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Go ask Alice


rabbit hole

Among other things, the Gideon Lewis-Kraus piece about Alice Goffman and On the Run investigated Goffman’s extremely implausible multi-part claim that:

(a) She was told, apparently on more than on occasion, by Philadelphia police that it is their routine practice, when they come to hospitals in Black neighborhoods for other reasons, to access visitor and patient lists at hospitals so as to run warrant checks on the names on those lists for the purposes of making arrests to meet purported informal arrest quotas; and

(b) She herself witnessed an example of this routine practice when she was visiting Alex, one of the main characters in On the Run, in the maternity ward after the birth of his girlfriend’s baby.

Here is the relevant quote from OTR regarding the latter supposed incident:

I got there a few hours after the baby was born, in time to see two police officers come into Donna’s room to place Alex in handcuffs . . . . The officers told me they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list. Alex came up as having a warrant out for a parole violation, so they arrested him along with two other men on the delivery room floor.

This incident has three possible explanations:

(1) It happened, and the officers to whom Goffman spoke told her the truth about what was happening.

(2) It happened, and the officers to whom Goffman spoke lied to her about “their custom” of routinely running warrant checks on visitor and patient lists when they come to hospitals on other police business.

(3) Goffman fabricated the incident, in order to create a memorable vignette to illustrate the veracity of the claim that Philadelphia police routinely run warrant checks on hospital visitor and patient lists “in Black neighborhoods,” [as a LGM commenter points out, are we supposed to believe that the police told Goffman that their inquiries of this type were limited to Black neighborhoods?] so as to help them fulfill informal arrest quotas. (Whether this supposed claim was actually made to her by police, or by residents of Sixth Street, or was invented by her altogether is yet another question, but this rabbit hole is deep enough as it is).

After investigating the matter, by talking to Philadelphia police, criminal defense attorneys, and administrators at all the Philadelphia hospitals with maternity wards, I concluded that the third explanation is overwhelmingly more probable than either of the others. I came to the same conclusion about six other incidents in On the Run. (I did not investigate numerous other improbable incidents in the book).

Here are the fruits of Lewis-Kraus’s investigation of the matter:

When it comes to Goffman’s assertion that officers run IDs in maternity wards to arrest wanted fathers, another short Internet search produces corroborating examples in Dallas, New Orleans and Brockton, Mass.

[Emphasis added]

GLK’s short internet searches lead him to the following conclusion regarding the maternity ward story in particular, and On the Run in general:

“The most interesting question might not be whether Goffman was telling the truth but why she has continued to let people believe that she might not be.”

Steve Lubet has looked into this further:

Lewis-Kraus evidently found no “corroborating examples” in Philadelphia. Also, the on-line edition of his story (which has been posted since last Tuesday) did not include links to the articles he turned up in his “short Internet search,” thus making it difficult to corroborate the alleged corroboration.

I therefore replicated what I assumed to be Lewis-Kraus’s search parameter, and I found three stories from Dallas, New Orleans, and Brockton. Although all three were about arrests in maternity wards, none of them – repeat, none of them – involved “running IDs” in a manner similar to Goffman’s claim. (To make sure that I had the right stories, I asked a reference librarian at Northwestern to repeat the search for the three cities, and to make it as extensive as possible; he found only the same three incidents.)

Two of the cases – in Dallas and New Orleans – involved teenaged new mothers who had been statutorily raped. They had given the names of the fathers to the authorities, who then arrested the older men when they came to visit. (In the New Orleans case, the man was 40 and the juvenile 16.) There was no “running of IDs.” The Brockton case was part of a long-planned, one-day, 23-defendant drug sweep, coordinated by the FBI, the Massachusetts State Police and the Plymouth County district attorney. It likewise had nothing to do with routinely running IDs based on visitor or patient lists.

These three stories simply cannot be read as “corroborating examples” for Goffman’s claim of routine warrant checks in hospitals. If anything, they demonstrate the opposite – that maternity ward arrests are so infrequent that they make the news. In fact, the New Orleans arrest was considered so unusual that it was even reported in New York. If there had ever been a similar incident in Philadelphia – much less three such arrests in one night, as Goffman claims to have observed – why couldn’t Lewis-Kraus find a record of it in the Philadelphia press?

Goffman’s remaining defenders like to emphasize that the Philadelphia police department has a history of atrocious behavior toward the city’s poor African-American residents — the infamous MOVE bombing being the most horrifying example — and that therefore one shouldn’t doubt stories about police misconduct toward poor black Philadelphians (unless, apparently, the stories are supposedly related by the police themselves, as in Goffman’s maternity ward story).

But precisely because of that history, there is a vigorous watchdog movement in Philadelphia, in regard to police-community relations. Along with all the other reasons to doubt Goffman’s story, it is completely incredible that, if incidents of this sort were routine, they would remain unreported in the Philadelphia media. By contrast, if Goffman’s vignette represented an extremely rare or unique incident (i.e., if the police lied to her about their customary practices), how probable is it that this incident happened to one of the central figures in Goffman’s ethnographic study, and happened to him while she just happened to be at the hospital to witness it first-hand?

But beyond all this, surely Lewis-Kraus asked Goffman where and when this supposed incident took place. Even if only a small piece of the story turned out to be true — for example that someone Goffman knew from Sixth Street was actually arrested in a maternity ward, even if all the stuff about random visitor and patient list checks, and her presence on the scene was made up — why didn’t Goffman provide GLK with a few crumbs of information that, given the tone of the rest of his story, would have been treated by both him and by many of his readers as a triumphant vindication of her veracity? Are we supposed to believe that, with her scholarly reputation now in tatters, her fanatical devotion to the formal strictures of her IBR agreement kept her from doing so, even though Lewis-Kraus himself is well aware of who the main characters in On the Run are in so-called real life? (As indeed numerous other people are as well, since Goffman’s attempts to disguise their identities were cursory and/or inept).

In short, Goffman’s maternity ward story is obviously made up, at least in part, and probably altogether. Any even mildly skeptical reader of On the Run will reach the same conclusion about several other stories in the book. But if there’s one thing the Goffman affair suggests, it’s that, in regard to this book, mildly skeptical readers are apparently in short supply, at least at certain prestigious academic institutions, and in the editorial offices of the New York Times.

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