About Me

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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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Putting Mass Shootings in Context

Members of Emanuel AME Church mourning in the aftermath
2015 certainly looks and feels like the “year of the mass shooting.”  Charleston, Roseburg, San Bernadino.  These are a few of the many tragic cases of mass shootings that have rocked families and communities across the US.  

Each of these stories have received a ton of mass media attention; we see images of crime scenes, hear first-person accounts of survivors and the families of victims, and learn quite a bit about the deranged people behind these atrocities. Mass shootings are a sad--but all too familiar--reminder of the work ahead to end gun violence in the US.  

But, are mass shootings really on the rise?  And are they really a big part of the gun violence epidemic?

Some descriptive data helps put mass shootings in context.  The folks at Mass Shooting Tracker have compiled the best data on mass shootings (events where 4 or more people get shot) in the US.  To my knowledge, they have the best national data on mass shootings around.  

Here are some useful statistics:

2013: 364 mass shootings -- 502 people killed
2014: 337 mass shootings – 383 people killed
2015: 353 mass shootings (to date)  – 462 people killed

During this same period, the US has averaged about 30,000 gun-related deaths each year.  About 20,000 of these are suicide related deaths while 10,000 or so are homicide-related.  To date, we are on pace to see somewhere in the ballpark of 460 gun deaths caused by mass shootings.  This represents about 1.5% of the total number of lives lost to guns in the US.  And according to Mass Shooting Tracker, this number is actually a dip from the 502 mass shooting deaths in 2013.  

So, why then are we so fixated on mass shootings?

Police in San Bernadino responded heroically
From a popular media perspective, mass shootings are a lot like serial killings.  They are unusually tragic events that make for salacious headlines.  The news media loves to focus on mass shootings because they are so atypical.  

If anything, mass shootings bring into focus the experiences of families, friends, and entire communities rocked by fatal shootings.  The other day, there was a great article in the Washington Post about families of children slain at Sandy Hook.  Three years later, families are still picking up the pieces.  The psychic wounds from losing a child, sibling, or best friend don't just get better.  They take a long time to heal, if ever.  Hopefully we can use the attention from these tragic events to highlight the support we should also be pouring into neighborhoods and communities where young people are getting killed with guns everyday.  Too many people in places like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Compton, St. Louis, Baltimore, and other places know the pain of losing someone to gun violence.  

Maybe we can start by writing members of Congress, asking them to lift the ban on CDC funds to study the problem of gun violence?  Without rigorous science, how can we expect to come up with interventions to end gun violence?

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.