precinct’s mobility ranking is higher than the previous day. Together, these results suggest that the stay-at-home order and associated decline in mobility strongly affected extortion and property crimes while not interfering with the dynamics of violent crime. These findings support the hypothesis that violent and property crime follow different dynamics, particularly where there is a bigger impact of organized criminal groups.

working papers

How criminal governance undermines elections

  • Recipient of the Franklin L. Burdette/Pi Sigma Alpha Best Paper Award, American Political Science Association (2022)
  • Recipient of the Best Paper Award from the Conflict Processes Section, American Political Science Association (2022)
  • Recipient of the Elinor and Vincent Ostrom Prize for Best Graduate Student Paper and Presentation, Public Choice Society (2022)
Abstract How does criminal governance affect elections? Existing accounts explore the consequences of criminal involvement in politics, but have not thoroughly examined how such groups exert their influence. I argue that criminal groups undermine elections through two mechanisms: (1) gatekeeping prevents rival candidates from accessing voters and (2) corralling influences voter choice. I use a natural experiment that leverages exogenous variation in voter assignment to voting booths and a novel dataset on criminal governance to test my theory in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I show that gatekeeping restricts the candidate pool while corralling yields more votes for the local leading candidate. Together, these mechanisms decrease electoral competition. I illustrate the logic underpinning the mechanisms using qualitative data based on interviews and voter complaints. These findings bring together the literatures on clientelism and criminal governance by demonstrating that criminal groups leverage the power they derive from governing to sway elections.

Organized crime and voter mobilization

  • Recipient of the Best Paper Award from the Subnational Politics and Society Section, Latin American Studies Association (2020)
  • In the news: Pindograma, Piauí
Abstract It is well documented that criminal groups undermine elections. Yet there is substantial variation in the techniques that different types of groups use. If a criminal group is getting involved in an election, what resources will they deploy, and who will they target? Drawing from the classic literature on comparative advantage, this project presents a theory of how criminal capital predicts electoral strategy. I focus on groups that “sell protection” and their two primary capabilities: collection capacity and protection capacity. I argue that protection rackets have efficiency advantages vis-a-vis other groups when diversifying into industries that monitor or coerce people. One such industry is voter mobilization. I test this theory in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where multiple types of criminal organizations are present. Drawing from granular data on voting, I use a natural experiment to compare voting under a protection racket with voting under other criminal regime types or without criminal presence. My results suggest that protection rackets are more effective at voter mobilization. Qualitative evidence, drawing from anonymous voter complaints, suggests that protection rackets are more likely to leverage their collection and protection capacity when getting votes. This theory brings together an interdisciplinary literature on industrial organization, voter mobilization, and criminal governance to explain why different types of criminal groups choose certain electoral strategies.

book project

Machine Gun Politics: Why Politicians Cooperate with Organized Crime

My book project demonstrates that politicians often benefit from—and even seek out—deals with criminal organizations. Public officials’ willingness to engage with violent, illicit actors around elections drives three questions underpinning my research for this book:

  • Why would a politician collude with criminal organizations?
  • When do the benefits of collusion outweigh the risks?
  • Which candidates are more likely to strike electoral bargains with criminal groups?
  • What are the electoral and welfare consequences of collusion?

I develop a theory of candidate-criminal group cooperation, arguing that striking deals with criminal groups can be an unexpectedly successful electoral strategy for many types of politicians. I explain variation in collusive deal-making between politicians and criminal groups and enumerate two mechanisms through which criminal groups deliver votes: gatekeeping and corralling. I create an original dataset on criminal governance and leverage a natural experiment to closely examine the returns to criminal-candidate collusion in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. My mixed-methods book manuscript draws from 18 months of in-person field research in Rio de Janeiro, dozens of candidate interviews, and an in-person survey with residents of criminally-governed communities using worksite sampling.

in progress

A call of duty? Police force formation in Brazil (with Ana Paula Pellegrino and Lucas Novaes)

Determinants of public preferences for police hiring and spending (with Ana Paula Pellegrino and Tyler Simko)

Worksite sampling: An ethical alternative to asking about violence at the home