crime/law

Modern policing is often characterized by quasi-militaristic tendencies, from “wars” on drugs and crime to its use armored vehicles and automatic weapons. The Department of Defense 1033 Program, which provides military equipment slated for storage to law enforcement agencies, is a popular way that police and sheriff’s departments acquire military gear. According to data from the Defense Logistics Agency, acquisitions of military equipment by state and local law enforcement sharply rose to a peak in 2016, and then have declined in recent years. But what explains participation in the DOD’s program? Which police departments acquire the most military equipment?

In a recent study published in Criminology, David Ramey and Trent Steidley investigate whether law enforcement agencies participated in the program and how much gear they acquired using 1033 program participation and U.S. Census and American Community Survey data. They find that participation in the 1033 — but not the value of gear acquired — is greater in areas of higher violent arrests. They also find that, after controlling for crime rates and other factors, higher local Black and Hispanic populations correlate with higher levels of participation and greater value acquired.

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police SWAT
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police SWAT, Photo by Tomás Del Coro, Flickr CC

However, these racial patterns are not linear. Agencies operating in areas with very small and very large minority populations have low probabilities of program participation, but agencies that serve a more diverse community are most likely to obtain military equipment through the 1033 program. For those that do participate, increases in minority populations correlated with higher dollar values of equipment acquired, with each subsequent increase garnering even more gear than the last (an exponential increase). In other words, program participation increases in response to racial demographics up to an extent, but once an agency decides to participate, the value of military equipment requested dramatically increases as minority populations increase.

Trends in police militarization highlight two patterns. Law enforcement agencies respond to increasing crime rates with police militarization, possibly in an attempt to deter further crime. In contrast, the racial effects found in this study follow  a “minority threat” model, as military acquisitions correspond to the presence of racial minority groups. This research illustrates how race, net of the crime rates in an area, can pattern not only where police operate, but how they operate.

Ryan Larson is a graduate student from the Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. He studies crime, punishment, and quantitative methodology. He is a member of the Graduate Editorial Board of The Society Pages.

Community-police advisory board bowing their heads in prayer

We bowed our heads in prayer to mourn yet another loss. It was the third murder in a week. The police captain called a meeting together to develop collaborative alternatives to enforcement so the mostly Black and Latino civilian volunteers could get more involved in promoting crime control. Lakeside, where I was conducting research, is in the heart of South LA’s “Black Belt”. The neighborhood is characterized by high rates of gang crime and violence, extreme poverty, widespread resentment toward police and is the site of the most destructive riots in US history. “We have to take our community back!” one meeting participant said as his voice cracked from the tears and frustration welling up inside him. Agreeing that something had to be done, the captain broke us into groups to spitball ideas. One popular idea was to canvass the affected neighborhood. Volunteers would pass out business cards and encourage residents to call with information about the shooting.

The cards that we handed out door-to-door were simple—bold lettering against a light background, the organization’s name and phone number, and a promise to protect anonymity—but they could also be socially impactful. Until then I was focused solely on power struggles in “community policing,” a post-riot policy that calls for greater civilian participation in law enforcement. Calling 9-1-1 is perhaps the clearest example of civilians “coproducing” social order. And canvassing with these cards only reinforced just how crucial civilian involvement is for law enforcement; their information and the lack thereof can directly shape case outcomes.

Then I started looking more closely at the cards and flyers that police and civilians passed around at community meetings. Visual rhetoricians look at textual and/or visual data and pick apart the “blocks of meaning” that authors arrange when composing documents such as flyers. Composition is a rhetorical act; its intention is to convince an audience. We can interpret these blocks on two registers, the presented and the suggested. The author presents a woman being robbed by an anonymous figure and frightened as a result. They explain how we, the audience, can change our daily routines to minimize our chances of being victimized and give us police contact information. Sociologist David Garland helps us see the suggested elements. He might point to this as an example of the new role of police as a key socializing institution, reflected here in the evocation of a specific outlook. Fear of crime today is at an all-time high; so high, in fact, that it far exceeds the realities of crime victimization in the US. This flyer gives us the sense, however, that crime is everywhere, every day, and that we ought to fulfill our civic responsibility to defend the community.

Drawing on over two years of ethnographic fieldwork and nearly two hundred documents, my new project, The Social Life of Flyers, seeks to understand what these artifacts do in community policing. Specifically, I seek to better understand the nature of flyers—their presented and suggested elements—and their bureaucratic functions beyond canvassing. My findings will reveal how police restrict rather than amplify civilian power in collaborative crime control. This work builds on my recently published coauthored book, The Limits of Community Policing, and can shape future ethnographic studies, research on police bureaucracy, and the craft of visual sociology.

Daniel Gascón is an assistant
professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. For more on
his latest work, follow him on
Twitter.

Buzzfeed News recently ran a story about reputation management companies using fake online personas to help their clients cover up convictions for fraud. These firms buy up domains and create personal websites for a crowd of fake professionals (stock photo headshots and all) who share the same name as the client. The idea is that search results for the client’s name will return these websites instead, hiding any news about white collar crime.

In a sea of profiles with the same name, how do you vet a new hire? Image source: anon617, Flickr CC

This is a fascinating response to a big trend in criminal justice where private companies are hosting mugshots, criminal histories, and other personal information online. Sociologist Sarah Lageson studies these sites, and her research shows that these databases are often unregulated, inaccurate, and hard to correct. The result is more inequality as people struggle to fix their digital history and often have to pay private firms to clean up these records. This makes it harder to get a job, or even just to move into a new neighborhood.

The Buzzfeed story shows how this pattern flips for wealthy clients, whose money goes toward making information about their past difficult to find and difficult to trust. Beyond the criminal justice world, this is an important point about the sociology of deception and “fake news.” The goal is not necessarily to fool people with outright deception, but to create just enough uncertainty so that it isn’t worth the effort to figure out whether the information you have is correct. The time and money that come with social class make it easier to navigate uncertainty, and we need to talk about how those class inequalities can also create a motive to keep things complicated in public policy, the legal system, and other large bureaucracies.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

As summer approaches and ads for part-time student work start popping up all over campus, it is a good time to talk about the sociology of sales. The Annex podcast recently ran a segment on multi-level marketing (MLM) organizations, and I just finished the binge-worthy podcast series The Dream, which follows the history of these companies and the lives of people who sell their products.

Photo Credit: Retrogasm, Flickr CC

Sometimes called direct sales or network marketing, these organizations offer part time, independent work selling everything from handbags to health supplements. The tricky part is that many of these groups spend more time encouraging people to recruit friends and family to sell, rather than moving products through traditional retail markets. People draw on their nearby social networks to make sales and earn bonuses, often by hosting parties or meeting in small groups.

You might have seen pitches for one of these groups at your local coffee shop or campus. Some MLMs get busted for using this model to build illegal pyramid schemes, while other direct sales companies claim to follow the law by providing employee protections.

Photo Credit: Neo_II, Flickr CC

MLMs are a rich example for all kinds of sociology. You could do an entire Introduction to Sociology class branching out from this case alone! Here are a few examples that The Dream inspired for me (find episodes here):

  • Economic sociologists can talk about the rise of precarious labor and the gig economy—conditions where more people feel like they need to be entrepreneurs just to survive. MLMs are particularly good at using these social conditions for recruitment.
  • Sociologists of gender will have a lot to say about how these groups recruit women, targeting our gendered assumptions about who needs part-time, flexible work and who is best suited to do the emotional work of sales. Pair readings with Episode 2: “Women’s Work.”
  • I’ve seen a fair number of MLM pitches in coffee shops and accidentally walked into a few in college. Watching these pitches is a masterclass in symbolic interactionism, and students can see how people build rapport with each other through face work and sales parties as rituals. Pair with Episode 3: “Do you party?” 
  • Many of these companies are either religiously-affiliated or lean on religious claims to inspire and motivate recruits. Sociologists of religion and culture can do a lot with the history of the New Thought movement. Pair The Protestant Ethic with Episode 4: “The Mind is a Fertile Field.”
  • Political sociologists can use the history of how these groups get around regulation to talk about corporate influence in the political world and how elites coordinate. Sociologists of Law will also love the conversation about legitimacy, especially how direct sales organizations learned to distinguish themselves from “clearly illegal pyramid schemes.” Pair with Episode 7: “Lazy, Stupid, Greedy or Dead.”

This is a great focus topic for the social sciences, both because it touches on so many trends in the US culture and economy, and because college students and recent graduates are often a target market for many of these groups.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

The rise of online shopping at the holiday season highlights some pretty Grinchy behavior. Local news and home security companies have been trumpeting market research about so-called “porch pirates” swiping deliveries before people can get home from work or school to bring them inside.

Most of the current solutions for package security aren’t that great. If you don’t feel comfortable trusting Amazon or some other company to remotely run your door locks for deliveries (or if you live in an apartment building without a fancy mailroom), getting packages can be a gamble unless you can route them to a secure delivery site. If someone wants to send you a gift with all the warm intentions of a classic Christmas tradition, their surprise could end up costing everyone a lot more time, money, and stress.

That friction between the idea of the gift and the gift itself is a great example of sociological theory at work. Pierre Bourdieu wrote about gift exchanges throughout his work, especially the idea that giving a gift has a “double truth.” People want to show kindness and generosity, expecting nothing in return, but gifts are still exchanged in relationships. That exchange implicitly demands some things: your thanks, your continued commitment to the relationship, and often a different gift at a different time. This seems like a contradiction, but both things can be true because there are different styles of gift-giving tied to time and place. Exchange too quickly and you look like you’re trying to tie up a relationship and move on. Respond too slowly, and it looks like you have forgotten your loved ones.

To betray one’s haste to be free of an obligation one has incurred, and thus to reveal too overtly one’s desire to pay off services rendered or gifts received, so as to be quits, is to denounce the initial gift…It is all a question of style, which means in this case timing and choice of occasion, for the same act-giving, giving in return, offering one’s services, paying a visit, etc. – can have completely different meanings at different times, coming as it may at the right or the wrong moment… (Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1977, Pp. 5-6)

Package pirates put a whole new strain on our relationships at special occasions. Now, if someone mails you a gift, accepting it gracefully might also mean being responsible for its security. What happens if your apartment has said they will not be liable for packages delivered, or your work schedule may not get you home in time to receive them? Do you sound ungrateful if you complain about these things or ask not to receive gifts?

On the other hand, it might also become much more rude to send someone a holiday surprise without a heads up first. It is also important to ask ourselves whether we are putting the idea of sending a gift ahead of the actual experience of our loved ones receiving it.

This time of year, we often say “it’s the thought that counts.” If that’s true, we might have to think carefully about some of the social norms for sending gifts until the shipping industry can catch up.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the family separation and detention policies at the U.S. border. The facts are horrifying.

Recent media coverage has led to a flurry of outrage and debate about the origins of this policy. It is a lot to take in, but this case also got me thinking about an important lesson from sociology for following politics in 2018: we’re not powerless in the face of “fake news.”

Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Political sociologists talk a lot about framing—the way movements and leaders select different interpretations of an issue to define and promote their position. Frames are powerful interpretive tools, and sociologists have shown how framing matters for everything from welfare reform and nuclear power advocacy to pro-life and labor movements.

One of the big assumptions in framing theory is that leaders coordinate. There might be competition to establish a message at first, but actors on the same side have to get together fairly quickly to present a clean, easy to understand “package” of ideas to people in order to make political change.

The trick is that it is easy to get cynical about framing, to think that only powerful people get to define the terms of debate. We assume that a slick, well-funded media campaign will win out, and any counter-frames will get pushed to the side. But the recent uproar over boarder separation policies shows how framing can be a very messy process. Over just a few days, these are a few of the frames coming from administration officials and border authorities:

We don’t know how this issue is going to turn out, but many of these frames have been met with skepticism, more outrage, and plenty of counter-evidence. Calling out these frames alone is not enough; it will take mobilization, activism, lobbying, and legislation to change these policies. Nevertheless, this is an important reminder that framing is a social process, and, especially in an age of social media, it is easier than ever to disrupt a political narrative before it has the chance to get organized.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

The recent controversial arrests at a Philadelphia Starbucks, where a manager called the police on two Black men who had only been in the store a few minutes, are an important reminder that bias in the American criminal justice system creates both large scale, dramatic disparities and little, everyday inequalities. Research shows that common misdemeanors are a big part of this, because fines and fees can pile up on people who are more likely to be policed for small infractions.

A great example is the common traffic ticket. Some drivers who get pulled over get a ticket, while others get let off with a warning. Does that discretion shake out differently depending on the driver’s race? The Stanford Open Policing Project has collected data on over 60 million traffic stops, and a working paper from the project finds that Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be ticketed or searched at a stop than white drivers.

To see some of these patterns in a quick exercise, we pulled the project’s data on over four million stop records from Illinois and over eight million records from South Carolina. These charts are only a first look—we split the recorded outcomes of stops across the different codes for driver race available in the data and didn’t control for additional factors. However, they give a troubling basic picture about who gets a ticket and who drives away with a warning.

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These charts show more dramatic disparities in South Carolina, but a larger proportion of white drivers who were stopped got off with warnings (and fewer got tickets) in Illinois as well. In fact, with millions of observations in each data set, differences of even a few percentage points can represent hundreds, even thousands of drivers. Think about how much revenue those tickets bring in, and who has to pay them. In the criminal justice system, the little things can add up quickly.

The Washington Post has been collecting data on documented fatal police shootings of civilians since 2015, and they recently released an update to the data set with incidents through the beginning of 2018. Over at Sociology Toolbox, Todd Beer has a great summary of the data set and a number of charts on how these shootings break down by race.

One of the main policy reforms suggested to address this problem is body cameras—the idea being that video evidence will reduce the number of killings by monitoring police behavior. Of course, not all police departments implement these cameras and their impact may be quite small. One small way to address these problems is public visibility and pressure.

So, how often are body cameras incorporated into incident reporting? Not that often, it turns out. I looked at all the shootings of unarmed civilians in The Washington Post’s dataset, flagging the ones where news reports indicated a body camera was in use. The measure isn’t perfect, but it lends some important context.

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Body cameras were only logged in 37 of 219 cases—about 17% of the time—and a log doesn’t necessarily mean the camera present was even recording. Sociologists know that organizations are often slow to implement new policies, and they don’t often just bend to public pressure. But there also hasn’t been a change in the reporting of body cameras, and this highlights another potential stumbling block as we track efforts for police reform.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.