by Daniel Brinks. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2008. 302pp. Hardback. $85.00/£50.00 ISBN: 9780521872348.

Reviewed by Enrique Desmond Arias, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Email: dearias [at]


One of the greatest challenges facing Latin American democracies is the problem of growing crime rates and high levels of police abuse. The poor treatment of large segments of the population at the hands of police in countries as diverse as Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras raises serious questions about the depth and strength of these political systems (Diamond and Morlino 2005, at xiv-xvi; Chevigny 1997). In his recent book THE JUDICIAL RESPONSE TO POLICE KILLINGS IN LATIN AMERICA: INEQUALITY AND THE RULE OF LAW, Daniel Brinks has made a major contribution to the study of this problem in the region that will help to define both methodological and substantive debates in the growing literature on this subject. Brinks’ account discusses the response of courts to police violence against civilians in Buenos Aires and Cordoba, Argentina, São Paulo and Salvador, Brazil, and in the national court system of Uruguay. Using an innovative methodology that combines analysis of a random sample of police homicide cases in each jurisdiction with qualitative interviews with relatives of victims, NGO activists, and actors in the legal system, Brinks shows with considerable nuance how different social, political, economic, and institutional conditions in each location affect overall judicial outcomes. He is able to build on these comparisons within and between countries to show that, while institutional structure makes a difference, the national and local political and social contexts have a substantial impact on the efficacy of those institutions.

At the core of Brinks’ argument is a random sample of 599 cases brought against police for murders in these five jurisdictions. In Chapters One and Two, Brinks introduces his theoretical argument and provides an initial analysis of the data. His main contention is that that higher degrees of inequality in a social system will lead to higher levels of police violence and a lower probability that aggrieved citizens will receive redress. Through a detailed examination of these cases, Brinks identifies a number of factors that affect outcomes in the cases in his sample. Among the variables he uses to explain these differences are whether the victim had a history of criminal activity, the race of the victim, the socio-economic status of the victim, whether the claimant had the assistance of a private lawyer in supporting the prosecution, and if the claimants had developed broader political support for their efforts in court. Brinks shows that particular political, social, and institutional circumstances can affect these outcomes. [*722] Thus, public protests play a substantial role in forcing courts to punish violent police in Argentina. Across the cases we see that, if relatives of the victim have access to a private lawyer, either by hiring one themselves or having one provided to them by an NGO or the courts, substantially increases the chances of a conviction.

At the center of the book sits a theoretical argument based on the complex relationship between claimants, judges, prosecutors, police investigators, and defendants in police homicide cases. The author correctly observes that the relationship between these critical actors functions differently during a normal trial when a private citizen is accused of a crime and in a case when a police officer is accused. In the former case police investigators are often closely aligned with the claimant and the judge acts as a final buffer between the claimant, the police, and the prosecutors and the citizen defendant. In the latter case, police, trying to protect one of their own, align themselves most closely with the defendant. Under these circumstances, Brinks shows, the police have an incentive to produce less accurate information for prosecutors. Prosecutors, for their part, have long-standing relations with police and, while they might be willing to rigorously prosecute a case, often are hampered by imperfect information from police and by a general predisposition towards other members of the law enforcement community. Judges act as a buffer between the other elements of the criminal justice system and the claimant although, for reasons similar to prosecutors, they also show some bias towards police and are subject to outside political pressures that may have the effect of predisposing them towards members of security forces.

After laying out this theory and analyzing the comparative data, Brinks disaggregates the cases to explain the specific factors that lead to different outcomes in each jurisdiction. Chapter Three offers an analysis of why courts do not succeed in convicting police. Brinks categorizes the types of errors a system generates as emerging from normative or informational failures. Thus, a police officer accused of committing a killing may be acquitted by a court because the members of the court or jury may not think that the killing merited a conviction, even though evidence clearly showed the police officer had committed the murder. On the other hand, the police officer may not be convicted because the police investigators or the prosecutor provided incomplete or inaccurate information to the court. Brinks then arrays his research sites to show that these jurisdictions face different degrees of success and failure along these variables. Thus Salvador and Buenos Aires face simultaneous informational and normative failures. Among the cases discussed, Salvador experiences the worst conviction rates. Buenos Aires, despite suffering from both types of failures, experiences lower levels of failure in outcomes because of effective popular political efforts to bring violent police to justice and substantial NGO activities designed to assist claimants in the prosecution of police. São Paulo and Cordoba generally face normative successes but informational failures. In these cases courts are willing to convict if provided with accurate data but tend to acquit as a result of bad information generated by the investigative process. [*723] While none of the individual jurisdictions examined encounter normative failure but informational success, Brinks shows that, in cases involving victims with a history of violence, accurate information provided by police regularly fails lead to a conviction as a result of a failure on the part of the court to enforce the law in light of the victim’s violent history. Uruguay generally encounters success along both dimensions as a result of low levels of inequality in the broader social system that create political pressures for effective prosecution of police killings.

Chapters Four through Eight are made up of detailed case studies that offer a complex discussion of the specific dynamics in each jurisdiction that lead to different outcomes. The data in these chapters are based generally on the qualitative analysis of cases and in interviews the author conducted with the claimants and actors in the criminal justice system. The chapters are divided into sections that discuss the social context, sources of information, and the operation of the courts. They provide a rich analysis of the social context and overall criminal justice system that are useful, not just for analyzing the politics of each case, but also in providing readers with a detailed account of the particular ways that the criminal justice system operates in each place. Beyond providing rich detail critical to understanding case dynamics and supporting Brinks’ theoretical claims, they also provide a solid account of each of his cases which will be very useful when the book is used for teaching, as it is one of the only a few projects providing a close and detailed analysis of the political interactions in different civil law criminal justice systems.

The concluding chapter brings the book back to its principal themes and makes two interesting theoretical arguments. The first is that institutions should be looked at through the lens of social context. A good deal of the writing on politics in Latin America today examines the role of political institutions in helping to consolidate existing democratic regimes and improving the quality of democratic governance. Brinks takes issues with this contention, making the important argument that institutions should be assessed in their social context rather than through the abstract lens that he argues characterizes much of research in this area. He compellingly argues that his data show that the political, social, and economic context in which criminal justice institutions operate plays a critical role in their functioning. This is an important and concrete call for a reorientation of the literature that will hopefully spur new research into institutional context. The second argument laid out in the conclusion is that individual reforms to the criminal justice system are unlikely to achieve substantial changes in the questions that the author is considering. He argues that real reform will not be achieved from above through the specific efforts of government officials, but rather through widespread political mobilization focused on changing how the system itself is structured. I think Brinks is also correct in this point, but it is neither clear how this type of reform movement might come about nor whether the very factors that he analyzes will themselves prevent the type of political movement that might support reform. The prospect of police violence focused on the very sectors of society most likely to demand change appears to foreclose this solution over the short [*724] term. The book, thus, leaves us substantially more enlightened but with little clarity on what might be the bases for overcoming this problem.

This difficult conclusion is not uncommon among scholars of conflict and violence in Latin America. It is worth pointing out, though, that there is some evidence today that São Paulo, Brazil and Bogotá, Colombia have each experienced substantial declines in homicide rates as a result of comprehensive reform efforts that brought together civic activists with reform-minded officials. While there is some disagreement about the depth of improvements in São Paulo, it would have been interesting if Brinks had provided an epilogue to discuss how possible improvements in security in São Paulo have affected “judicial response to police killings.” At the very least, this recent change provides the basis for an interesting future research project either by Brinks or by another scholar working on these issues.

This volume provides important insights into the question of police violence in Latin America and is likely to have a substantial impact on the field. Brinks’ contribution provides a methodological basis for future studies on these issues and offers empirical grounding for understanding this complex issue across a range of cases.

Diamond, Larry and Leonardo Molino. 2005. “Introduction.” In Larry Diamond and Leonardo Molino (eds). ASSESSING THE QUALITY OF DEMOCRACY. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Chevigny, Paul. 1997. THE EDGE OF THE KNIFE: POLICE VIOLENCE IN THE AMERICAS. New York: The New Press.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Enrique Desmond Arias.