The Latest Ash Center Research, Teaching, and Ideas | Spring 2021

New research and writing from the Ash Center community is helping to explain and solve today’s toughest governance challenges

Published May 18, 2021 

How Police Violence Persists and Thrives in Democracies

“We’re seeing a truly global outcry over questions of policing,” said Yanilda González, Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor of Public Policy, at a recent Ash Center event celebrating the launch of her book, “Authoritarian Police in Democracy: Contested Security in Latin America.” In the book, published by Cambridge University Press, Gonzalez works to answer the question: How is it that police violence persists in democratic countries?

González argues that the persistence of what she calls “authoritarian” police cannot simply be chalked up as a legacy of authoritarian governments long since replaced by democratic ones. Rather, she takes the view “that both the persistence of authoritarian police in democracy and reform efforts to move toward democratic policing are the result of ordinary democratic politics.” By studying police forces in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, González details how controlling the levers of coercion is an indispensable tool for even democratically elected political leaders.

New Survey Examines US Public Opinion on Key Supreme Court Cases 

Maya Sen, Harvard Kennedy School Professor of Public Policy and Ash Center faculty affiliate, along with colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin and Stanford University released the results from their 2021 SCOTUSpoll, a national survey of American’s attitudes on major Supreme Court cases argued during the court’s 2020-2021 term. The survey, which has a margin of error of is ± 2.3%, was conducted by using a nationally representative sample of 2,158 U.S. adult residents in April, 2021. Specifically, researchers assessed how people would feel about the rulings of major cases as opposed to the legal arguments or jurisprudential considerations presented before the court.

Looking at responses over the cases asked about, Sen and her colleagues found that the public is slightly more likely to take the liberal (51.8%) than the conservative (48.2%) position. The public is narrowly divided on several prominent issues such as whether the tax penalty in the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, whether governments can bar foster agencies that refuse to place children with same-sex couples, and how states handle election integrity claims versus concerns about vote suppression.

Unexpected Impact of Women Combat Casualties on Public Opinion 

“What are the consequences of women dying in combat?” ask Dara Kay Cohen, Harvard Kennedy School Professor of Public Policy; Connor Huff, Rice University Assistant Professor of Political Science; and Robert Schub, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Assistant Professor in a recent survey. The answer, published by Cohen, Huff, and Schub in the Journal of Conflicts Resolution, details several outcomes. First, women dying in combat does not reduce public support for war. The study should “put to bed the argument that women serving and sacrificing in these roles will be harmful to leaders’ ability to wage war,” said Cohen, speaking to the Christian Science Monitor. At the same time, women’s combat deaths do increase support for gender equality, particularly in the public sphere of work and politics — though only among women respondents. Ultimately, women dying in combat does not result in a larger shift in the status of women. The study reports that “combat service — and indeed, combat sacrifice — alone appears to be insufficient to yield women ‘first-class citizenship’ among the U.S. public that the most ardent supporters hope to achieve.”

Helping Mayors Navigate Confederate Monument Removal, Moral Dilemmas 

Cities across the United States, particularly in the South, are struggling with the legacies of their Confederate past, including monuments that have led to renewed protest and calls for removal in recent years — especially after the nationwide protests sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor in 2020. But how mayors deal with monuments that represent injustice can be politically challenging and controversial. A new teaching case, “Reckoning with History: Confederate Monuments in American Cities,” focuses on how mayors in three cities — Baltimore, Maryland; Lexington, Kentucky; and Charleston, South Carolina — grappled with the removal of Confederate monuments and flags in their public parks and plazas in the aftermath of hate crimes in Charleston in 2015 and Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

The new resource, part of a free, publicly accessible collection of teaching materials on moral leadership, is designed to help leaders evaluate challenges with highly sensitive moral dimensions. Featuring an educator guide, practitioner guide, slides, and an epilogue, the teaching case can be used in classrooms, city halls, and board rooms to spark conversations not only about Confederate monument removal but also broader questions about race, history, and moral leadership. This case was created by Gaylen Moore, Senior Case Writer for the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative; Jorrit de Jong, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management; Kimberlyn Leary, Lecturer in Public Policy; and Chris Robichaud, Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Public Policy.

Addressing Public Health Problems Through Housing Inspections 

Housing is a powerful social determinant of health; the conditions of homes and neighborhoods influence everything from asthma to mental well-being. Kate Robb learned this firsthand from her experience working alongside housing inspectors in the City of Chelsea, MA as a doctoral student and Innovation Fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School Innovation Field Lab, led by the Ash Center’s Jorrit de Jong, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management. Since then, Robb, now a postdoctoral research fellow with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, has set out to quantify her assumption with the help of research assistants Ashley Marcoux MPP 2020 and Nicolas Diaz Amigo MPP 2020. First, Robb and her team conducted a study evaluating the efficacy of integrating housing inspections with a social services referral program. In the resulting paper, they concluded that housing inspectors can play a role in reporting and improving public health outcomes for residents. Then, Robb reported on how integrated city data and machine learning can pinpoint areas at elevated risk for housing-related health problems, which can inform and enhance existing city programs.

Small Mom-and-Pop Landlords and Low-Income Renters Suffer from COVID-19 Financial Stress 

As it became clear that the pandemic would have a tremendous impact on the rental market, Elijah de la Campa, Senior Research Associate at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, set out to determine how small landlords, who are most likely to house lower-income renters and often socially and economically vulnerable themselves, were faring. Working with the Ash Center’s Innovation Field Lab New York, de la Campa surveyed landlords in Rochester and Albany. His findings, published through a study with the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, highlighted just how much financial stress these small landlords were under and how their response, using tools like eviction, may worsen the pandemic’s impact on already vulnerable tenants.

Helping Tribal Nations Wield New Powers After McGirt v. Oklahoma Ruling 

The McGirt v. Oklahoma Supreme Court decision — which ruled in favor of tribal nations, holding that a significant portion of Oklahoma is tribal land, and crimes committed on such land are subject to federal, not state, jurisdiction — has changed the legal landscape and created new opportunities for tribal nations, starting with the Five Tribes in Eastern Oklahoma and potentially impacting tribal nations across Indian Country. It also has been the source of confusion, hyperbole, and alarm among some commentators.

In response, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and the University of Oklahoma Native Nations Center produced the McGirt Colloquium Toolbox, which contains a series of briefing papers that explain the ramifications of the McGirt decision in areas important to tribes. Affected tribes can now chart a pathway toward the effective exercise of post-McGirt tribal powers and productive collaboration with state governments. The Toolbox also offers ideas and examples of what these processes and outcomes might look like. In particular, they consider at least eight areas, including criminal justice and taxation, through the lens of a tribal government’s responsibilities to its citizens, other Indians, and non-Indians on trust lands and fee lands within the external borders of recognized reservations.

In Aftermath of 2020 Elections, A Call for Nonpartisan State Election Leadership

Last fall’s elections shone a spotlight on state election officials, who labored under unprecedented circumstances to ensure a smooth vote during a pandemic, in a supercharged political atmosphere. Yet the seemingly contradictory nature of partisan election officials engaged in political campaigns themselves while overseeing the free and fair administration of local elections has increasingly come to the fore. In an op-ed with Larry Diamond, Stanford political scientist, and Kevin Johnson, founder of the Election Reformers Network, Ash Center Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy Miles Rapoport argues that reform is needed. “States should also consider making the position a merit-based appointment, since nonpartisan judicial and other elections do not always yield significantly fewer partisan results,” the trio write. While acknowledging that such reform will take time and face high political hurdles, more immediate changes could be implemented, such as legislation prohibiting secretaries of state from endorsing candidates or taking political party roles. Secretaries of state running for office should also be required to recuse themselves from decisions that could help their candidacies.

New Podcast Introduces Listeners to Data Experts from Across the Country

This spring, Data-Smart City Solutions, an initiative of the Ash Center’s Innovations in Government Program, launched a new podcast series titled “Data-Smart City Pod.” On each episode, host Stephen Goldsmith, Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy, sits down with industry experts, academics, and government officials to address persistent racial and economic divides and explore data-driven policies and practices that are helping local governments work more efficiently. Episode Two (below), for example, explores how a collaborative of multi-racial, national organizations is using data to increase racial equity. The show, released bi-monthly, can be found wherever you get your podcasts as a part of the Ash Center’s regular series, AshCast.