Camila Gripp (Politics PhD 2019) has received the 2020 Best Dissertation Award from the Urban and Local Politics Section of the American Political Science Association (APSA), the leading professional organization for the study of politics.
In her dissertation, entitled “New Dogs, Old Tricks: The Inner Workings of an Attempt at Police Reform in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,” Gripp explores the failed implementation of a comprehensive public security initiative that sought to impose a new kind of community policing in Brazil’s second largest city, and to reclaim territory from criminal organizations through military force. The APSA committee called her research “an incredibly important case about a significant question, with policy implications for police reform, both in Latin America and the Global South, and beyond.” Gripp also received NSSR’s Hannah Arendt Award in Politics for her dissertation.
“I was not expecting it at all!” says Gripp about the APSA honor. But David Plotke, Professor of Politics and one of her NSSR advisors was not surprised. “It’s great that Camila Gripp’s excellent dissertation has been recognized in this way,” Plotke says. “Her work makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of how to reform and regulate policing, and her insights travel across contexts and countries.”
Bringing Qualitative Research to Politics
After finishing her PhD and delivering a heartfelt address as Student Speaker at NSSR’s 2019 Recognition Ceremony, Gripp dove directly into a new job as Senior Research Associate at the Justice Collaboratory of the Yale Law School. There, she is involved in several research projects on criminal justice, including a study to improving communications and trust-building interactions between corrections staff and incarcerated persons in Connecticut, and an interview-based project on how frontline workers of six key institutions in New York City’s criminal justice system — prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officers, probation officers and Criminal Justice Agency interviewers — perceive the legitimacy of their roles and the institutions in which they work. She’s also helping increase the role of everyday people in decisions around policing and justice via community based participatory action research.
Qualitative research is key to Gripp’s work. She spent one year doing ethnographic fieldwork for her dissertation, including 800 hours of observation while embedded with Rio police officers, as well as 80 interviews with officers and 30 interviews with civilians. The APSA committee was impressed with “the in-depth nature of her ethnographic field work, which involved considerable risk,” stating that Gripp “provided a model discussion of how she conducted ethnographic research, including ethical tensions that can arise, the challenges of gaining sufficient access and trust to study policing, and a thoughtful consideration of her positionality.”
Gripp credits the interdisciplinary nature of her NSSR education with helping her develop this particular skill set. “I’m originally an economist who became a political scientist, and now I work at a law school. This is not a regular trajectory!” she laughs. “This is only possible because I wasn’t constrained by the frames of a certain discipline. I really had an opportunity to study with different scholars, take different classes, and have conversations at other departments.”
Two NSSR faculty members in particular — Plotke and Jim Miller, Professor of Liberal Studies and Politics — mentored Gripp as a student, and she continues to turn to them for guidance today. “I often contact them to talk about career perspectives, publications and next steps,” she says. Plotke also officially submitted her dissertation for the APSA award consideration.
The Future of Policing
Gripp’s work on policing is gaining more attention as movements to defund and abolish the police gain traction across the United States. While she is supportive of discussions on these topics, she is also cautious around demands for immediate change. “I think we don’t necessarily know yet how much communities that need police rely on the police, and what replacing the police with different services would look like,” she says. “The retreat of the role of police needs to come with a reframing of what it means to be a police officer.”
Gripp warns about expanding the social services functions of police officers without proper funding and support, citing her dissertation research. “By having police officers [in Rio] performing functions not generally associated with police, they thought they could bring the police closer to the poor communities and instill empathy in police officers,” she says. Ultimately, the opposite happened; police officers were not given appropriate support to take on their new role, their organizational structure did not support internal procedural justice, and officers progressively shortchanged the innovative model. U.S. cities must think carefully about the role we want police officers to have in communities, Gripp says. We may not want them to take on roles that can be performed by other agencies, but we also do not want them to see themselves as only armed, almost militaristic, enforcement officers who do not need to address other community problems.
She hopes U.S. cities will choose a positive path, and believes strongly in the real-world impact of her work at Yale. Read more in the Justice Collaboratory’s latest report, “Changing the Law to Change Policing: First Steps.”