Photo by, Flickr CC

Surveillance technology dominates policing in many major cities, and software companies continue to develop tools that allow law enforcement to collect and analyze data on traffic violations, citizen complaints, and even license plate photographs. A recent CNN Tech article highlighted sociologist Sarah Brayne’s research on the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of one such data collection software, Palantir.  Brayne’s findings suggest that while the utilization of big data in policing facilitates communication, it also raises some major concerns of privacy and potential bias.

With the help of Palantir, LAPD officers use a point system to measure the risk of individuals with extensive criminal records, awarding points for a variety of law infractions and police interactions. However, Brayne found that individuals from low-income communities of color are more likely to have their risk measured — she cautions that such systems can be cyclic, with more points leading to more police contact, and vice versa.

Another potential problem is that of privacy. Palantir has improved location tracking abilities and allows law enforcement to gather and connect more information about individuals than ever before, but this often includes information on individuals without police contact. Certainly there are clear benefits; sharing data can help connect related crimes and more information helps police to work more efficiently and effectively. But challenges arise as technology develops. Brayne warns,

“I’d caution against the thinking that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. That logic rests on the assumption of the infallible state. It rests on the assumption that actors are entering information without error, prejudice or discretion.”

For more on the biases behind surveillance technologies, check out this TROT on computer code as free speech.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr CC

Since his time in office, President Trump has put in place a travel ban on Muslim immigrants from seven different nations in the Middle East, has increased the number of border agents at the Mexican border, and has high hopes of building a new wall at the US-Mexican border.  Despite all of this attention being paid to immigrants, Trump has yet to fully address the issue of businesses and individuals who keep hiring illegal immigrants. A recent article in the Huffington Post looks to sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza to explain this disconnect. 

In her research, Golash-Boza explains that Trump dumping more resources into border patrol is a complete waste of resources, as the average border agent apprehends about only two people a month. She states, “it’s like pouring money into a sieve…They’re mostly just sitting there.”

Golash-Boza has written extensively on the “immigration industrial complex,” which refers to the revolving door of business practices, law enforcement tactics, and cheap labor from immigrants of color. Businesses hire illegal immigrants and pay them a cheaper wage, but before they can make a respectable income, the immigrants are dismissed or reported to law enforcement (where border patrol, prison systems, and local law enforcement all benefit). Meanwhile, businesses simply replenish this cheap labor force with new immigrants.  

For more on the immigration industrial complex, check out this TROT on for profit prisons and immigrant detention rates. 

We all make mistakes, but what if one of your biggest mistakes was published online for all the world to see? Many who are arrested in the United States face this reality, as mug shots are now a common facet of the internet. A new article from 
The Marshall Project outlines the history of these images, tracing the historical trajectory of mug shots from their creation by criminologist Alphonse Bertillon to their skyrocketing numbers in the digital age. The article also draws from research by Rutgers sociologist Sarah Esther Lageson to explain the impacts these images have on arrestees.

Booking images of arrests are often plastered all over the web, including the websites of local police agencies and city newspapers. Privately-run databases also house these images, and in some cases, are described as exploitative schemes that charge exorbitant fees to have the images removed. Digital mug shots are not only a profit machine for some websites, but appear to have dire consequences for the people who are depicted. In her interviews with 27 people at a Minnesota expungement clinic, Lageson found that online arrest photos impacted job and housing prospects for some respondents, even if the images were decades old. These collateral consequences of arrest, and in many cases not even a conviction, complicates the notion that “innocent until proven guilty” remains a lynchpin of the American criminal justice system.

For more on the problems with public mug shots, see this Roundtable conducted by TSP alum Sarah Lageson.

Photo by Marion Doss, Flickr CC

In light of the recent attacks in Manchester and Kabul, National Public Radio talked to sociologist Charles Kurzman about the ways Americans perceive the threat of terrorism. Kurzman addressed how Americans focus heavily on every terrorist attack and how we often pin this on Islam, but he explains that Islamic extremism is a rare phenomenon.

As described in his book The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists, Kurzman’s research shows that Americans’ perceptions of the dangers posed by radical Islam are vastly overstated; though we focus on it at great length, violent extremism is relatively rare. Furthermore, it is disingenuous to claim that Islam or Muslim faith is driving this phenomenon. In addition, as Kurzman describes, Americans overstate the likelihood of dying at the hands of violent extremism:

Here in the United States, we have about 15,000 murders a year, and of those, a tiny proportion are from violent extremism. So when we focus just on that tiny proportion, even if we were to bring that down to zero, which we can unfortunately never count on doing, it’s not going to make a huge dent in the threat to public safety that we experience each year.”

The Walk a Mile in her shoes program is a domestic violence awareness program. Photo by David Rizzico, Flickr CC

Generally, domestic violence is something we think of as linked to, and limited by, the boundaries of the home. The recent tragedy in San Bernardino, however, makes us rethink such notions, as the attacker shot his wife — an elementary school special-education teacher — at the school, killing an 8-year old student in the process. Incidents like this highlight the ways that domestic violence not only affects the domestic sphere, but also the community at large.

In an article on Angelus, sociologist Silva Santos of the Social Security Institute in Uruguay discusses how, out of all the homicides that occur among people who know each other in the United Nations, 79 percent of the victims are women. This phenomenon is reflective of a general social trend wherein women are already treated unequally in public spaces. As Santos describes,

Domestic abuse is based on gender violence, as well as in other types of violence that society chooses to ignore. For example, street bullying, or within the work environment are behaviors that society overlooks, but they who bully grow accustomed to seeing women as their property or as objects with which they can do whatever they wish.”

In essence, the gender discrimination and harassment women face on a routine basis forms the foundation from which domestic abuse is enacted, a platform wherein women are already treated like second-class citizen in the general community. This is mirrored by incidents such as the shooting in San Bernardino, where domestic violence spills out of the home and affects the community at large. Moving forward, it will be important to consider how issues of gender violence and domestic abuse are interconnected.  

Photo by Paul George, Flickr CC

Following the volatile protests in Ferguson, MO in reaction to the murder of Michael Brown at the hands of police, politicians and pundits have begun referring to something called the “Ferguson effect.” This term is meant to describe a new reality for police officers wherein they face a public that fundamentally dislikes and distrusts them. Some argue that this has had made it harder for the police to do their jobs and that police are reacting by taking a step back; these same people argue that this is leading to a jump in crime and a decrease in law enforcement. But social scientists have found no evidence for this and new research by sociologists at the University of Colorado, Boulder points to a different kind of Ferguson effect — more informed police officers.

As described by an article in the New York Times, police pullback and increases (or decreases) in crime are difficult to link directly to the events in Ferguson. David C. Pyrooz finds that there was no overall increase in crime across 81 major American cities following Michael Brown’ death. In fact, though some cities saw a rise in homicides in recent eras, this trend quite likely began before the events in Ferguson.

Research by multiple social scientists shows that there are complicated reasons behind drops in policing or rises in crime, and tracking these relationships is challenging. Nevertheless, research indicates that declines in policing are not related to police apathy or community angst. Instead, protests may actually help cops become more familiar with community concerns. Soon-to-be-published research by Professor Pyrooz and colleagues shows that, in Missouri, the events of Ferguson were followed by an overall drop in traffic stops and car searches and the proportion of successful car searches rose, meaning that the police are exercising better judgment when choosing who they pull over. This may be a sign that police forces are becoming more sensitive to community concerns and trying to police in a more effective way.

Photo from the Prison Proliferation Project

Prior to election of Donald Trump, many scholars and policymakers alike were hopeful that America’s “grand social experiment” with mass incarceration was slowly coming to an end. They saw Americans embracing a more pragmatic and rehabilitative approach to punishment and even private prisons were on the decline. However, with the Trump administration’s support for harsher crime and immigration policies, it appears as though the current prison infrastructure will multiply rather than be supplanted. In a recent piece for The Conversation, sociologist John M. Eason discusses the complicated relationship between prison proliferation and rural communities.

As Eason demonstrates, from 1970 to 2000, the number of prisons in the United States more than tripled from 511 to 1,663, the large majority of which were built in rural areas in conservative Southern states. Scholars have argued that this rise in prisons is the result of a prison-industrial complex that exploits minority populations to the benefit of poor, white, rural towns. However, Eason’s research complicates this narrative, pointing to the fact that prisons are more likely to be built in communities with a larger share of black and Hispanic populations, and that minorities are overrepresented among correctional officers in prison facilities.

Eason also discusses his new book Big House on the Prairie, which follows the development of a federal prison in Forrest City, Arkansas. His book uncovers how prisons are more than just about job-creation to the communities in which they are housed, demonstrating that the prison in Forrest City united an entire community as a reputation building project. He concludes that rural communities are marred by many of the same problems associated with low-income urban neighborhoods, and that local prisons help bring a temporary boost to many struggling local economies. These economic incentives are a large factor in why these rural towns are unwilling, and perhaps unable, to support prison downsizing. Eason concludes:

“Weaning rural communities off the prison economy will mean considering alternative investment strategies like green industries. If we do not provide creative alternatives to depressed rural communities, we stand little chance in reducing their over-reliance on prisons.”

Photo by codepinkphoenix, Flickr CC
Photo by codepinkphoenix, Flickr CC

Despite becoming more unpopular in many other nations, it appears as though the death penalty is alive and well in the United States. During the recent election, voters in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma called upon their governments to strengthen the death penalty. California rejected replacing executions with life sentences and shortened the legal process for executions. Nebraska revoked its 2015 ban on capital punishment, and Oklahoma voters motioned to include it within the state constitution.

In an article with Public Radio International, sociologist Susan Sharp from the University of Oklahoma explains why support for capital punishment is so robust in the United States and not elsewhere. According to Sharp, the U. S. embraces individualism, which allows citizens to ignore the social determinants of crime and perpetuates a “lock em’ up and throw away the key attitude.” Sharp states,

“We don’t look at social conditions and how those impact crime and criminal behavior. If you look at European countries, where there is no death penalty, they also have social service programs far superior to anything we have in this country. They don’t condemn people for needing assistance.”

911 Call Center in Seattle. Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives, Flickr CC
911 Call Center in Seattle. Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives, Flickr CC

The relationship between communities and police officers is getting an increasing amount of attention, particularly the effect police violence has on communities. The Atlantic recently reported on a new study by sociologists Matthew Desmond, Andrew Papachristos, and David Kirk that explores how trust in the police often decreases after a community experiences police violence. After analyzing 911 calls made in Milwaukee from 2004 to 2010, the researchers found that instances of police violence had an impact on the number of 911 calls being placed.

The study began after the highly publicized beating of Frank Jude by police officers in Milwaukee in 2004, after which the authors found that 22,000 fewer calls were placed to 911. They discovered a similar pattern following the killing of Sean Bell in Queens, New York in 2006, and the assault of Danyall Simpson in Milwaukee in 2007. The researchers concluded that instances of police violence, both locally and nationally, have lasting effects on African American communities as whole. David Kirk says,

“Once the story of Frank Jude’s beating appeared in the press, Milwaukee residents, especially people in black neighborhoods, were less likely to call the police, including to report violent crime. This means that publicized cases of police violence can have a community-wide impact on crime reporting that transcends individual encounters.”

Papachristos added in a statement,

“Police departments and city politicians often frame a publicized case of police violence as an ‘isolated incident’ … No act of police violence is an isolated incident, in both cause and consequence. Seemingly isolated incidents of police violence are layered upon a history of unequal policing in cities.”

Photo by meesh, Flickr CC
Photo by meesh, Flickr CC

America has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and it is important to consider the long-lasting impacts that the criminal justice system can have on a person. This goes beyond the struggles of life inside or finding a job once they’re free — they can also lose their right to vote. In fact, due to laws which strip voting rights from people with convictions, over six million Americans will not be able to vote this November. This aggregate estimate comes from a new report by our very own Chris Uggen, TSP Editor and University of Minnesota Regents Professor, and his research team (which you can read about at Quartz, New York Times, Yahoo News, Democracy Now!, The Denver Post, Vogue, and others). Uggen explains,

“The message that comes across to them is: Yes, you have all the responsibilities of a citizen now, but you’re basically still a second-class citizen because we are not permitting you to be engaged in the political process.”

Public opinion is mixed on this issue, but people are generally okay if released prisoners within general society are allowed to vote, meaning legislation may be behind the times. In fact, consider that the 2000 election between Bush and Gore ended with a neck-and-neck finish in Florida decided by less than six-hundred votes. Today, Florida has one of the highest rates of felon disenfranchisement, and in 2000, such voters could have decided the race.  

And speaking of “race,” laws which restrict felons from voting are in many ways a black-and-white issue. Because of such legislation, one in thirteen American black adults are not able to vote. As Uggen explains, felon disenfranchisement particularly hurts the African-American vote, a logical conclusion since the criminal justice system is already known to be racially disproportionate. These laws are often defended staunchly, but things may change in the future, and in large part thanks to work like this.