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.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cops and Sleep

A new study shows that 40% of all surveyed police officers suffer from sleep disorders.  The study is headed by Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, chief of the division of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.  In a recent New York Times article Czeisler says that the findings point to "...[A]n underrecognized and important public health problem."

Cops taking a siesta
Awhile back, I blogged about another study that showed links between sleep deprivation and bullying amongst kids.  It seems that Czeisler and his associates are making some of the same empirical links between sleep deprivation and various health outcomes.  In addition to showing that cops reporting sleep disorders are at greater risks for heart disease and depression, Czeisler et al. also show that cops who self-report some kind of sleep disorder also report higher rates of aggression while doing police work.

As an on-again, off-again insomniac, I find sleep studies fascinating.  On one level, I can closely appreciate how important it is to get a good night of rest.  After a long and uninterrupted rest, I feel more alert, healthier, and calm.  My mood is elevated and I generally have energy to do all the stuff I need to get done.  In contrast, a poor night of sleep can make me feel tired, lethargic, sick, irritable, and in general--horrible.

But beyond sleep patterns, I feel like this study--and others that put a lot of their explanatory power into sleep and other individual behaviors--often miss larger pieces of the puzzle that might also help explain why cops are stressed, show higher risks for heart disease/depression, and why cops might also show aggression on the job.

Police work can be extremely stressful work.  In addition to the long and irregular hours, police officers in large, urban metro areas commonly respond to distress calls and enter into warzones.  A typical day or night shift is filled with encounters with death, violence, and other kinds of human suffering that most of us will never have to encounter intimately. 

Similarly, police officers also have a uniquely difficult job because they are so roundly disliked by the communities they serve.  I don't have quantitative data on this, but I would be willing to bet that police officers are amongst the most hated public officials in many urban poor neighborhoods across America.  This is evident in the kinds of historic breakdowns in trust and relations between poor black neighborhoods and police officers.  Elijah Anderson's Code of the Street documents this in fine fashion.
Anderson describes community distrust of police

Can you imagine what it would be like to work a job in which almost everyone with whom you serve hates you?  This must be what it's like to work for the IRS or as a meter maid.  In my estimation, there are few public official jobs that are so roundly criticized and attacked by the public.

I've never worked as a police officer, but I think chronic exposures to danger and the negative public opinions of cops are also important factors that may affect the health of our officers.  It would be nice if research and public attention focused more on these aspects of police work and less on what appear to be symptoms of stressful work.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Job Prospects of Army Vets and Crack Dealers

What do army veterans and crack dealers have in common?  More than you might expect.  Let me explain...

Employers are worried that vets may go AWOL
This morning, I read an interesting New York Times article about the dim job prospects facing many young veterans returning from Iraq.  Apparently, there will be an estimated 1 million new veterans looking for work in an already struggling US economy.

Employers aren't exactly rushing to hire veterans, either.  In addition to fears that they have PTSD or other mental health issues after serving, employers are turned away from veterans because many haven't accumulated very much work experience outside of the military.  The idea is that veterans haven't developed skills in the military that are transferrable into the more mundane white collar and service world.

What makes someone a good job candidate?  What are skills that can be transferred?

This question is strikingly similar to some of the sociological work on barriers to job entry for urban poor black men.  I remember reading an old Loic Wacquant chapter in Bourdieu's Weight of the World.  Wacquant interviews a street hustler in the chapter and learns about the young man's career path into hustling, some of the techniques he uses to make money, and gains valuable insights into how this young person makes sense of institutional racism in America.  I find the interview revealing, but also take issue with some parts of the argument.

Let me elaborate. Wacquant's argument and the argument presented in the New York Times piece both echo the same logic: Skills are transferrable when they help land people in jobs.  By the same note, skills are non-transferrable when employers are turned away from said candidate.  I don't think the problem is about skills being transferrable or not, I think the problem is that most employers adopt a very risk averse approach to hiring.

Employers, by and large, look for people whose previous work and experience are almost identically aligned with the tasks, roles, and duties that they could be expected to perform once hired.  Following this logic, if someone has had extensive experience working as an administrator, giving motivational talks, or filling out excel spreadsheets, than they are comparatively a better candidate than someone who has not acquired these skills.

I really dislike this way of thinking and feel that it's the wrong way to assess a job candidate.  Although I understand why employers view skills through such a narrow lens, I also feel that there are intangibles that people develop in any activity that could be extremely beneficial to companies looking to hire people with atypical resumes.  To me, the pragmatics are the easy part; a person can learn how to use excel, can become acclimated to giving motivational talks, or doing some other role that is part of a job description Obviously, there are some technical skills that people cannot just pick up 'on the job'; I think we all can agree that our medical care or legal defense are best left to those who have studied these disciplines.

But, beyond the world of highly technical work, I feel that many white collar positions and service jobs could benefit from the skill sets that a young veteran or street hustler have acquired over time.  Ex-officers and ex-dealers may come with added baggage and may take longer to train, but they also bring a bunch of intangibles to the table as well.  

Hustlin' ain't easy: Ask D'Angelo Barksdale
In my previous work with street hustlers, I've seen the kind of ingenuity, industriousness, and hustle that it takes to support one's self through street hustling.  The ability to support one's self with almost no organizational support or start-up money should signal to employers that a person is determined, hard-working, and takes initiative, right?  In the same sense, someone who has served in the military has developed the same skills and should be viewed in the same light.

Obviously, there are pragmatics to any kind of work.  Someone who has done a previous job has a much quicker and smoother transition into their new role.  But, over the long haul, I'd much rather have someone who could learn the pragmatics and bring additional intangibles to the job than someone who is a good task-master.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Public Health Approach to Crime Fighting

I was browsing Youtube tonight and found a recent news report about an LAPD raid on the Neighborhood Rollin' 40s Crip gang.

Something like 47 members of the 40s were arrested on charges ranging from drug possession/distribution, guns, and conspiracy.  Reports on the 40s always catch my eye because I used to do fieldwork in the area and knew some of the members through my research.

Maybe it's just me, but I'm always skeptical about the long-term efficacy of these kinds of programs.  Can you win a war on terror with terror?  In the short term, I'm sure that raids and other aggressive policing strategies will cause a dip in crime rates (something that is widely publicized after said raids).  This is perhaps why they are preferred methods; they produce immediately useable data for politicians, city attorneys, and others running on a "get tough on crime" ticket.

For example, I remember when the LAPD aggressively rolled out civil gang injunctions throughout LA.  In the immediate term, we saw a drop in violent crimes and arrests in areas with injunctions.  However, violent crime gradually returned to their pre-injunction rates over time.  Other researchers found that injunctions did little to overall crime rates; they were effective at relocating crimes to areas that didn't have injunctions.  When this happened, the LAPD switched gears and adopted other measures for curbing gang violence (one of them, if I remember correctly, was to use a Top-10 Most Wanted list much like the FBI, and to also identify key problems areas that had seen the highest per capita increase in gang violence).

What's more newsworthy? This or building a Boys and Girls Club?
In a nutshell, I feel like crime fighting is too reactionary in the US.  In many ways, law enforcement strategies mirror the logic of conventional medicine.  When a serious problem is identified, there are aggressive procedures and interventions for treating said problem.  While some of these solutions can cause a temporary improvement in health of a person or community, they often don't provide long-term solutions.

To me, it would be interesting if law enforcement approached crime fighting the way that public health officials approach health/wellness.  Instead of conducting raids, imposing civil gang injunctions, and using other methods that rely on brute force (and which ultimately erode trust and relations with community members), why not try to encourage healthy behaviors in individuals/families/communities before problems get too big?  Many of the same communities that have the highest rates of gang violence are also the most underserved areas.  Community centers like the Boys and Girls Club, after-school sports, and other community-driven programs are virtually non-existent in LA's "worst neighborhoods."  What if policymakers started investing into these kinds of programs instead of focusing on raids, injunctions, and other aggressive tactics?

I realize that this approach wouldn't yield the politically-seductive news of guns and drugs being seized during late night gang raids, but it might also prevent these problems from happening in the first place.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Rihanna got a Gun

A few months ago, I saw the music video for "Man Down," a newish song by Rihanna.  In the song (which was released not too long after she came out about getting beaten by Chris Brown), Rihanna tells the story of a woman who is sexually assaulted by a man.  In anger, this woman gets a gun (which in the video is a hammerless .38 special snubnose revolver) and shoots said man in broad daylight.

Rihanna seems to like guns
In addition to enjoying the reggae-inspired beat and melody of "Man Down," I also found the song compelling for other reasons.  Namely, as a gun violence researcher, I find myself drawn to popular representations of guns and gun violence.

Lately, I've been thinking more and more about the different ways in which musical artists talk about guns.  While rap songs commonly talk about guns as a powerful and symbolic extension of the self (see "My Buddy" by G-Unit), or refer to gun violence as part of one's lived reality (see "Bang, Bang" by Dr. Dre and just about any gangsta rap song), Rihanna's track covers one of the less discussed aspects of gun violence: Remorse.

At one point in "Man Down," Rihanna sings, "Cuz I didn't mean to hurt him, coulda been somebody's son.  And I took his life, when, I pulled out that gun..."

This lyric and many others got me thinking about a lot of things.  In addition to reflecting on the meanings of a revenge--particularly following a sexual assault--I began to think more and more about what some have described as "killer's remorse."  Randall Collins reminds us that violent crimes are often the end result of an emotional escalation.  Criminal offenders often feel blinded by a sense of rage or passion, or as he calls it "forward panic."  Moments following the deed, individuals convicted of murdering have confessed to feeling an almost surreal detachment from what they just did.  The realization that one has just shot and killed somebody is a common theme I've witnessed in multiple murder trials in Philadelphia.

Anyways, what are your thoughts?  I would love to hear them.