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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What's the Deal with Gun Amnesties?

What's the deal with gun amnesties and buybacks?

I was interviewed this past week by Wendy Gillis, a reporter for the Toronto Star.  She was writing about the Toronto Police's gun amnesty program.  If you haven't heard, Toronto Police are trying to round up unused guns in the GTA.  This is part of a well-intentioned, but often misguided approach to reducing violence.  As Gillis points out, gun amnesties mostly end up targeting people who are very low-risk for using firearms in any kind of crime.

While the "one less gun on the street" narrative sounds good on paper (and makes for good headlines), it rarely has any real impact on gun violence rates.

Criminologist Lawrence Sherman shows that gun buyback programs and other types of amnesties are ineffective in reducing gun violence.  In "Reducing gun violence: What works, what doesn't, what's promising," Sherman writes about two gun buyback programs in the 1990s that got (7,500 and 1,200, respectively) guns off the streets of St. Louis.  "Neither of them showed any reduction in gun homicides or assaults..."  These same findings were included in a 1997 report to the Maryland Congress.

So why then do police departments continue these programs?  Maybe gun amnesties aren't really about curbing violence.  Maybe, they're really efforts to increase dialogue and collaboration with disenfranchised communities? Police often work in communities that are critical of their presence.  Gun amnesties might be an easy way for police to re-open lines of communication and foster trust with local residents who might otherwise be skeptical of their presence.

Whatever the motivation, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.  I always wince whenever I read stories of gun amnesties that "successfully" got X amount of guns off the street.  These are usually highly publicized events where local politicians and police stand by a stack of impressive firearms.  Onlookers can see all the guns that are no longer "out there" in communities; but, these programs don't address the more fundamental causes of gun violence, which require a more careful look at how institutions serve/under-serve different minority communities.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Dating Game Killer and Some Problems with Rehabilitative Justice

I'm about halfway through "The Dating Game Killer" by Stella Sands.  The book follows the serial killing career of Rodney Alcala, who got his name after appearing on the Dating Game during his spree of murderous violence across Southern California in the late '60s. 

Alcala is a sadistic psychopath
This book is a difficult read for many reasons.  At a basic level, it's difficult to read because Alcala is one of the most sadistic serial killers that I have read about.  He would strangle his victims to the brink of death and then let them revive before strangling them again.  And he was notorious for sodomizing his victims (who were mostly young women and children) before killing them, leaving them in grotesque and humiliating sexual poses.   

But, his story is also difficult to read because it challenges one of the basic, progressive ideas behind rehabilitative sentencing.  The "rehabilitative model" suggests that prison should be a place that offers convicted felons a chance to receive health care, learn transferrable job skills, and ultimately reintegrate into society.  Some critics of this model claim that it is too easy on offenders (especially violent ones) and that it often fails, releasing violent offenders back into the general population where they start offending again.  The most critical perspectives suggest that the rehabilitative model ignores evidence that some sadistic, violent offenders cannot be rehabilitated. The data on pedophiles is pretty troubling--one study found that 50% of pedophiles who were released from prison later committed sexual crimes against children again.

Alcala's story should give us pause when thinking about the rehabilitative model of justice.  Alcala was originally arrested and convicted in 1968, when he lured an 8-year old named Tali Shapiro into his Hollywood apartment.  Once there, he beat and sexually assaulted Shapiro.  He may have killed her, but was interrupted by police who were tipped off by a good samaritan who had called the police after seeing him forcing Shapiro into his apartment. 

Tali Shapiro, around the time she was attacked by Alcala
When police arrived on the scene, they found hundreds of photos taken by Alcala.  An aspiring photographer, Alcala would often lure his victims into trouble by asking if he could take pictures of them.  Police are still trying to identify the hundreds of people in these photos.

Alcala went on to serve a 2-year sentence in a progressive, rehabilitative facility and was later paroled by the state of California, deemed ready for society reentry.  Once out, he violated the terms of his parole during an attempted kidnapping/seduction of a 13 year old girl.  He was officially charged with providing marijuana to a minor and sentenced to another 3 years. 

Upon release in 1977, Alcala graduated to killing.  He was later arrested and convicted in the murder of 4 young women and 1 small girl.  He was also a lead suspect in many other murder cases.  During this time, he was able to roam freely, living a carefree bachelor life and even appeared on the then popular Dating Game. 

While reading about his trajectory, I can't help but wonder if many lives could have been saved if Alcala was never paroled or released?  At the very least, it's important for us to rethink the basic ideas of rehabilitative justice and the psychiatric methods used to parole repeated sadistic offenders like Alcala.  If I were a family member or friend of a victim, I would be outraged that the State of California paroled this guy twice, letting him back on the streets. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

27 Seconds of Choking

Try holding your breath for 27 seconds.  It's not easy.  Now try doing it under duress.  Or better yet, have someone hold you in a tight headlock for 17 of those 27 seconds.  Then, without pause, have that person roll you onto your stomach and pin you for the remaining 10.  Tell them to put their knee into your back.  Make sure that they lean their body weight down on you and pin your face to the ground.  If you do this, you might have a small window into what Eric Garner must have felt when he got choked to death by Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

As a sociologist, I collect and analyze videos to understand human behavior in different situations.  I’ve used videos to understand how rappers keep tense battles from becoming violent and have also used videos to trace how people escape embarrassing situations.

I watched Eric Garner’s arrest video last night and was deeply troubled by what I saw. 

Officer Pantaleo applied 27 seconds of choking pressure to Eric Garner’s neck and chest.  17 of these seconds were applied to Garner’s neck; 10 seconds were placed on Garner’s back.  This compressed Garner’s neck and diaphragm, making it hard for him to breathe. These observations are consistent with the medical examiner’s report, which ruled Garner’s death a homicide from neck and chest compression.

Now, watch the following video of his arrest.  I made some notes with time tags that show: a) Garner was not resisting arrest; and b) Officer Pantaleo was using excessive force holding onto a choke when Garner was suffocating to death.


Before he is swarmed, Garner tells the officers, “I’m minding my business. Why don’t you leave me alone?” As officers approach Garner, he puts his hands up and says, “Don’t touch me, please.”

(00:38) :  Two officers close the distance on Garner.  Officer Pantaleo jumps onto Garner’s back and wraps his left around Garner’s neck.  He slips his right arm underneath Garner’s right armpit—into a wrestling move known as a “half nelson.” Pantaleo’s arm is pressed down on Garner’s neck and esophagus, which can disrupt breathing.  Garner is not resisting.  He does not make any swinging motions with his free hand, nor does he try to pry Pantaleo’s choking arm off his throat. 

(00:41) : Surrounding officers swarm Garner.  Multiple officers struggle to bring Garner down.  Pantaleo is still applying the choke from behind Garner. 

(00:43) : Garner falls to his hands and knees.  Officer Pantaleo falls down with him and is riding his back, still holding onto the choke.

(00:47) :  Four officers wrestle Garner to the ground.  He falls to his right side with his left arm pinned behind his back.  Garner places his right arm with his palm open into the air, like a sign of submission or compliance. Garner is still not resisting.  Meanwhile, Office Pantaleo is still on his back, applying choking pressure across Garner’s neck.  This marks 9 seconds of choking pressure.

(00:49) : Officers say, “He’s down.” Pantaleo continues holding his choke.  He’s been applying choking pressure to Garner’s neck for 11 seconds now. 

(00:51) : Officers say “Give us your hands, buddy.”  Garner makes a gurgling noise.  The choke is tightening, or Garner is running out of oxygen.  Officer Pantaelo continues to hold onto the choke, making it impossible for his fellow officers to get Garner’s free arm behind his back for cuffing.  This marks 13 seconds of choking pressure.

(00:53-:54) : Garner cries, “I can’t breathe.”  Police roll Garner over, face down onto his stomach.  Officer Pantaleo is still holding onto the choke. The gurgling sound is a sign that a choke has tightened, or that Garner is having significant difficulties breathing. 

(00:55) : Officer Pantaleo releases the choke and places his knee into Garner’s back and supports his entire body weight on Garner’s head, which is pinned to the concrete awkwardly. Here, an out of breath and terrified Garner cries out repeatedly, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.  I can’t breathe.”  His voice is muffled.  The downward pressure on his chest and head further restrict his breathing.

(00:58) : Officer Pantaleo keeps downward knee pressure into Garner’s back.  He also maintains downward pressure on Garner’s face.  Garner repeats, “I can’t breathe.”

(01:05) : Another officer steers Officer Pantaleo off Garner, who continues to tell officers , “I can’t breathe.”

These 27 seconds are disturbing, but they show us important lessons about policing: 

(     1) Consistent pressure—to the neck or torso—can be lethal.

Some from the Brazilian jiu jitsu and grappling communities have argued that Pantaleo wasn’t correctly applying what is known as the “rear naked choke,” or “Mata Leo” (Portuguese for “Lion Killer”) in the video.  They are right. Officer Pantaleo appeared to have a standard headlock, which didn’t hit the carotid arteries.  If he had, Garner would have fallen unconscious much faster.  It only takes a few seconds to put someone to sleep when you’re using the right technique. 

But, as a submission grappler, I also know that consistent pressure on the neck and chest can disrupt breathing and induce panic.  Beginners in Brazilian jiu jitsu often report feeling claustrophobic when someone is laying on them, trying to put them to sleep.  Through practice, beginners learn to relax their breathing while under duress. This is a steep learning curve, though, and not one that police should anticipate seeing in civilians.

(     2) Police need to be trained more to recognize warning signs in the detained.

There were multiple moments where Pantaleo should have released his chokehold, or the choking pressure to Garner’s back and head.

By :49 seconds in the video, Garner is pinned by multiple officers and is not making any visible signs of ‘resisting’ arrest.  Other officers say “He’s done” and “give us your hands, buddy.”  Pantaleo’s commitment to the chokehold here interferes with the cuffing of Garner. 

At :51 seconds, Garner gurgles.  This was the first sign that the choke had tightened or that he was suffocating. 

At :53 seconds, Garner pleas in a muffled and strained voice, “I can’t breathe.” The muffled sound suggests that the choke has tightened and that he is suffocating.  

At :55 seconds, police roll Garner onto his stomach, flattening him onto the concrete.  Here, Pantaleo lets go of his choke, but replaces the choke with downward knee pressure onto Garner’s back.  This constricts his diaphragm, making it difficult for him to catch his breath.  Similarly, he pins Garner’s face to the concrete, turning his esophagus, making it difficult for him to breathe.   

These were all opportune moments to let go.  Ultimately, we’ll never know if these tactics could have saved Garner’s life.  But, isn’t it worth revisiting how and where this arrest went wrong if it saves lives?

We are at a crossroads right now. But, this isn’t a moment to roundly condemn cops.  Those of us who haven’t worked in law enforcement will never understand what it’s like to work a beat or make arrests.  Police risk their lives every day.  They are often unsung heroes whose good deeds go unnoticed and whose mistakes become amplified in the public eye.  When was the last time we saw police attending hearings and funerals with grieving families?  I saw this all the time in my fieldwork in Philadelphia.  But good deeds and intentions do not exempt the police from critique.  

In the wake of Garner’s death, let’s revisit policing critically.  Maybe Eric Garner’s death will force us to revisit the training methods of police officers. Maybe it will force us to look carefully at the mental health needs of police, who face constant trauma and are quickly thrust back out into the line of duty. But more than anything, I hope that Garner’s death will lead to a larger conversation about how we can prevent similar tragedies from happening again.  This conversation is long overdue and it requires the collective efforts of law enforcement, community members, policymakers, researchers, and others interested in making our streets safer for everyone. 


Monday, November 17, 2014

Foucault and Dog Shit

My dog was sniffing, searching for that perfect spot.  After a couple more turns, he lowered his hind legs, placing them in front of his forelegs, and then took a gigantic dump.  It started steaming once it hit the grass, which was still covered by melting patches of snow from earlier today.

Luckily, I had a little flashlight attached to his poo bag.  I flicked that sucker on and shined the light over patches of mud, ice, and decaying leaves.  “There you are, you little bastard.”  Feeling accomplished, I grabbed the steaming pieces of dung and started to tie the bag closed. 

And then it happened.  While trotting triumphantly across a field, my foot squished into something.  For a moment, my stride was broken and I felt a sticky traction from beneath my foot.  “Shit! I hope that’s not shit!”

Maybe it was mud?  Or maybe it was dying leaves?  Or maybe I was just imagining the feeling?  But, as we neared the trash can, I could feel that something caking into the riveted soles of my favorite Nike Air Max’s.  I almost didn’t want to look, but did anyway.  And then, voila!  There it was.  A thick gauze of caramel brown dog shit smeared across the bottom of my sneakers.   

This got me thinking: Why is it that I seem to step in more dog shit during the winter?   Dog owners will feel me on this.  If you pay attention, you might notice that there seems to be more unclaimed dog shit in the winter than in other months. Is it because people become less responsible in colder months?  Does the cold make them more likely to skip out on picking up their furry friend’s droppings?  Or, is there something else at work here?

I think Michel Foucault can help us understand what I think is a seasonal phenomenon.  In Discipline & Punish, Foucault draws from Jeremy Bentham’s conceptualization of the panopticon as a mode of surveillance and social control.  The panopticon was a building designed with a single watchtower in the middle of a ring of individualized cells containing inmates.  By shining a light on each cell, inmates would feel that they were always under surveillance by a guard (real or imagined) sitting in that watchtower. 

Foucault famously borrowed from Bentham’s ideas when writing about modern forms of surveillance and social control.  He wrote, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power” (202).

I think a similar thing shapes practices around dog shit in parks.  In warmer months, people feel comfortable sitting on benches and hanging out in parks.  Some parks have festivals with music and attract crowds of people.  Others have their share of homeless folks seeking refuge in alcoves, youth smoking cigarettes or weed, and any variety of other public characters hanging out in parks.  I’ve been struck by Toronto’s park scene.  There are lots of them and they each have a different character.  But, when the temperature drops and the days grow shorter, these characters disappear.  The parks become mini ghost towns.  And with this, so too does the illusion of surveillance.  

Anyways, this is a little ramble about dog shit and Foucault. I hope you like it.  If not, I hope you're at least somewhat entertained at my misfortune.  And remember: Keep your eyes open and check the soles of your shoes!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Why I'm (Sorta) Against the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

I read an interesting piece this morning.  The author, Scott Gilmore, argues against the ALS fanaticism.  He writes that we should think of 3 questions when deciding where to donate:

1) Where is the greatest need?
2) Where will my dollars have the greatest influence?
3) What is the most urgent problem?

On first blush, this all sounds super robotic and utilitarian.  Humans don't work this way!  We are moved by culture and emotions.  And these things matter...don't they?

Usually I'd be critical of pieces like the one that Gilmore wrote.  It's the same kind of logic that policymakers use when justifying cutting arts programs so that school districts can continue funding math and science.  How can we quantify the benefit that children receive from learning how to read and play music?  Anyways, I digress.

But, as I thought longer and harder about the piece, I began to see his point. In a resource-scarce world, we ought to be more calculating and utilitarian about our giving--particularly when it comes to saving lives.

If we place ALS in a larger context, we see that it's not among the top-10 leading causes of death in the US.  In 2010, here were the top-10 and their death counts: 1) Heart Disease (596, 577), 2) Cancer (576,691), Chronic lower respiratory diseases (142, 943), 4) stroke (128,932), 5) accidents (126,438), 6) Alzehemier's disease (84,974), 7) Diabetes (73, 831), 8) Influenza and Pneumonia (53,826), Nephritis (45,591), 10) Suicide (39,518).  ALS is so rare, in fact, that it's seen as an "orphan disease" in the US.

Compare this now to some striking figures that Gilmore gives us to chew on: In 2013, ALS killed 6,849 people in the US and attracted $23 million for research (a ratio of $3,382 per death); in the same year, heart disease killed 596,577 people, but only raised $54 million for research (a sad ratio of $90 per death).  These comparisons raise some interesting moral questions about how to allocate funds for the dying.  I won't pretend to know the answers, but at some level, if we want to think responsibly about it, need, influence, and urgency of problem are all important gauges of where we should spend our money.

In many ways, the fanaticism around ALS reminds me of the fanaticism around social movements to ban assault weapons and regulate magazine sizes of rifles.  In charged historical moments, these movements make us feel good.  We get the satisfaction of linking ourselves to something that is politically popular.  For brief moments, we feel connected to one another.  We gain a sense of efficacy and feel that we might be helping to make the world a better place.  But, when we peel ourselves away from online hoopla and media soundbites, we realize that what's popular and what's efficacious are often two different things. Historically, assault weapon bans have done very little to curb gun deaths in the US (for more on this, read the excellent book "Reducing Gun Violence in America").

In the end, I don't think the enthusiasm around the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is all bad.  This is where I differ from Gilmore and other more critical voices.  If there's a silver lining in all of this (aside from the extra funding to help those suffering with ALS), it's in showing that human beings are capable of rallying together and showing compassion for others in need.  I can't help but wonder, though, if this enthusiasm and our hard earned dollars might be better spent toward issues that are more pressing and devastating on a global scale?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Our Wounded Deserve Better

How much money do wounded veterans receive from the VA system?  Not much, according to a Washington Post piece.

The Center for Investigative Reporting released a telling infographic today that breaks down how much money veterans are eligible for based on the severity of their injuries.  This chart is eye-opening and is a painful reminder of how much the US neglects wounded veterans.  
Vets deserve better

Here are some highlights: If you lose a hand or become deaf from combat, you are eligible for a whopping $100 extra per month; if you lose both legs, you can get between $1,000 - $1,300 dollars in compensation; and if you are paralyzed, you are eligible for $2,100 in extra funds each month.  These are shameful figures, but the VA system isn't to blame here.  If anything, these figures point to the enormous financial strains that the VA system is under.  Nevertheless, this chart should be a huge stain on our public conscience.

While reading this article, I couldn't help but think of the young men that I followed around for 2 years in Philadelphia.  These men didn't suffer from lost limbs and weren't paralyzed, but faced similar kinds of physical and mental health challenges long after they had been shot.  Contrary to what the average person thinks, these young men also weren't caught up in gangs, drug dealing, or running with the wrong crowd, either.  The public health scholar and physician, John Rich, shows us the folly in this logic in his excellent book "Wrong Place, Wrong Time."  Like Rich, my work also shows that many gunshot victims simply live in dangerous neighborhoods, where everyday activities like walking home from school or going to the market can become fatal or near fatal activities.  

Some of these injuries were the kind that knocked previously able-bodied young men out of work.  Others suffered from less visible, but equally frustrating injuries that disrupted their personal and social lives.  One of the young men that I followed had his testicle blown off in an armed robbery.  Although he was otherwise "fine," he suffered the shame of losing a testicle and feeling emasculated.  And the vast majority of these men didn't have health insurance, which led some--like an informant I called "Paul"--into risky pill hustles to treat crippling pain and injuries.  

To be sure, the Affordable Care Act represents a monumental move toward insuring the most vulnerable. But, early reports are showing that many of the folks who stand to gain the most from the ACA missed the March 31 deadline to enroll in a health care plan.  Many didn't know about the deadline, some thought the deadline had passed, and others are saying that they'll remain uninsured even though they'll get fined in the coming tax year for non-compliance to the mandate.

All of this underscores the need to rethink political priorities in America.  In most industrialized nations, health care is considered a right, much like an education.  Let's hope that the ACA represents the first step in a move toward insuring and caring for all of our wounded.  They all certainly deserve better.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Renzo Gracie and the Sociology of Fighting

Renzo Gracie and some of his friends have been arrested for their role in a street fight.

This isn't the first time that Renzo Gracie (an MMA legend and BJJ black belt) has made the news for street fighting.  Many of you might remember that Gracie recently live tweeted while beating and stalking two guys who tried to mug him in NYC.
Renzo Gracie is the wrong person to mug

Not surprisingly, this event elicited mixed responses from the blogosphere and martial arts community.   Some people praised Renzo, saying that he was like a modern day Batman taking down thugs on the street; others were skeptical and said that Renzo acted like a thug, stalking his prey, and then celebrating it on Twitter.

Someone shot a video of his most recent altercation, but the video leaves much to the imagination.  As viewers we don't get to see who started what, or how the altercation even unfolded.  Instead, we are treated to the poster's comments about how Renzo is an MMA legend and see a crowd of people milling about, after the violence.

In other words, most of us have no grounds to start judging Renzo, his friends, or the bouncers in this fight.  We weren't there and don't know how this fight started or why Renzo and his friends were moved to fight.

Randall Collins shows us that violence unfolds in stages
Sociologists like Randall Collins and Curtis Jackson-Jacobs remind us that fighting is often the end result of a much lengthier social process.  They don't just "happen" and it's quite rare for people to blindly attack strangers.  Even people who go out "looking" for fights create opportunities to get into them.  The person who walks through a crowded bar and accidentally "bumps" into someone is inviting others to start something that can lead into a fight.  From there, mutual combat isn't even a given.  Fights often begin with some kind of small transgression that balloons into more serious kinds of shoving, blustering, and threats of real violence.  And then, as people become increasingly entrained into each other's rhythms, violence becomes more and more of a possibility.  The physical act of getting into a fight, then, is hardly inevitable and rarely a one-sided affair.

This is why I'm so disappointed with major news coverage of this fight.  The New York Post (which can hardly claim to be a legitimate news paper these days) has published a horribly slanted article about the fight.  Instead of talking about the fight as an event that police are investigating, post writers have framed Renzo and his friends as "thugs" who went after a helpless bouncer.

Why have journalists all but written off the bouncer's role in this fight?   Could it be that the bouncer tried to intimidate or bully Gracie, who then swiftly smashed him?  Before rushing to conclusions, it would be wise for the media to think more carefully about how fights happen.