Abstract: Reorganizing Municipal Public Safety: The Influence of Inter-Organizational Relationships on Social Control (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Reorganizing Municipal Public Safety: The Influence of Inter-Organizational Relationships on Social Control

Friday, January 13, 2023
Laveen A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Matthew Bakko, MSW, MA, PhD Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, MI
Background/Purpose: Contemporary US carceral and social service systems operate in convergent ways to socially control and criminalize racialized communities that live under a regime of state-sponsored poverty (Soss et al, 2011; Wacquant, 2009). While some scholars examine these systems in isolation, others have argued that we must attend to their interrelationship, both in design and implementation, to understand the tight, yet adaptable net of social control exerted by the state (Hinton, 2016). While research suggests that intra-organizational processes play a key role in advancing social control (Brodkin, 2011; Miller, 2014), little research examines how inter-organizational relationships between carceral and social service systems influence social control in practice (Kim, 2020). A change in inter-organizational relationships is suggested by recent attempts to reorganize municipal public safety, motivated by the recent actions of multiple US cities—in the wake of police killings of BIPOC residents and subsequent calls by activists and local leaders for new models of public safety—to defund the police and reinvest resources into social services. This study asks: How are changes in public safety, and thus social control, influenced through inter-organizational relationship dynamics?

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.