Gang Identity/Shoe Identity

In his article “As Soon as I Get Out Ima Cop Dem Jordans”: The Afterlife of the Corporate Gang”, Laurence Ralph adeptly and clearly connects the rich history of gang activity in Chicago with how youth consume, understand, and wear gym shoes.

My first thought when I began reading this article was something along the lines of “when will I come to the tenuous connection between rap music, basketball shoes, and crime?”.  I could not have been further from the truth! In this incredibly well written article, Ralph works to connect gang activity, history, and hierarchy with wider social and economic forces over the past 50 years.

For example, in the 1960′s Ralph argues that gangs were politically minded, often performing community services like picking up trash.  In his interviews with retired gang leaders, he finds a sense of nostalgia for how these groups used to be organized, compared to the apparent “renegades” that are described by the retirees as materialistic and working against everything for which he used to stand.

Media portrayals and official police accounts of gangs seem to align themselves with a distorted definition of gangs by any measure.  On one hand, gangs and other criminal organizations are seen as hierarchical, holding identification and often specific geographic locales, and even perfecting an internal communication style, speaking in a dialect that stands to distance these young men and women even further from mainstream society.

These memes work well for both media and the police.  For the media, stories of gang conflict is easy sensationalized, allowing for simple stories to be communicated.  Rather than telling the complex story of gang involvement and the social pressures that often precede such affiliation, summary definitions of “gang” allow much information to be passed to the viewer quickly.

For the police, different benefits come from the same process.  By allowing ‘gang’ to stand for all the above stated information, intervention protocols are justifiably implemented.  Stated differently, a gang already is – it is not a potential, not a possibly, it is a reality.  Police are thus encouraged and thanked for their involvement as they address this issue.  Prevention and community based efforts to combat youth crime and instability in adolescent populations cannot be as important as addressing the now.

The above examples of media and police definitions of youth gangs stand in stark contrast to the complex and fluid definitions highlighted by Ralph.  By contrasting the political and community aspirations of the older generation of former gang members in Chicago with their perception of youth gangs in the present day, the very definition of gang gets muddled.

The message I was left with after reading  “As Soon as I Get Out Ima Cop Dem Jordans”: The Afterlife of the Corporate Gang” was that definitions and categories of people are not only malleable from group to group and interest to interest, but also over time.  Ralph astutely concludes that a nuanced understanding of youth culture and youth crime needs to be informed by its history.  For example, Ralph connects the 1980′s crack epidemic in Chicago with the changing of hierarchical youth friend-groups to ‘renegade’ congregations of youth, struggling to address their immediate needs through their peer group.

While I’m unsure how these findings apply in the Canadian context, I do see some disconnection between the way gangs are defined on the news and in police stations with the little loyalty that these individuals hold to their status as a gang member.

Still other questions remain – are Ralph’s conclusions generalizable to modern youth in general? Where a sense of shared purpose seemed to be common in the past, is it true that now stands profiles, individual statuses and tweets? Is generation ‘me’ getting reflected back at us at high power through those stories most likely to hit the news? Is it the same phenomenon that causes Jerry to update his status that he has been wronged by Becky as it is for Lisa to rob Carmen? While on completely different plane, it seems to me there is a conversation worth having here. Perhaps the result of which can move our prevention and intervention efforts in a more focused direction.

Police Dramaturgy: Ticketing The Homeless In Toronto

Recently, several Toronto based newspapers reported that the Toronto Police have greatly increased the number of tickets issued to homeless individuals over the past 11 years. The article posted on the Globe and Mail’s website details the behaviours most often ticketed which include aggressive panhandling, and panhandling near ATM’s and other captive audiences. The Star also reported these findings.

My first reaction to this news was something along the lines of “here’s another policy based in broken-windows theory”.  If police intend to clean up the physical signs of social disorganization in order to reduce criminal behaviour, they are moving in the wrong direction.  While physical signs of disorder and organization may be linked with perceptions of safety and perceptions of crime, no causal link can be made with actual criminal behaviour.

While this is a valid critique of increasing the number of tickets issued to the homeless, it seems to miss the point. Both The Globe and The Star frame this story in economic terms, showing that any increase in ticketing is futile because, after all, how could these offenders pay, when they are getting ticketed for panhandling in the first place?  In fact, somewhere in the neighbourhood of less that 1%, ever get paid.  The Globe went as far as to say this doesn’t seem to be a “valid use of police resources”.  To this I ask, “from who’s perspective?”.

How can ticketing more homeless people be explained, when both theoretical and economic arguments fall short?

As a researcher, I find this question fascinating.  Why would lawmakers continue to keep a law on the books that, for all its worth, is worthless? Nearly zero revenue is generated from these tickets.  Moreover, why would police increase the number of these tickets handed out to homeless individuals, knowing they will never get paid?

I believe the answer lies in the legitimacy granted to police officers at the point where these tickets are issues.  If, for example, an officer were to simply use their discretion, and ask an individual panhandling in front of an ATM to move along, they open themselves up to criticism about the legitimacy of their actions.  Has a law actually been broken?  Is the officer’s request valid?  As no formal reprimand has been made in this situation, it is quite easy to argue that the officer has overstepped his or her bounds, or are acting outside of the law.

However, when a ticket is issued, a legitimate entrance into the offender’s space has been made.  A bridge has been built.  After a ticket has been issued (not just threatened) it is wholly legitimate for an officer to ask a panhandler to move to a different area.  After all, a ticket is a formal record that something illegal has taken place.  In this way, the issuance of tickets dramaturgically increases police authority and legitimacy.

From this perspective,  it makes sense for the police to increase the number of tickets issued to homeless people. It’s a smart move on their part, as perceived legitimacy has been wavering in the eyes of the public since umpteen youtube videos of violent police-civilian interactions during the G20 conference in Toronto have surfaced.

What remains to be seen is why aren’t Toronto media outlets analysing these trends and patterns from a variety of perspectives? Discretion is a necessary component of any officer’s job, and looking at the motivations and ramifications of these actions could prove very telling of the state of the Toronto Police.

Victim’s Advocates as Fodder for Bill C-10

Bill C-10, the Canadian Conservative Government’s proposed Omnibus Crime bill, has received much criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.  For example, Quebec’s justice minister, Jean-Marc Fournier, called the bill a “band aid solution” and continued to state that La Belle Province would not pay for the additional costs this bill would conjure.  It has also been completely bashed by nearly every criminologist, economist, and legal professional on several different platforms.  It’s not difficult to find these sources, or to find holes in the logic of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

One group, however, that continues to support this bill, is victim advocate groups, like Victims of Violence.  The head of this organization, Sharon Rosenfeldt, stated in a major Toronto newspaper that “this [bill] is a necessary cost for the protection of society”.  Her message is clear; taking criminals off the street and keeping them there is a step in the right direction.  Her argument comes from a theory of incapacitation, holding that much violent crime is committed by a relatively small group of people.  Therefore, by removing them from society, people are safer.

As a criminologist, and someone who puts some stock in what experts working with relevant data say, I struggle to find a way to communicate with these groups of people.  How can I both commend their mission, their values, and their intent while at the same time remaining true to the things that I value, including sound policy based on scientific methodology?

I believe we first have to understand that groups like Victims of Violence are not supporting the application of a bill like C-10, but instead are solely applauding the intent.  This is the intersection where advocate groups helping victims of crime and the Conservative government meet: both want safe communities and less crime.  The sticking point for academics and other experts lies in the way they put these values into action.

For example, upon exploring the Victims of Violence website, I was pleased to see a menu labelled “research“.  I was hoping to find a compilation of various victimological studies, pointing out the needs of victims of various crimes, how different groups get victimized, and perhaps some literature on the effects of those experiences.  However, I found little research on victims, and more research on offenders, including topics like “serial killers”, “pedophiles”, and “dangerous offenders”.  Read alone, it’s not hard to imagine these studies working to justify policy like bill C-10, as these highlight routine, repeat offenders, committing often violent acts.  We might start referring to this offender-centric research used for designing policy for victims as “reactive victimology”, as it concentrates on the violent act itself, not the consequence of that action, and not the motivation for it to occur in the first place.

Education becomes a key component of crime policy in this way; what’s needed is a full, detailed picture.  What might bill C-10 look like if policy makers consulted (and respected) research that detailed who victims reported (or did not report) their experiences to, how it affected their routine activities, and how they did or did not put themselves at risk in the first place?

While the intention of victim advocacy groups is commendable, I challenge them to consult a variety or research and support quality public policy, voting in ways that further their cause, not direct money to all the wrong places. While their heart might be in the right place, they consistently highlight anecdotal cases of violent victimization, playing into the fear-mongering strategy favourited by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

Conversations around victims of crime are often shrouded by a fear that one will seem apathetic or cold toward those that have experienced untold suffering in their lives at the actions of others.  To those who nod solemnly in support without question, I invite you to help victims of crime by educating yourself on the relevant issues, and support those that share your cause.

Cooperative Evaluation

What is the role of an evaluator? Said differently, what is the goal of program evaluation? On complex projects and programs, certainly the role is not to sit, white-coated, judging programmers and curricula with the final word on if things “worked” or not. To judge without knowledge of best practices, or keep recommendations private is to betray the very expertise that validated evaluation as a necessary component of any new policy or program.

Proponents of strict, cold, and static evaluation argue that providing continuous feedback to programmers will affect the results of the program.  This, they say, threaten the internal validity of the evaluation.

To this argument I say “so be it”.  Final judgment will always rest with the evaluation team, and, if properly insulated from outside influences, can remain fair and scientific.  Giving updates and feedback to programmers can, in this way, be framed as both detached and cooperative, discerning and helpful.

What if the application of the program is improved due to the newly acquired information? Does this evince a breach of protocol by the evaluator? No, it does not. While a feedback loop between external evaluators and programmers is acceptable, a short circuit is not.  This is to say that the direct involvement by the evaluator in program application should not be condoned.  For example, coaching the answers of respondents in a written survey, or otherwise moving into a programming role would clearly affect results.

So how can a cooperative evaluation framework thrive in a climate of complex programming, funding renewal applications, and friendships forged along the way? To answer this question a distinction must be drawn between academic and managerial recommendations.  The former should be encouraged, while the later should be reserved for programmers alone.  An academic recommendation is based on scientific findings, formalized and submitted to programmers.  Differently, managerial recommendations could involve friendly reminders, disciplinary warnings, and any changes to programming based on efficiency or economic concerns; they are not necessarily based on research or best practices.

While the evaluator should not ‘care’ if a program succeeds or not, they should be encouraged to help programmers at each turn.  This may come in the simple form of providing ongoing feedback as data because available and the necessary analyses are completed.  This is to say, no value should be placed by evaluators in the success or failure of a program, only if data was collected in a timely fashion, analyzed properly, and submitted with prudence.

To work outside of the cooperative evaluation framework invites hostile feelings on both sides of such studies, breeding resentment.  Evaluation has become so ingrained in social policy and programming, why should it be seen as an obstacle of hurdle, rather than a team of collaborators with specialized knowledge? The time has come to work together to achieve best practices.

Sociological and Socio-legal Research In The Public Domain

It can reasonably be assumed that science holds a place in public policy.  Indeed, sound laws, programs, and initiatives should be based on some amount of theory, fact, or empirical research.  This is not to undercut the other influences that are often considered, namely economic concerns.  The purpose of this post is to strengthen the connection between researchers, or the producers of knowledge, and those that aim to apply this knowledge for the public good.

Despite the fine balance often sought between practical and scientific influences, the introduction of science and academic research into policy creation is, by definition, problematic.

When one talks about academic research, they are drawing a metaphorical line in the sand between us, the academy, and them, general public who are ostensibly not capable of understanding or engaging with our material.  Our material.  This sense of ownership is what allows the bastardization of quality research in preparation for its introduction to the political economy.  Moreover, if politicians do not understand or care to learn the basic methodological principles on which academic research is based, they are free to interpret findings how they see fit, often to suit their own ends.  This, in turn, gets relayed to the public through policy and election rhetoric, among other ways.

So how does excellent research get disseminated for practical application without marring the values on which it is based? Perhaps public education could help in this regard. While unlikely, this sole solution would have a perceptible effect; providing the public with the appropriate material may allow us to be more discerning regarding how we consume media, and more critical as we head to the voting booths.

Perhaps the answer also lies the research itself.  From all fields, a paradigmatic shift could guard the scientific principles which are held so dear, while at the same time infiltrating the decisional matrix of policy makers.  Currently, universities, colleges and professional schools are branded as places to receive knowledge.  They are centres where, if one so desires, they can go to better themselves and become an expert in a variety of fields.  This individualization of education is not helpful; it only appeals to the sense of self-worth of each student, without mention of a collective good, or pushing the boundaries of what is known of the world around us.

Should universities be rebranded? Perhaps they should come to be known first as centres of learning (writ large), places not only where students come to learn to contribute to the university’s body of knowledge, but where government officials come for information on policies.

The job of researchers and students will remain constant; produce quality research they can proudly stand behind. A collective effort to make this research available and useful would slowly fade the divide between academics and policy makers, fostering cooperation and, most importantly, creating a sound foundation upon which new policy can be created.

Paid Duty: Refocusing the Debate

Many uniformed police officers take advantage of the Toronto Police Service’s paid duty program, guarding construction sites, LCBO’s, and other private events and businesses. Critics of this program argue that these officers are public employees and should not also be privately employed.  Moreover, the air of legitimacy given to police officers is inappropriately applied to private endeavours when it comes to paid duty.

Supporters of paid duty argue that more officers on the street, whether on active or static patrol, benefit the public; more officers means a greater chance for the apprehension of criminals.  More reaching supporters argue that static patrol deters would-be criminals.  To support these arguments, proponents of paid duty point to cases where officers guarding construction sites have observed and subsequently apprehended shoplifters, speeding drivers and the like, simply by being in the right place at the right time.

However, to use such examples devolves the discussion on paid duty into the presentation of anecdotal evidence from supporters, rather than a philosophical argument for why paid duty is a good thing.  On the other side of the debate, critics often use misguided fiscal arguments that seem to emanate from veiled jealousy.  Instead of these irrelevant and post-hoc examples of why paid duty does a (dis)service to the public, the debate should be refocused and seen through the lens of the security privatization and the fading borders of public and private space.

The question should not be “is paid duty working?” or “what are the benefits of paid duty?” but instead “should sworn officers be allowed to guard private spaces?”.  After resolving this fundamental question, the debate can then move into the logistical and practical realm, where results-based conversations are more appropriate.  Without theoretical basis, both critics and supports cannot lay their arguments on a solid foundation.  Said differently, no matter how many crimes officers on paid duty stop, if their sheer presence in these spaces cannot be justified, the result is irrelevant.  The ends do not justify the means.

Peltzman goes to Starbucks

A random thought about starbucks. Why do they call their drinks “short”, “tall”, “grande”, “venti” and “trenta”? Why not extra small, small, medium, large and extra large?

Perhaps it has to do with the bell curve, in a round-a-bout way. Ask someone to pick a number between 1 and 10, and they will, on average, pick 5. Ask them to pick between 1 and 20, 10 will be the mean. What does this have to do with starbucks drinks? With little value placed on the current sizing monikors, customers are likely to land right in the middle – grande.

Now think about the value of the second set of options, from small to extra large. The relative value is more obvious than the difference between a venti and a trenta. So if you went to McDonalds and ordered an extra-large drink, you know that you are selecting the biggest beverage possible – you must make the concious decision that indeed, you desire the most amount of sugar that is possibly allotted by the food establishment you entered. Is the stigma attached to venti or trenta the same? I would argue that it’s not.

It’s a genius play by Starbucks. They’ve added in a new order option, theoretically raising the mean order size (think of the 1-10/1-20 thought experiment above). To counteract the possible stigma, and reverse of the above increase in mean order size, they’ve opted to make the names of their beverage sizes less obvious. This encourages customers to place orders relative to the number of drink options, and not the names attached to them.

Another thought experiment. Lets talk about likert scales. You could have a balanced 3 point scale – disagree, neutral, and agree. Or an asymetrical 4 point scale; disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree. On a series of statements, what do you think the average answer would be? I would guess, since there are more options in the second set, answers would be more positive.

Furthermore, though 3 of the possible answers are identical in each set, the underlying meaning of, for example, neutral, is only obtained through the relative placement of other possible answers.

Can you think of any other examples of the above principle?