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.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Should Cop Killers be Eligible for Parole?

I'm teaching Ethan Brown's "Queens Reigns Supreme" tomorrow.  For those who haven't read the book, QRS is a rich book that chronicles Southside Queens in the 1980s--an area that has long been an iconic home to many of Hip Hop's elite (e.g. Run DMC, Nas, 50 Cent, Mobb Deep).

While many know of the area from songs that describe the neighborhood, Brown's book describes the rise and fall of various drug organizations in Southside Queens.  Much of his narrative focuses on Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols, a notorious drug lord who ran an organization that controlled large areas of Southside Queens and was one of--if not the biggest--distributors of heroin, cocaine, and later crack in the area.  Using a mix of media reports, police wire taps, and other data, Brown reconstructs a complex history of Nichols and various other drug crews from the area.

In QRS, Brown also introduces us to Fat Cat's longtime friend/enforcer/and high-ranking lieutenant, Howard "Pappy" Mason.  Fat Cat and Pappy met while incarcerated and later became close affiliates that controlled much of the drug trade in Southside Queens.

Pappy becomes a central player in this story because he is later shown as the mastermind behind the highly-publicized assassination of NYPD rookie police officer, Edward Byrne.

RIP Edward Byrne
I won't spoil everything here, but Byrne was serving as a night's watch for a witness against Mason and the Nichols organization.  Mason, who was behind bars for gun charges, ordered the hit on Byrne--who was shot and killed while sitting in his police car around 3 am in the morning.  4 men were later arrested in the murder of Bryne.  Mason was later convicted of this and many other crimes, landing him with a life sentence in prison.

As it turns out, the four hitmen who killed Edward Byrne are scheduled for their first parole hearings in November of 2012.  Not surprisingly, this has mobilized police officer unions and other concerned citizens, who have begun signing petitions to keep these guys and other convicted cop killers behind bars without chance for parole.  So far, these efforts have garnered 250,000 signatures.  Here's a recent article from the Washington Post that describes the assassination, backlash, and parole situation.

This story and many others that I've collected during my research on fatal and non-fatal gun violence  challenges my baseline thinking about crime and punishment.

On one hand, I believe that prisoners--even violent offenders--can be rehabilitated and that our prison system works best if it allows for people to become seen as rehabilitated.  Otherwise, we open the door for a system that treats all offenders as 'lost causes' and deprives people of the right to redemption.  This, to me, is a fundamental human right and something that we should vigorously protect.

But, at the same time, there is an inescapable (and often glossed) emotional side to this story and many other homicide cases.  When reading about this case and others, one can't help but feel incredible pain for the family and friends of Edward Byrne, who lost a son, brother, cousin, friend, to a cold-blooded assassination.   Indeed, the hitmen were later arrested and convicted because some of them were bragging to others about the killing.  Another report claimed that one of the hitmen laughed when he saw brains flying out of Bryne's head.  

Although these kinds of details are gruesome and difficult to hear, I think that the voting public should know about these details.  Family members, friends, and others mourning a homicide think about these and many other cold and horrible details when thinking about a loved one who was taken from them.  Long after suspects have been arrested, tried, and convicted, family and friends are left with traumatic mental images that haunt them for the rest of their lives.

As a public who routinely votes for or against prison and policy reform, I believe we should know and try to empathize more with victim's families and friends.  By knowing these kinds of details, we can make decisions that are not just informed by our personal political ideas and sensibilities, but also shaped by an understanding of how these events transform the lives for family members and friends of victims.  I think this is an important type of social understanding that should be part of any healthy policy debate.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Obama, Romney, and Guns

I caught the tail end of the presidential debates tonight.  As a gun violence researcher, I enjoyed that someone in the town hall crowd asked both candidates about their position on gun control.  Although the debates have focused heavily on the economy and foreign policy matters, I believe that gun violence in our cities is a critically important domestic issue.

All smiles
Here's a quick recap of my reactions:

I liked Obama's response.  He talked about how gun violence prevention could begin in schools, and how faith-based organizations and law enforcement could help curb this problem.  We didn't get to hear specifics about how he would do this, but if this is what he plans on doing, I think he's right on the money.

Romney's response puzzled me a little.  He seemed to tow the conservative line of not wanting to scare away the powerful gun lobby and made sure to say that he wouldn't introduce new gun legislation.  This was predictable.  But, what about his comment on how gun violence could be linked back to single-parent households?   I'm not saying that families aren't important, but what exactly is the causal link here?   Hearing him talk about gun violence as a symptom of single-parent homes should make lots of people squirm (particularly single-parent homes).  He didn't come out and say it, but his comments were right in line with the well-rehearsed "culture of poverty" thesis, which has been roundly criticized and debunked by sociologists for the past 30 years.

If we are to infer from his remarks, we could guess that Romney believes that gun violence is the outcome of parents who aren't invested in their kids, and who are morally bankrupt and divorced.  Nevermind institutional racism, declining infrastructure, disappearing work opportunities, and a litany of other structural problems that affect the populations living in areas with the highest rates of gun violence.  Romney's comments seem so out of touch with inner-city realities, but then again, what should we expect from a guy who has written off 47%?

AK-47: a revolutionary firearm
How do other people feel about their responses?

I also found that both candidates sort of paid lip service to commentary that emerged in the wake of the Aurora shootings.  After the mass shooting, pundits and policymakers began another familiar trope in American culture: The problem isn't guns, it's guns in the wrong person's hands.  Just about every politician speaking out on the shootings dropped a line about mental health care reform.  While I agree that we need to revamp our mental health care system (in terms of increasing access and coming up with more creative ways to deliver care), both candidates seemed to suggest a platform that would involve better screening measures to ensure that people with histories of mental illness can't buy guns.  I think this is a slippery slope.  How would this kind of program work?  People who are insured are using mental health care at historically unprecedented rates; the stigma of having anxiety, depression, and many mental health conditions don't exist anymore (or they're at least more widely accepted conditions).  What would this system look like?  How would it work?

In the end, I'm just happy that gun violence got a brief--albeit hurried--moment in the debates.  I'm curious to hear how others feel about each candidate's remarks.