The latest issue of Administrative Theory and Praxis has an interesting article titled “Street-level bureaucrats under COVID-19: Police Officers responses in constrained settings,” by Rafael Alcadipani, Sandra Cabral, Alan Fernandes, and Gabriela Lotta. They point out, based on inductive qualitative analysis that in a major Brazilian metropolitan area, conflicts concerning political, occupational culture, and material dimensions can “negatively impact police officers’ response in financially and institutionally constrained settings.”
Their paper is an interesting one in that they suggest something that is known among those who work on the front-lines: organizational values shape how people respond to crises. In the case of COVID-19, the paper elegantly shows how Brazilian policemen – much like others around the world – value machismo and bravery – and define their roles through this lens. When actions or values go against these two clashes, they are quick to fall back into what they know best: defending their machismo and perceived sense of “bravery.”
This is precisely what makes them reject masks and social distancing. Consider that for a cop, being seen as “tough” and “manly” is crucial. In a culture where wearing a mask is seen as being afraid of a virus and caring for one’s colleagues is seen as being effeminate, then such behaviors are punished by one’s peers, rather than supported. This is precisely what is going on in parts of the country.
And the authors point out that it doesn’t help when the President of Brazil does not encourage mask-wearing and has criticized social distancing (similar to former President Trump). The conflicting messaging at the federal/ central levels and local levels can create tensions that manifest in how local authorities perceive the message, the authors point out.
They point out that “COVID-19 has produced dual outcomes: on the one hand, police forces crime control values align with the political and occupational values. On the other, it can create a conflict,” (p.395) – especially on the three dimensions: political, occupational culture and material conditions.
Their suggestion is that discretion at the street level among these bureaucrats can be both a blessing and a curse. But of material resources, such as a shortage of PPE can lead to greater conflicts of vision and values within an organization. They call for greater coordination and alignment among all values in an organization and suggest that leaders have a big role to play in this process., to increase creativity and decrease divergence.