Methods: A comparative case study was conducted of two cities that have taken substantial steps to reorganize municipal public safety, including through defunding the police. Primary methods included a 21-month virtual ethnography of each city’s reorganization process and fifty qualitative interviews of relevant organizational actors, including social service administrators, direct service providers, police, public administrators, social movement activists, and funders. Using pattern coding and thematic analysis (Saldaña, 2016), ethnographic observation and interviews were used to understand how the reorganization of public safety is influenced by dynamics between organizations that are embedded within carceral and social service systems.
Results: The reorganization of public safety was heavily influenced by inter-organizational and inter-sector relationships, including those related to state-nonprofit contracting and collaboration, organizational competition, and the state and local policy environments. These relationships were undergirded by the shifting legitimacy of the police, carceral state, and punishing approaches to public safety. Key case examples by social service area illustrate the influence of inter-organizational dynamics, including those related to community-based violence prevention, alternative mental health crisis response, and homeless encampment services. Results suggest that municipal processes to reorganize public safety are influenced by inter-organizational dynamics that entangle practices of carceral punishment and social care.
Conclusions/Implications: This study captures a novel moment in the convergent and shifting relationship between carceral and social service systems (Hinton, 2016; Wacquant, 2009). It contributes an organizational lens to criminal-legal and social welfare studies. In doing so, this study demonstrates how inter-organizational relationships influence the potential for more caring approaches to public safety and social control to be realized. This study will inform scholars and advocates on how the non-punitive goals of public safety systems can be either promoted or impeded through mezzo-level inter-organizational relationships and associated practices.