SFC Fall 2018 Senior Lecture Series
Co-Directors: Athena Devlin (English & American Studies) & Emily Horowitz (Sociology & Criminal Justice)
St. Francis College
180 Remsen Street
Brooklyn Heights, NY
Events in Lecture Hall 4202 on Tuesdays at 11:10am unless otherwise noted
Crimcast co-founder's Letter to the Editor to the Wisconsin State Journal (March 16, 2018) on the connection between college majors in criminal justice, the liberal arts (particularly the Humanities), and getting a job.
Lee and Mythen's International Handbook on Fear of Crime:
The Routledge International Handbook on Fear of Crime brings together original and international state of the art contributions of theoretical, empirical, policy-related scholarship on the intersection of perceptions of crime, victimisation, vulnerability and risk. This is timely as fear of crime has now been a focus of scholarly and policy interest for some fifty years and shows little sign of abating. Research on fear of crime is demonstrative of the inter-disciplinarity of criminology, drawing in the disciplines of sociology, psychology, political science, history, cultural studies, gender studies, planning and architecture, philosophy and human geography. This collection draws in many of these interdisciplinary themes.
The Graphic Justice Research Alliance (GJRA) is delighted to announce a call for papers for its annual conference at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY to be held October 20, 2018. The theme for this year’s Graphic Justice Discussions is ‘Law, Comics, Justice’, and promises to be an exciting event that will be accessible and relevant to scholars, artists, practitioners, policy-makers, writers, and the general public alike.
We are gratified to announce that legendary comic writer and editor Ann Nocenti will join us as this event’s keynote speaker. Nocenti has lent her distinctive voice to numerous beloved comic book runs, including her writings for Marvel’s Daredevil and DC’s Catwoman, Katana, and Green Arrow. We very much look forward to hearing her observations about the industry, as well as reflections on her latest project, the forthcoming The Seeds, a new four-issue series in collaboration with artist David Aja. The series, part of a new line of Berger Books published by Dark Horse Comics, is described as “An eco-fiction tech-thriller … a story of love beyond race and gender, and of the resilience of both human and animal kind.”
Please join us for what promises to be a stimulating and inclusive occasion! Send 250-word abstracts to Nickie Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The GJRA is a multidisciplinary research network exploring the crossover between law and justice and comics of all kinds.
We were saddened to learn of the passing last month of scholar and popular culture critic Jack Shaheen. We found Shaheen's book Reel Bad Arabs to be immensely helpful as we studied representations of Arabs in post-911 American comic books.
Shaheen painstakingly documented how Arabs were portrayed in movies and television concluding that villainous stereotypes abound. Throughout his career, he advocated for a simple goal: that Arabs be portrayed as "ordinary people."
In particular, his analysis of comic books in the 1980s and 1990s in Reel Bad Arabs explained the historic portrayal of Arabs as limited to only terrorists, uber-wealthy oil shiekhs or bandits -- depictions that contribute to stereotypical attitudes. As he brought to light, comic book best-sellers in the superhero genre, such as Batman: A Death in the Family (1988), The Punisher: Nuclear Terrorists Over Times Square (1987) and Moon Knight: Fist of Konshu (1985), clearly fell into this trap. In fact, only Joe Sacco's Palestine (1996), a journalistic--style account of the occupation of Palestine, presented Arabs in a sympathetic and humanistic light.
Since his important critique of comic books, the landscape has become more diverse. Although stereotypical portrayals still occur, a counter-narrative is now also palpable. Increasingly, there are Arab creators and publishers working in the industry. Most notably Tashkeel Publications' The 99, the brainchild of Naif Al-Mutawa, depicts heroes based on the 99 names, or attributes, of Allah. Although the 99 names is a Muslim theological construct intersecting with a multitude of ethnic contexts, it depicts Arab characters, culture, and settings in more nuanced ways than most comics. It also represented the first notable publishing house of superhero comics coming out of the Arab world.
Arab in America (2008) is another important articulation confronting what Shaheen cared so passionately about. In this biographic graphic novel, Toufic El Rassi documents his own experience of discrimination and bullying based on the anti-Arab xenophobia in American society. He uses the medium skillfully to expose how these experience are traumatic and alienating, and provides insight into coping strategies and avenues that lead toward heeling. The work humanizes the Arab-American experience in a way few other comic books ever have.
We hope that scholars will carry on the Shaheen's vigilance in the face of damaging portrayals of Arabs in American comic books and other entertainment, while positively acknowledging depictions that present Arabs in their full humanity. With President Donald Trump's Muslim Ban and disparaging comments about ethnic minorities, the possibility for cultural backsliding is real.
-- Nickie & Staci
While watching the new Wonder Woman blockbuster, our phones were buzzing with news alerts. On screen, as Princess Diana of Themiscyra (aka Wonder Woman) contemplated the nature of humanity and puzzled at our craving for war and violence, in the real world London was in the midst of two terrorist attacks that ultimately killed seven and injured dozens. In the coming days British Prime Minister Teresa May would declare "enough is enough" and call for the end of the so-called tolerance for extremist violence.
Some might dismiss the latest summer superhero movie as irrelevant, but we could not help but feel that Wonder Woman was speaking truth to power. The film is a deep reverie on the longstanding political and moral question of whether to meet violence with violence. We witness Wonder Woman seriously contemplating good versus evil. She comes to understand that humanity often cannot avoid evil, but in having freewill, choosing good is more meaningful.
Off-screen, we live in a destabilized global environment where both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump ushered in uncertainty about the fate of the European Union, NATO, and the Paris Climate Agreement. Armed conflicts rage in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Mexico, and a myriad of other places. In the U.S., state-induced violence in the form of questionable police shootings dominates headlines. The world feels dangerous.
Many tolerate violence by rationalizing it in a utilitarian framework: perpetrated in the interest of the greater good, perhaps even a future lasting peace. So it is with Wonder Woman. In her duty-bound quest to save the world from the ravages of chemical warfare in World War I specifically, and the devastation of human wars in general, she and her acquired team of rag-tag heroes engage in quite a bit of mass violence.
Yet Wonder Woman abhors war. Her whole mission is to eliminate war in the form of the god Ares. Such cognitive dissonance as warring against war is a recurrent theme in mainstream superhero comic books. Our book, Comic Book Crime, describes the typical mainstream comic book plot as giving great latitude to the use of violence if the situation is deemed a time of crisis--and as we detail, it is almost always a time of crisis.
The compelling tension in comic books revolves around putting aside no-kill principles, something morally uncomfortable but framed as necessary in practice. In true superhero form, Wonder Woman, is likewise a meditation on putting aside those principles, and on deathworthiness, a term that originally describes deliberations by a criminal court, but that we widen. We define deathworthiness as a superhero's (instead of a juror's) decision-making process around when and why killing someone else is justifiable.
Sans a court of law, superheroes are unburdened by due process constraints and act as stand-ins for the entire system: judges, jurors, and (at times) executioners. Such narratives of extralegal justice saturate American popular culture in general, and we argue, are important artifacts for understanding larger American notions of justice.
What we found fascinating about Wonder Woman's determinations of deathworthiness was her deeper contemplations of the means to the end, questioning the typical utilitarian framework. The process through which Wonder Woman realizes that killing a single enemy is futile in the larger quest for peace--is one that we as a society would do well to contemplate. A cynic may find Wonder Woman's message of love and hope in humanity to be too overwrought. But many who have experienced war firsthand come to similar profound conclusions.
Members of Veterans for Peace, for example, are "dedicated to building a culture of peace, exposing the true costs of war, and healing the wounds of war," stopping at nothing short of "abolishing war as an instrument of national policy." If accomplished, this would entail a cultural shift away from utilitarian calculations and toward the use of non-violent solutions at times of crisis. Veterans for Peace and Wonder Woman are on the same important mission, responding to a violent world suffering too much loss of life.
In Comic Book Crime, we document how comic book creators reacted to 9/11 and how our cultural perspectives on crime fighting and terrorism both reflect and shape these narratives. We are now in a new era, one that warrants more exploration of how to achieve global peace, not less. Those on Fox News who lament that Wonder Woman is not "American" enough are perhaps willfully ignorant as to her origins and international relevance. Global peacekeeping has long been a top priority for Wonder Woman--a goal that clearly calls for a bit more attention here in the real world. Achieving peace and reducing violence continue to be among the planet's biggest challenges, regardless of what Trump says.
On the evening of the United States' premiere of the Wonder Woman film, Bill Maher engaged in banter with Senator Ben Sasse on HBO's Real Time about how young adults just can't seem to grow up, alluding to comic books as part of a kind of chronic Peter Pan problem. Maher did not make reference to Wonder Woman, instead he made a more general claim that it's foolish to “…treat comic books as literature.” The implication is that comic book fans, publishers, marketers, and creators are stunted in emotional maturity and unable to deal with the harsh truths of real life. Tell that to Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, Neil Gaiman, Brian K. Vaughn, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alison Bechdel, Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, and many others who have won accolades for telling very adult truths in graphic form.
The sad truth is that we "adults" excel at waging war, but we are terrible at sustaining peace. Rather than dismiss the notion that comic books (and comic-book inspired films) have nothing to contribute to the world of grown-ups, it would do us some good to heed Hippolyta's words to Diana and ask ourselves whether humankind truly deserves Wonder Woman, or the people like her off-screen who work so hard to wage peace.
By Dr. Kimberly Collica-Cox, Associate Professor, Pace University’s Dyson College, Criminal Justice Department; Chief Investigator for Parenting, Prison, and Pups
The Parenting, Prison and Pups Program (PPP) is a combination of several components that work together to benefit incarcerated women. The program is a partnership between Pace University, The Good Dog Foundation, the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC - a federal jail) and the Westchester County Department of Correction (WCDOC - a county jail). The PPP is a first-ever prison-based parenting program that is enhanced by the inclusion of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT).
Incarcerated women face unique challenges. Overwhelmingly, they are mothers and were primary caregivers prior to incarceration. Prison-based parenting programs can help women develop healthy bonds with their children by empowering mothers to feel more confident about their parenting skills by increasing their knowledge of effective parenting techniques and by promoting a healthy parent-child relationship. These programs offer support and attempt to lessen the emotional effects surrounding the separation from their children. A parenting program, in a correctional setting, as part of a larger reunification focus, will enable mothers to maintain a bond with their children, which is beneficial for the mother and the child alike. Incarceration damages the child-parent attachment. Since children of incarcerated mothers are at a high risk for future incarceration, it is important for children to maintain a bond with their mother to reduce intergenerational offending. Relationships with their children can serve as a vehicle toward criminal desistance for female offenders. By improving a woman’s parenting skills and mitigating her future criminality, we also improve the future success of her children.
The PPP incorporates undergraduate Pace students as teaching assistants to help with program delivery. As part of a service learning Corrections course, the program introduces students to the experience of incarceration, a rare opportunity, to help them become caring professionals. They come to understand that regardless of their career choices within the criminal justice system, the decisions they make as lawyers, police officers, case managers, etc., will directly impact this population of women.
As you can imagine, coordinating numerous partner organizations was not simple. We began working on this program in the fall of 2015 but it was not until March 2017 that I launched the first “control” group of 12 female inmates at MCC using the parenting curriculum without AAT. The program provides us with a platform to conduct research on AAT, a growing field that is in need of more empirical data. Strong social science research compares a treatment group to a control group. The first class, recently concluded at MCC, serves as one control group.
In spite of the delays and numerous challenges and the fact that we are in the control phase, not the test phase, PPP has already made an impact on the lives of our student inmate mothers and our Pace service learning students. What began as a somewhat disconnected and slightly disinterested and occasionally angry group of strangers, morphed, by our third class, into a community of mothers who cared and supported one another through this process. Confidentiality, which is difficult to maintain in the correctional environment, was never broken, demonstrating the true commitment of these moms. We laughed, we cried, and we shared. We spoke about being broken. We encouraged women to break down in our safe space of community but recognized that we would not remain broken. Regardless of past trauma, mistakes, regrets, or shame, each woman worked through her issues week by week with the support of her sisters. We had done the impossible – we created a supportive caring community within a jail. Such communities are easier to develop in a prison, where women have the luxury of time to develop deep and trusting connections with one another. In the jail setting, a place where people come and go, is challenging, appeared improbable but, against all odds, was achieved. We will deliver the course with the AAT starting in the spring of 2018. Given the positive outcomes of the control group, the treatment group also promises to be successful.
The control group of women completed 14 lessons – Parenting Styles; Effective Speaking; Effective Listening; Effective Problem Solving; Understanding the Parent and Child’s Job; Bonding Through Play; Directions and Encouragement; Rewards and Consequences; Time Out With Back-Up Privilege Removal; Yoga, Meditation and Stress Management; Going Home and Expectations With their Children; Healthy Adult Relationships; and the Family Reunification Day. The women in the class, including two who did not want to be there at the beginning, really worked very diligently to enhance their parenting skills and to begin to deal with guilt that they felt as a result of choices which led to their separation from their children. The Pace students felt the change was transformative and each Pace student stated this was the best class at Pace. It really helped to provide them with a realistic view of corrections and, as expected, it was completely different from what they previously imagined. Our moms, who were hesitant about having students in the class, really began to appreciate their presence, their help and their insight.
In fact, PPP became so important to our inmate students, they requested that Good Dog mount a website their families could visit, proving our inmate mothers and grandmothers were working hard to improve parenting skills while in prison.
One woman, who broke down in tears on our first class, worked on repairing the relationship between her family and her in-law’s family. By the end of our class, the lines of communication, once firmly closed, began to open. Another woman, afraid of telling her grandchild about where she was, made the decision to be honest. Although initially upset, the grandson did not rescind his love or his desire to see his grandmother. Another woman, whose son would not talk to her because he said he hated her, began talking to her by the end of our class. Despite her depression, the group’s encouragement motivated her to be consistent in reaching out to him and in utilizing the skills we learned in class; although he has not forgiven her, he will now answer the phone when she calls. Another woman who had difficulty communicating with her child’s caregiver, utilized the skills we learned in class regarding effective communication and was able to receive a visit from her child. As each woman faced challenges, she brought these challenges to the group. The group worked actively to help problem solve and the women would report on their progress. I have to say the love, care and concern shown by each woman throughout our course was very touching. They thanked us after each visit and told us they looked forward to each visit. The Pace students and I looked forward to our visits as well. The hard work and progress of each mom really motivated us to put 100% of our time and energy into making this program successful. During one of our classes, I was given the MCC Volunteer of the Year Award. It was one of the best moments of my professional career.
We recently had our reunification day. Families came to see their loved ones graduate with their parenting certificates. Not all families were present but even if the women do not have anyone visiting, they all made a commitment to attend and to help me work with the children who were able to visit. It is my hope that they will continue to serve as a support for one another, long after our class is completed. I will return to check in with them. Some of them are leaving in the next weeks to begin their new lives. In fall 2017 we will begin the second control group training at the jail in Westchester County, with another group of women. This program serves as the chance for many new beginnings and for the true opportunity to believe when we have a bad day, we can start our day over anytime we like, and we can begin to mend and heal not only the relationships we have with our families and our children, but most importantly, the relationship we have with ourselves.
By Staci Strobl
Casting JonBenet (2017) is an enigmatic and interesting film, but I have been struggling since viewing it to accept the film as belonging to the documentary genre. The thrust of the piece involves an audition of would-be actors in a film about the JonBenet case; the several Patsy hopefuls and the several John hopefuls and the several Burke hopefuls, etc., find themselves giving a series of monologues about the events of the 1996 murder that build into an ominous chorus. It's a fascinating long-form montage. The various theatrical performances give off the haunting sensation that there is no steady place to stand, as if the whole case is itself is an emotionally hellish hall of mirrors. I like the film as pure art.
I have deep ambivalence about the film as a documentary. It should perhaps be categorized as a mockumentary: a film that uses the documentary style but isn't to be relied upon in an informative sense. In fact, the casting call depicted is staged: there is no real theatrical production other than the artificial one created for the production of the film. Further, we learn nothing new about the JonBenet case and we have no idea whether any of the voices emerging have any moral or legal authority in the matter. All that being said, when approached as an art form, as fiction (loosely based on a real event), the film begins to shine. It moves the viewer affectively, makes us feel the sadness, depravity, powerlessness, and alienation of being armchair witnesses to the terrible crime of child murder.
As New York Times reviewer Manhola Dargis puts it, the film is a comment on:
Although Dargis essentially pans the film as overly pretentious, I think it succeeds, perhaps not wildly, but nonetheless it is quite good-- as long as we discard the false appellation of documentary.
- Immigrants do not commit the majority of crime in the United States
- The proposed travel ban is not empirically justified and targets the wrong countries
- The U.S. is not in the midst of a national crime wave
- The U.S. government plays an important role in police reform
By Staci Strobl
Although it probably should come as no surprise given the pace of climate change, the headline "Farewell to the Arctic" on the cover of the latest issue of The Economist caused me pause. Yes, we are losing an entire region as we know it, a region that due to environmental feedbacks loops warms at twice the rate of other regions on Earth. By 2040, there will be no summer sea ice in the region. As the ice melts, overall sea levels rise and cause catastrophes in low-lying areas across the planet.
It should be a crime, I muttered, but that's clearly more of an emotional reaction than one that makes much sense. Crimes as we generally define them in contemporary nation-states, and international law, must have perpetrators and victims, demonstrable behavior that can be proven at trial. In the case of global warming, everyone and no one is responsible on some level. Who is the who that has driven the use of hydro-carbons and how many infinite behaviors have contributed? Certainly rich countries have done more harm than poorer ones, corporations more than individuals. But it's not so simple. A criminal framework in the conventional sense cannot define and respond to the apocalyptic end of the Arctic.
Or can it? Environmental criminological theory has been working on this question of crime defintion for some time. Although most criminologists would not necessarily frame the loss of an entire region as a single crime, many more discrete phenomena also suffer from being under-criminalized in current frameworks. For example, the collusion between state and corporate interests in over-logging the Tasmanian forest was not defined as a crime, in fact the behavior was all perfectly legal for decades. This particular example led criminologist Rob White to argue for redefining criminal behavior in terms of harms, and along the way he found numerous other examples to support this way of thinking. And he focuses on harms not just to people, as is generally the case in the law, but harms to wildlife and the environment as well.
This is an important theoretical contribution. If we don't bring crime back to harms, using levels of harm-- holistically speaking-- as an analytic category, we politicize and corporatize even the theoretical study of crime. We put on blinders both anthropocentric and capitalist-o-centric. It seems if we are going to be theoretical about things, we should be more open-minded.
A harm-based approach makes very clear that non-violent drug offenders have been over-prosecuted and punished in many nation-states, and corporations polluting our air and water very, very under-prosecuted. It also fits nicely into a more classic disposition, that of Robert Quinney and peacemaking. Focusing on suffering as the true problem with criminal behavior, and then moving from there, allows us to see the state and corporations as potential offenders just like anyone else. It also allows us to see animals as bona fide victims of destructive human behavior. It also brings in an instrumental Marxist disposition calling out the very serious crimes of capitalism and anti-environmentalism and wagging a finger at penal codes which disproportionately spill their ink on interpersonal violent offending.
The Economist, unlike me, is, of course, not too worried about capitalism even as it worries about the Arctic. In the online version of the "Farewell to the Arctic" article, this sub-heading appears: "Commercial opportunities are vastly outweighed by damage to the climate [in the Arctic]." I appreciate its counter to the narrative that international trade can boom in an Arctic not blocking container shipping with massive icebergs [an argument that seems to be just tragically doubling-down on the whole planetary debacle], but the statement also belies a tragic disregard for the polar bear melted off her perch and villages in the Sundarbans washed away by sea level rise. Those things really should be crimes. If only.
By Staci Strobl
My husband and I recently adopted a child in a public (Wisconsin) adoption. Until all the court paperwork goes through, we are a foster family, and our son receives a free lunch at his new school while he is still a foster kid-- a benefit that goes away once we become the official guardians. Upon enrolling him for the benefit, I immediately asked the school secretary how he would be identifying himself in the lunch line, ever conscious that being the new kid and the lunch benefit kid at the same time might be a set up for social stigmatization.
The administrator gasped at my question, and nearly shamed me for daring to bring up what was obviously (to her) a problem that was never going to arise. All the children punched in a PIN code regardless of the source of their lunch funds. I found myself thinking that perhaps being new to motherhood, I was carrying a bit too much baggage from the last time I interacted with an elementary school, in the 1980s as a school kid myself, and expecting the worst.
Alas, "lunch shaming" (the practice of treating a student receiving a free lunch differently than others)-- I found out later thanks to NPR-- is not a dead issue, at least not in New Mexico and perhaps many other places in the country.
Practices around serving a child a government-sponsored free lunch long remains one that was stigmatizing and even punishing. In some jurisdictions today, different, lower-quality food is served to those who couldn't afford to pay. And, a couple years in Colorado, a cafeteria worker purportedly lost her job for giving a needy student a free lunch. The New Mexico state senator sponsoring the anti-lunch-shaming bill recalled a childhood in which he had to mop the school cafeteria floors to earn his allegedly free lunch.
School lunch debt is another avenue of shame in some places. Last year, a cafeteria worker in Pennsylvania quit her job because she was directed to not serve a hot lunch to a student whose family was $25 in debt to the school lunch program. A student in Arizona was stamped on the arm with a message that said "I need lunch money" after failing to have any in the lunch line.
New Mexico's Huger-Free School Children's Bill of Rights passed as law last week in New Mexico, the first state to outlaw this activity, though California tried).
This is good news for cracking down on a problem it appears I was not wrong to worry about.
In an interview with ICv2, Marvel VP David Gabriel commented on the recent decline of comic book sales in a vast misrepresentation:
“What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity…They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.”
However, for those immersed in comic book culture it comes as little surprise that diversity would be wrongly blamed. 
In our book Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way, we opined about the possibilities of increased diversity in comic books published post 9/11. Our cautious optimism was rooted in our immersion in fan culture and the demands for more inclusive character representations. We were particularly interested in how more diverse characterizations among heroes and villains resonate in our imaginings of crime and justice.
In fact, over the past several years, comic books have seen the introduction of a plethora titles featuring characters: the (female) Thor, Ms. Marvel, Riri Williams, Miles Morales, and Miss America Chavez, among others. There has also been a resurgence of interest in longstanding characters such as Black Panther, Sam Wilson, Luke Cage, Storm, and Amanda Waller. However, we also documented how the inclusion of diverse characters is often met with much resistance by readers. In Beyond Blurred Lines: Rape Culture in Popular Media, Nickie Phillips discusses how this resistance is rooted in responses to feminist interventions within the industry and can, at times, be contentious.
G. Willow Wilson, writer of the acclaimed Ms. Marvel series explained why blaming diversity is problematic. She wrote,
“Diversity as a form of performative guilt doesn’t work. Let’s scrap the word diversity entirely and replace it with authenticity and realism. This is not a new world. This is > the world.> ”
-- Nickie Phillips and Staci Strobl
The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) annual meeting is in full-swing in Kansas City through tomorrow, and the number of panels on policing and issues of community and diversity has never been greater. Despite the adage that academics pay insufficient attention to real world problems, this conference appears to have shattered the ivory tower. In ACJS style, practitioners are hob-nobbing with scholars, and in fact, most here are the quintessential “pracademics.” Although the tensions between practitioner and academic (critical) perspectives remain palpable, there is something comforting in that these two realms are still co-mingling in a field that by definition is an applied one.
President of ACJS, Lorenzo Boyd, of University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, gave an opening address on Wednesday which outlined his vision for a grounded criminal justice academy in which criminal justice recognizes that it must be rooted in social justice. He said, we know the “symbolic assailant” (an urban, black male) and must continue to work toward influencing and affecting a larger system that will move beyond criminalizing blackness and address root causes of crime, such as poverty, homelessness, lack of economic opportunity, and disparities in education, to name a few. It was a refreshingly engaged address, which implored us in the academy to get off our tuffs and make a difference in our communities.
By Staci Strobl, Crimcast Co-Founder
Late last year, I had the opportunity to accompany Prof. Ava Phipps and her students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville to the Illinois State Crime Laboratory in Chicago. Being a criminologist more focused on the sociological aspects of the field, the chance to see up close how forensics operates was a fun departure. At the crime lab, scientific methods are used to understand and interpret individual pieces of evidence in their own right and in the context of a larger criminal investigation; although larger sociological patterns may inform an investigation, ultimately case evidence is legally and constitutionally specific for purposes of due process.
Despite the unique-ness of each case, however, I could not help asking the laboratory scientists about what they observed across cases. Clearly, working in a crime lab that primarily services the Chicago area— a place where unfortunately the violent crime rate is way above the national average for a metropolitan area— would provide some fairly reliable insights about what is going on “on the streets.”
We started our tour at the Drug Chemistry unit, which employs 40 analysts and handles 26,000 pieces of evidence a year. Tasked with being the legal determiners of drug type and weight, the analyst who spoke with us indicated that, like the mainstream media is reporting, heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine show up most often. Increasingly, the analyst noted, homemade fentanyl is being detected. She also noted that when a major music festival, such as Lollapalooza, comes to the area, there is a spike in the relatively low level of seized hallucinogens, primarily LSD and mushrooms.
From the DNA unit, we learned that, contrary to a recent National Geographic article, DNA phenotyping is not practiced. Touted as the next best thing in ruling out suspects, phenotyping allows investigators to take DNA that can’t be matched to an existing identity in the DNA database (via the typical genotyping), but can produce information about a suspect’s characteristics, such as eye and hair color, and likely racial identity. However, according to the DNA analyst I spoke with, phenotyping is not practiced in Illinois as it is considered a problematic for its potential for over-interpretation, as well as having racial profiling implications.
“There is a misconception that we [in a crime lab] are interested in building a case. We are not. Our goal is to use biological matter and DNA to establish connections between a suspects, scenes, and items.” The analyst saw phenotyping as contributing to speculation that could derail cases.
Our visit to the Ballistics unit revealed a very busy office although specific numbers of guns and ammunition analyzed were not provided. Instead we were treated to an exciting performance of guns being discharged in machines, and striations being matched, at an incessant clip; the work seemed to be piling up and in this sense, Chicago was living up to its reputation. Here were the weapons behind the headlines and each one was being carefully considered in a kind of tragic ritual. I could not imagine the amount of sadness and suffering that belied many of the firearms.
The UW-Platteville students on the tour had the most questions for the Fingerprinting unit, experienced as most were from a Fingerprinting class at the university. They asked about the warehouses that houses several million fingerprint cards used before computer databases, tricks for dealing with partial prints, and also asking about career opportunities. For those who think biometrics (iris scans, facial recognition) will outshine traditional Fingerprinting, think again. Latent prints still make up a good part of the forensic information cases produce and the need for well-trained analysts remains.
Fingerprinting is arguably more of an art than a science, with matching, though aided by computers, still needing human decision-making (how many points of similarity make a good match?) and the human eye. New techniques in using the valleys, or spaces between the ridge-markings of a print, are providing new avenues of analysis.
With the constant barrage of media and entertainment about forensics, most of us probably harbor all sorts of mythologies about forensic science and forensic investigation, such as the speed and accuracy at which these things happen (evidence may sit for weeks waiting for analysis, and analysis may take days or weeks depending on its nature and complexity). Furthermore, in a high-crime metropolis like Chicago, triaging evidence constantly occurs with more serious and high-profile cases getting fast-tracked and routine burglaries being sidelined for a less busy day. Seeing this world in its laboratory reality helps to debunk some of these myths and put us in touch with the routine nature of evidence processing.
The natural-ness of forensics as a dominant mode of knowing about crime is relatively recent in human history, primarily in the last 150 years. The criminologist in me can’t help but marvel at how much has changed so fast. As a society we perhaps feel we understand crime so much better, perhaps even a violent crime spike in Chicago, but in fact, we know very little. We can document it and quantify it and prosecute it, but we still debate what it all means and how we can make society safer. Sadly, an academic focus on forensic investigation, forensic science, criminal justice and/or criminology remains a good job prospect precisely because, well, Chicago happens.