Friday, January 16, 2015

Death Penalty: Meet The New Year (Same As The Old Year)

Oklahoma Revs Up Death Machinery For New Year:

With a renovated death chamber, new training and a higher dose of drugs, Oklahoma on Thursday carried out its first execution since April, when the slipshod, prolonged killing of Clayton D. Lockett led the state to suspend lethal injections and change its procedures.

“Charles Frederick Warner was pronounced dead at 7:28 p.m.,” said Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Corrections Department. “The execution has been carried out.”

Officials here had waited to see whether the United States Supreme Court would grant a last-minute stay. But as the scheduled time passed, the court announced that it would not prevent Oklahoma from putting Mr. Warner to death.

A sharp dissent written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and endorsed by three other members of the court, held that the drug combination being used in Oklahoma risked causing severe, unconstitutional suffering. But the other five justices voted without comment to deny the appeal for a stay.
I wrote about the "Oklahoma Butcher Shop" last spring. Apparently, not all was so smooth in this one either.
According to journalists who witnessed the 18-minute procedure, it did not appear that Mr. Warner suffered great pain and he appeared to lose consciousness quickly. As the injections began, however, he said “my body is on fire.” Intravenous lines were inserted into each of his arms, and he called out that he had been “poked five times.”

In his final words, he apologized for the pain he had caused, saying: “I am not a monster.”
Warner wasn't the first to get whacked in the new year. The ignominious title "first in the nation," when it comes to the death penalty, goes to the State of Georgia, who Tuesday night executed a decorated Vietnam veteran who had been diagnosed with PTSD and other forms of mental illnesses, before the crime which landed him on death row.
In the first execution carried out in the US in 2015, last night Georgia put to death a decorated Vietnam War veteran who had been diagnosed with severe mental illness before he killed a deputy sheriff after a traffic stop in 1998.

On Tuesday, at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, 66-year-old Andrew Brannan received visits from five family members, one friend and a pastor. He told reporters that he had been “in a status of slow torture” in the decade and a half since the crime, and said he was not sad to be leaving the prison.

Outside the facility, guards cordoned off one area of the wet, cold grass for anti-death penalty activists. A different section was designated for members of law enforcement who came to honor the memory of slain Deputy Sheriff Kyle Dinkheller. But the feelings on the execution between the two groups were not so clearly separated. Some in law enforcement seemed genuinely concerned about Brannan’s history as a veteran.
If you watch the vehicle camera footage of the killing (and it is admittedly difficult to watch) it's pretty clear Brannan was out of his head and seemingly out of touch with reality.

But, when it comes to the death penalty, what's service to your country, a Bronze Star, and the often attendant mental illness that comes with being in combat?
Numerous veterans spoke out in an attempt to stay his execution.

“What does putting a man like Andrew Brannan to death say to my generation of veterans? To me, it says that this country can exploit our youth to its gain and then, when it comes time, this country, and the State of Georgia, will discard you like yesterday’s forgotten garbage,” Sion New, a veteran of the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars and law student at Emory University, wrote to the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles. In Georgia, the decision to grant clemency is not made by the governor but by the Board, whose members are appointed by the governor.
Which by the way, is Georgia's way of ensuring some lunatic governor doesn't go all cray and start commuting death sentences.
A Korean War veteran faced the death penalty for killing his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend in 1986. The US Supreme Court threw out the veteran’s death sentence in 2009, saying that the “intense stress and mental and emotional toll” of combat experience needed to be considered by a jury. “Our nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines,” the court wrote.
Except when it doesn't.

Regardless, throw in another execution in Florida last night, and the Death Penalty's new year is off to a banging start.

Meet the new death machinery; same as the old death machinery.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Genius of Howard Becker

Great time for this article to appear in the latest issue of The New Yorker, right at the beginning of the semester. For students in Intro or Punishment, new students, or even former students who remember the name, Howard Becker is one of the giants of contemporary sociology. And as this article points out, even at 86 years old, Becker remains as much a force in the discipline and in society as he's ever been.

He has been a major figure in American sociology for more than sixty years. Now a brisk eighty-six, he remains most famous for the studies collected in his book “Outsiders,” of 1963, which transformed sociologists’ ideas of what it means to be a “deviant.” In America’s academic precincts, he is often seen as a sort of Richard Feynman of the social sciences, notable for his street smarts, his informal manner, and his breezy, pungent prose style—a Northwestern professor who was just as at home playing piano in saloons. (Indeed, the observations that put him on the path to academic fame, on the subculture of marijuana smokers, began while he was playing jazz piano in Chicago strip joints. “Not burlesque houses,” he says. “These were strip joints.”)

Yet it is his position in France that is truly astonishing. Two critical biographies of Becker have been published in French in the past decade, and “Beckerisme” has become an ideology to conjure with. YouTube videos capture him speaking heavily accented Chicago French to student audiences, and he now spends a good part of every year in Paris, giving seminars and holding court. His work is required reading in many French universities, even though it seems to be a model of American pragmatism, preferring narrow-seeming “How?” and “Who, exactly?” questions to the deeper “Why?” and “What?” supposedly favored by French theory. That may be exactly its appeal, though: for the French, Becker seems to combine three highly American elements—jazz, Chicago, and the exotic beauties of empiricism.

This summer, Becker published a summing up of his life’s method and beliefs, called “What About Mozart? What About Murder?” (The title refers to the two caveats or complaints most often directed against his kind of sociology’s equable “relativism”: how can you study music as a mere social artifact—what about Mozart? How can you consider criminal justice a mutable convention—what about Murder?) The book is both a jocular personal testament of faith and a window into Becker’s beliefs. His accomplishment is hard to summarize in a sentence or catchphrase, since he’s resolutely anti-theoretical and suspicious of “models” that are too neat. He wants a sociology that observes the way people act around each other as they really do, without expectations about how they ought to. Over the decades, this has led him to do close, almost novelistic studies of jazz musicians, medical students, painters, and photographers.
We do, admittedly, tend to peg him in the area of symbolic-interaction/learning theory or theories of deviance and crime generally, without acknowledging his contributions outside those areas.
The “field notes” gathered at the strip clubs and night spots helped inspire a seminal paper of 1953, “Becoming a Marihuana User,” in the American Journal of Sociology. (Asked if he knew so much because he was smoking weed himself, he says, “Yeah. Obviously.” And does he still smoke it? “Yeah. Obviously.”) 
Side bar: LOL.
Becker insists that his accomplishment in the paper was no more than the elimination of a single needless syllable: “Instead of talking about drug abuse, I talked about drug use.” “Deviance” had long been a preoccupation of sociology and its mother field, anthropology. Most “deviance theory” took it for granted that if you did weird things you were a weird person. Normal people made rules—we’ll crap over here, worship over here, have sex like so—which a few deviants in every society couldn’t keep. They clung together in small bands of misbehavior.

Becker’s work set out to show that out-groups weren’t made up of people who couldn’t keep the rules; they were made up of people who kept other kinds of rules. Marijuana smoking, too, was a set of crips, a learned activity and a social game. At a time when the general assumption was that drug use was private and compulsive, Becker argued that you had to learn how to get high. Smoking weed, he showed, was most often strange or unpleasant at first.

In the sociologese that Becker had not yet entirely discarded, he wrote, “Given these typically frightening and unpleasant first experiences, the beginner will not continue use unless he learns to redefine the sensations as pleasurable.” He went on, “This redefinition occurs, typically, in interaction with more experienced users, who, in a number of ways, teach the novice to find pleasure in this experience, which is at first so frightening.” What looked like a deviant act by an escape-seeking individual was simply a communal practice shaped by a common enterprise: it takes a strip club to smoke a reefer.
But elsewhere, he began synthesizing his visions related to deviance to other kinds of social behavior.
Jazz musicians smoked weed to get high, but one of the effects was to set them off from the night-club-going customers they despised. “This insight looks original only now,” Becker says. “If you were playing, that was all you heard: ‘Fucking squares, now look what they want!’ I remember learning to leave the stand quickly, before any one could ask me to play ‘Melancholy Baby.’ That was the stuff of every minute of what you were doing.” He adds, “The originality—I shouldn’t even call it that—was to pay attention to it as something worth talking about.”

This insight turned out to apply to a lot more than marijuana smokers. “My dissertation supervisor, Everett Hughes, loved the idea that anything you see in the lowly kind of work is there in privileged work, too, only they don’t talk about it,” he says. “Later on, he went to the American nurses’ association and they hired him as a consultant, and he said, ‘Let’s do some real research: why don’t you talk about how nurses hate patients?’ There was a shocked silence and then someone said, ‘How did you know that?’ ”

His experiences as a working photographer, like his earlier ones as a working jazzman, illuminated what eventually became his second important book, “Art Worlds” (1982), which advanced a collaborative view of picture-making. Like reefer-smoking among jazz musicians, artmaking was not the business of solitary artists, inspired by visions, but a social enterprise in which a huge range of people played equally essential roles in order to produce an artifact that a social group decided to dignify as art. Art, like weed, exists only within a world.
The article then discusses Becker's popularity in France as the kind of "anti-Bourdieu," while bringing his friend and contemporary, the also-legendary Erving Goffman.
This view of the world has something in common with that of Becker’s longtime friend and colleague Erving Goffman. “But Goffman got more interested in the micro-dramatics of things,” Becker points out, meaning, for instance, his studies of how people look when they lie. “I was always more interested in the big picture.”
Which is ironic, since the article ends with this observation from Becker:
“What does sociology bring to the table? Well, I’d expand the definition of sociology. Calvino, in ‘Invisible Cities,’ is a sociologist. Robert Frank, in ‘The Americans’—that’s sociology. There’s a thing that I’m sure David Mamet said once, though I’ve never been able to track it to its source. He was talking about the theatre, and he said that everyone is in a scene for a reason. Everyone has something he wants. Everyone has some plan he’s trying to pull off. ‘What’s the reason?’ is the real question. So that’s what you do. It’s like you’re watching a play and you—you’re the guy who knows that everyone is there for a reason.”
Essentially, Goffman's Dramaturgical Analysis, Presentation of Self, and Impression Management.

What a great read. At a time when most people would be resting on their laurels in comfy retirement, it's so good to see Becker still blessing us with his piercing insights, observations and theories.

And a great way to start the semester.

Cross posted to: The Cranky Sociologists

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Digital Panopticon

Predictions for Policing in 2015:

Here, drawn from interviews with a range of thinkers and practitioners, is a glimpse of how tomorrow’s police officers may go about identifying, pursuing, and arresting their targets.
How They Know A Crime is Taking Place:
  • Devices designed to detect questionable activity are proliferating.
  • Several cities have recently put in place networks of microphone-based gunshot sensors, and others are likely to adopt similar systems. When a sensor picks up a suspicious noise, a computer program analyzes the sound and, if it resembles gunfire, determines its point of origin to within a few yards. A human reviews the report and, if warranted, dispatches officers to the scene—all within about 40 seconds of the gunshot.
  • A Vancouver company is testing marijuana breathalyzers that can approximate the amount of THC in a person’s system; Guohua Li, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, thinks they will probably be in routine use within five years.
  • Police may also start making use of intelligent surveillance cameras equipped with sensors that can identify abnormal or suspicious behavior. 
  • At the federal level, an initiative called Next Generation 911 will enable victims and witnesses to send texts and, eventually, photos and videos to emergency dispatchers—something that’s currently impossible because the 911 network runs on analog technology from the 1970s. People caught in situations—home invasions, for instance, or domestic-violence incidents—in which they can’t safely speak into a phone will be able to get help, and police will receive valuable real-time crime-scene footage.
  • Controversially, police departments are starting to monitor social media, which many gangs have embraced as a vehicle for branding and boasting. By searching for specific keywords and mapping interactions among individual users, law-enforcement agencies can keep track of suspected gang members, and identify bubbling gang rivalries. They can also infiltrate networks by posting under aliases and “friending” suspects.
Finding Suspects:
  • Departments that would rather not rely on probabilities might try the new-fangled “send an airplane with cameras into the sky and have it record every single thing that happens below” technique. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, that’s more or less what police in Compton, California, have been doing. Kannappan Palaniappan, a computer-science professor at the University of Missouri, says this could one day become a standard method for monitoring high-crime urban neighborhoods. With the use of wide-area surveillance, police would be able to “go to the tape” when, say, a drive-by shooting occurred, and track the assailants’ movements.
That a computer science professor could say this with a straight face is astonishing. Define "high-crime urban neighborhoods"? I'll be happy to: poor people and minorities, under 24/7 surveillance. I wonder if Palaniappan would advocate airplane cameras to fly over middle class gated communities as well?
  • Wide-area surveillance is not coming to your town tomorrow, however. For starters, huge leaps in data-storage technology must occur before police can feasibly keep a 24/7 video record of an entire city, according to Palaniappan. What the ACLU’s Jay Stanley calls “societal self-restraint” will likely play a role as well.
What I like to call "social control."

Arresting Someone:
  • Confronting suspects and taking them into custody should become safer for police officers, thanks to so-called real-time crime centers staffed by analysts who can transmit information to officers en route to a crime scene—the criminal histories of the people who live at that address, say, or floor-plan details, or intelligence gathered from surveillance cameras.
  • An even more profound change involves the personal information that will be collected immediately following an arrest. Tablets equipped with facial-recognition software have already been rolled out in San Diego. 
  • the FBI has launched a giant database of biometric information that includes images of people’s faces, irises, fingerprints, and palms, as well as details about tattoos, scars, and other markings. Civil-liberties groups worry that as police make use of new identification tools during routine stops—and in the process collect new kinds of biometric data, including DNA and voice samples—the FBI’s database will swell with intimate information about people who are never convicted of any crime.
  • According to the Boise State University psychology professor Charles Honts, interrogations could also become less coercive as agencies across the country decide to abandon their traditional interrogation method, known as the Reid Technique. 
  • Newer approaches discourage officers from lying to suspects about evidence or attempting to manipulate them through implicit threats and promises. Instead of, say, looking for signs of deception in suspects’ nonverbal behavior, interviewers are encouraged to create situations that give suspects an opportunity to contradict evidence investigators have already confirmed.
  • Experimental research by Saul Kassin, a psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has shown that, compared with these newer methods, older methods that rely on deceiving the suspect increase the risk that innocent people will confess.
So out of all these, only the last one is actually positive. Eliminating false or coerced confessions is vital and crucial to the criminal justice system.

As to the rest? Beyond terrifying. We are talking about ramping up the digital panopticon, the soft cage, to levels no one thought possible even a few years ago.

Since it's almost New Year's Eve, here's my new year's prediction: eventually iron bar and concrete jails and prisons will become a thing of the past, because every single one of us will be living in a global, societal prison, the likes of which has never been seen before.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Year in Pictures


Click here and enjoy the NYT's 2014 Year in Pictures. Above, from Times Square, is probably the best of the bunch. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Social Media and Telediagnoses

Risks in Using Social Media Used to Spot Signs of Mental Distress:

The Samaritans, a well-known suicide-prevention group in Britain, recently introduced a free web app that would alert users whenever someone they followed on Twitter posted worrisome phrases like “tired of being alone” or “hate myself.”

A week after the app was introduced on its website, more than 4,000 people had activated it, the Samaritans said, and those users were following nearly 1.9 million Twitter accounts, with no notification to those being monitored. But just about as quickly, the group faced an outcry from people who said the app, called Samaritans Radar, could identify and prey on the emotionally vulnerable — the very people the app was created to protect.

“A tool that ‘lets you know when your friends need support’ also lets you know when your stalking victim is vulnerable #SamaritansRadar,” a Briton named Sarah Brown posted on Twitter. A week and a half after the app’s introduction, the Samaritans announced it was reconsidering the outreach program and disabled the app.
I'm surprised the Samaritans, who have a stellar track record, didn't see that coming. An app, using some untested algorithms to try and spot suicide ideation, is beyond scary.

Yes, some academic research on social media and opinions or issues of the day is valid:
Social media posts offer a vast array of information — things as diverse as clues about the prevalence of flu, attitudes toward smoking and patterns of prescription drug abuse. Academic researchers, often in partnership with social media platforms, have mined this data in the hopes of gaining more timely insights into population-scale health trends. The National Institutes of Health, for instance, recently committed more than $11 million to support studies into using sites like Twitter and Facebook to better understand, prevent and treat substance abuse.

Facebook and OkCupid, a popular dating site, have also conducted experiments in which the companies manipulated content presented to their own members to study the impact on their behavior.
But the desire to try and start diagnosing people's psychological state, based on what they may or may not post on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram? That's the same kind of snake oil pedaled back when telediagnostics was first coined in the 1970's, when modern psychiatry promised to be able to diagnose people from what they saw on t.v. or videotape.

No doubt, watching someone on t.v. and saying "that person is crazy" makes for fun, snarky entertainment (and today, we "live tweet" the snark), but having a psychologist or psychiatrist do the same thing (or read your FB page or Twitter feed) and say, "yes, clearly this person is OCD from what I've read," and have that diagnosis be reported to your insurance company or employer? And follow you around the rest of your life?
A handful of research and nonprofit groups are analyzing social media postings with the aim of detecting and predicting patterns in mental health conditions. The experience of the Samaritans highlights the perils involved.

“Social media and discussion websites are producing data sources that are revolutionizing behavioral health research,” said Mark Dredze, an assistant research professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University who studies social media and health. “You can expect to see tremendous results.”
Yeah, if by "tremendous" you mean amateur diagnoses, quackery, snake oil, stigmatization, shaming, and more sinisterly, social control of unpopular thoughts or feelings.
Translating this population-level data into health predictions and interventions for individuals is fraught. To some leading psychiatrists, the notion of consumer apps like Samaritans Radar that would let untrained people parse the posts of individual friends and strangers for possible mental health disorders amounts to medical quackery.

For one thing, said Dr. Allen J. Frances, a psychiatrist who is a professor emeritus at Duke University School of Medicine, crude predictive health algorithms would be likely to mistake someone’s articulation of distress for clinical depression, unfairly labeling swaths of people as having mental health disorders.

For another thing, he said, if consumers felt free to use unvalidated diagnostic apps on one another, it could potentially pave the way for insurers and employers to use such techniques covertly as well — with an attendant risk of stigmatization and discrimination.

“You would be mislabeling millions of people,” Dr. Frances said. “There would be all sorts of negative consequences.” He added, “And then you can have sophisticated employment consultants who will do the vetting on people’s psychiatric states, derived from some cockamamie algorithm, on your Twitter account.”
Precisely. There is a lot of bad on Twitter and all social media, believe me. I've unfollowed, blocked, rejected friend requests, deleted people, etc because I was appalled by what I've read.

But I'll take the crazy and bad and simply disgusting stuff I see on there sometimes over, "I better not say or post or retweet this because some insurance company hack shrink might think I'm crazy, cancel my coverage, and alert my employer."

That's a big brother, social control, slippery slope you don't want to start down.

PWB: Policing While Black

At Home and Work, Black Officers On Defensive:

At times they find themselves defending police procedures to fellow blacks who see them as foot soldiers from an oppressive force. At other times, they find themselves serving as the voice of black people in their station houses, trying to explain to white colleagues the animosity many blacks feel toward law enforcement. Life for black officers, many say, has long been a delicate balancing act.

But in departments across the country, black officers say that act has become much harder after a season of intense protests against police shootings, followed by the killing of the New York officers. What are black officers who support the sentiments of antibrutality protests supposed to say to colleagues who blame the deaths of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in New York on those very same protests?

“Everyone’s almost pretty much walking on eggshells,” said Sgt. Darren R. Wilson, who is the president of a union that represents mostly black officers in St. Louis, and who shares the name of the white officer who shot Mr. Brown in Ferguson. “What’s going on in the community today? How are we going to act and respond to it? What’s proper? What’s improper?”
This is very similar to the dilemma faced by African-American correctional officers, who are often suspiciously viewed by their white colleagues as being "pro-inmate," and by black inmates as being sell-outs, 'Uncle Toms" and so forth. The double bind minority correctional officers find themselves in is the same double bind experienced by minority police officers too.

This example points to the vivid divide, often experienced inside the police station, in the wake of the Ferguson decision not to indict the white police officer in the Brown killing.
Black officers say they are sometimes at a loss to navigate the racial divides inside their own station houses.

A few days after the announcement of the grand jury’s decision in the Brown case, Sergeant Darren R. Wilson said he was getting ready with other officers to begin their patrols in St. Louis when an unexpected visitor arrived.

It was Jeff Roorda, the head of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, a group that Sergeant Wilson has not always agreed with. Sergeant Wilson is the president of the Ethical Society of Police, a separate labor organization made up mostly of black officers.

Mr. Roorda told the group that the white Officer Wilson wanted to thank them for their support during the investigation of the Michael Brown shooting.

Sergeant Wilson stood silent and slack-jawed. Mr. Roorda spoke as if we were working for Officer Wilson, the sergeant said. “We were working to keep the community safe.”

Other black officers in the room had similar blank expressions, Sergeant Wilson recalled, and stared at him. He felt as though they were asking him, “How are you going to respond?” Sergeant Wilson said.

“Are you going to just let this character stand up and humiliate us like this?” he said. “I felt helpless.”
And then there is the treatment that a lot of these guys receive at home, from family members who are so anti-police, the consternation is off the charts.

The Thin Blue Line, without doubt, applies to officers of all races and ethnicities, and that comes across in the article. Yet there are clearly unique challenges in policing for minority officers that simply aren't experienced by white officers, a big part of which is in the lack of promotions and leadership positions for African-American officers. 

When that changes, you'll see unrest between police and residents in minority communities tamp down as well.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Glengarry Christmas

I posted this a few years ago but am re-posting again.  It's become a tradition to watch it at my house. Merry Christmas.