Dominance Status Affects the Transmission of Fear

Ahead of his scheduled November 15 book talk on “Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals,” our latest blog entry comes from Nathan Lents, Associate Professor in John Jay’s Department of Sciences. This entry was originally posted on his “The Human Evolution Blog.” 

By:  Nathan Lents, 10/19/16

Fear is a powerful motivator. It’s also a very interesting social behavior. Fear is a psychological tool that animal species use as a mechanism for avoidance.

Fear is one of our most basic emotions and is processed by a part of the brain called the amygdala. Animals, including humans, can have genetic predispositions toward fearing certain things. This has great adaptive value. For example, as I’ve written about previously, many prey animals are naturally fearful of their predators. Mice don’t have to learn to avoid snakes and cats; they are born fearing them. Many nocturnal animals have photophobia, which helps them stay out of moonlight and avoid being spotted. Inborn fears reveal past natural selection because animals that are naturally afraid of their main predators will be more likely to survive and pass on that genetically encoded fear.

Fear can also be learned. During times of danger, alarm, or even stress, our amygdala activates the fear response. This serves to train us to fear that danger when we see it again and thus avoid it. If you were mauled by a dog when you were young, you have a good chance of being fearful of dogs the rest of your life. Repeated exposure to dogs may not even help because, often, exposure simply boots up the fear program again, which could actually reinforce, rather than diminish, the fear.

One cool aspect of fear is that it can be learned vicariously by humans and other animals. That is to say, social animals can learn to fear some dangers simply by observing others experience the danger and without having to experience it first-hand. This is powerfully adaptive for the obvious reason that it reduces exposure to danger even without a priming event.

While vicarious learning of fear in nonhuman animals may have sounded far-fetched in previous decades, researchers on animal emotion and cognition have found that social mammals experience empathy and animal contagion. Animals are keenly aware of the emotional state of their fellow conspecifics, so it’s only natural that they would notice, and learn from, another animal in fear, pain, or danger.

The first rigorous scientific study of vicarious fear training in animals was published in 1984 by Susan Mineka and colleagues. In that groundbreaking study, Professor Mineka showed that juvenile rhesus monkeys learn to fear snakes not necessarily through their own dangerous exposure but by observing their parents behaving fearfully around them. In other words, the fear of snakes in monkeys can be a function of social learning. Since that now-classic study, vicarious fear training has been observed in a variety of social animals and has been used to probe genetic fear dispositions, empathy, neurodiversity, and many other social and evolutionary phenomena.

Researchers Carolyn Jones and Marie Monfils of the University of Texas recently discovered that vicarious fear learning in rats depends on dominance relationships.

To do this study, Jones employed a clever spin on a common experimental design. Before doing any fear training, she placed three rats in a cage and let them live and play together from the time of weaning until the experiment was done, 12-14 weeks later. This way, she could observe and document the social relationships that formed. As she told me, “Rats are very commonly used in behavioral studies, [but] usually we just order however many rats are necessary for the experiment, put them in a cage together, run the experiment after an allotted ‘acclimation’ period, and that’s it.” By letting the rats bond first, she could ask if dominance status mattered in the second-hand learning of fear.

Rats are very playful and social animals. They also exhibit dominance-based social ranking in their relationships. After watching each rat triad carefully for three weeks, Jones noted that one rat established himself as the dominant rat (D), another as submissive-1 (S1), and the third as the submissive-2 (S2). S1 is defined as the preferred target of the D rat, while S2 is the least involved in play behaviors, tending to avoid the D rat’s play invitations.

(All rats in this study were male to avoid the formation of reproduction-based relationships. Female rats were used in a different study on fear transmission by this group. The assignment of rats to these different social ranks was carried out according to established method involving video recordings of play behaviors and statistical analysis of dominant behaviors. For more detail, see the methods section of the paper.)

Once the social rankings were established, Jones selected one member of the triad to be the subject of fear conditioning involving the emission of a 20-second tone followed by a mild electric shock to the feet. This rat would quickly learn to fear the tone and so this rat is called the fear-conditioned (FC) rat.

The next day, Jones placed the FC rat together with one of the other rats, and then played the tone, this time without a shock. The FC rat became fearful upon hearing the tone and then second rat did (or did not) pick up this fear from the first one, without any shocks being delivered. This rat was then called fear-conditioned-by-proxy (FCbP).

On the third day, all three rats were put together again, the third rat not having been trained to fear the tone either with shocks or by-proxy, so was called “No FC.” Tones were played again and the fear responses were measured. In these experiments, fear was measured as “freezing behavior.” The experiments were run in all possible combinations of dominant and submissive rats playing the role of the FC, FCbP, and No FC. With six replicates for each type of triad and 96 rats in total, robust statistical analyses were possible.

The results were both surprising and clear. The S1 rats (the submissive rats that were the preferred target of the dominant rats) were able to become fear-conditioned by-proxy regardless of whether they took their training from the D rat or the S2 rat. The S2 rats, however, would only learn fear from the D rats, not the S1 rats. Further still, the D rats did not become fear-conditioned by-proxy from either the S1 or S2 rats. In other words, dominant rats would never learn fear from submissive rats; the play-avoidant submissive rats would only learn from the dominant rats; and the playful submissive rats would learn from both superiors and other submissives.

Jones then went on to study the vocalizations that took place during the fear-condition by-proxy attempts, as a means to possibly explain why fear-learning takes place in some combinations and not in others. She focused on low-frequency calls that rats sometimes make that correspond to negative emotions, including fear. Aside from big mouse-to-mouse differences with most mice not vocalizing at all, Jones found that the low-frequency vocalizations, when they did occur, correlated well with the learning of fear by-proxy. this is, some of the rats that learned to fear the warning tones may have done so because the FC rats were giving a warning to them.

The use of warning calls to signal the danger may provide the explanation for the fear-condition because it makes sense that rats would call out danger to warn those they have social alliances with while being less likely to warn animals they are indifferent to. As Jones told me, “the fear-conditioned demonstrators were more likely to emit alarm vocalizations if they had, for lack of a better word, a ‘friendly’ relationship with the observer rat.” Rats, it seems, look out for their friends.

The study goes on the explore serum corticosterone levels, expression of c-FOS in two different areas of the rats’ brains, and other mechanistic items of interest to those who specialize in the neuroscience of fear. The main take-away from this study is that rats, like humans, experience their world through the lens of social contact. Those of high social rank are more influential on others, while being less likely to be influenced by others. Those of lower social rank, on the other hand, have their own advantage: by paying attention to both superiors and other subordinates, they are able to learn from all of members of the group equally.

FDR famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But when it comes to learning from others, evolution has seen things differently.

Immigrants in the Triangle: Local Enforcement, Institutional Neglect, and For-Profit Detention

Our latest blog entry comes from Dan Stageman, Director of Research Operations in the Office for the Advancement of Research at John Jay College. 

By: Dan Stageman, 8/22/16

Late last week the criminal justice blogosphere was abuzz with attempts to process the latest bit of good news dropped into the national conversation around mass incarceration. On August 18th, the United States Department of Justice announced its intention to end the federal Bureau of Prison’s fourteen contracts with private/for-profit prison providers, citing as cause its own August 2016 investigation into the safety and security of these contract facilities. The report was, to put it mildly, damning:

We found that in a majority of the categories we examined, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP institutions. […] For example, the contract prisons confiscated eight times as many contraband cell phones […] had higher rates of assaults, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff […] serious or systemic deficiencies such as failure to initiate discipline in over 50 percent of incidents […] were improperly housing new inmates in Special Housing Units [i.e. solitary confinement][etc.] (p. ii)

While I of course ‘cherry-picked’ this litany of deficiencies from the DOJ report’s executive summary, they represent a fairly neutered echo of the similar findings that advocacy organizations – from the ACLU, to Human Rights Watch,Detention Watch Network to The Sentencing Project – have presented to the public and the federal government for ten-plus years to little effect.

It is a meaningful victory, for these organizations and the very real people whose interests they represent, that someone in the federal government finally decided to listen to their recommendations – and more importantly, to act on them decisively. It is a victory that will result in a measurable improvement in quality of life for thousands of prisoners and their families. It should not, however, be mistaken for a solution to the problem of for-profit/private prisons. To be fair, most of the media coverage of the DOJ announcement that I have reviewed has been appropriately circumspect. The Guardian’s Jon Swaine and his co-authors, for example, note that the BOP’s for-profit contract facilities “almost exclusively incarcerate low-risk inmates convicted of immigration offenses […] around 22,000 people at an annual cost of $600m.” This is about ten percent of the BOP’s total inmate population.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report linked above, it is also about 17% of the total population of US prisoners held in private/for-profit facilities – a proportion that might help to explain the precipitous drops in stock value experienced by the two largest publicly traded US private prison operators on the day of the DOJ’s announcement. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) lost 52% of its share value; GEO Group lost 45%. The third largest operator, Management and Training Corporation (MTC), is privately held, so we can only speculate that it lost a similar proportion of its market value. All three companies are unsurprisingly putting on a brave public face in the wake of the announcement: CCA touts its “keen observ[ation] of the BOP’s declining inmate population over the last three years”, implying the decision is less important than the market has made it out to be; GEO Group focuses its terse statement on its “efforts to provide industry-leading offender rehabilitation programs and reentry services”; MTC takes direct issue with the findings of the DOJ report, trumpeting in the title of its response that “Contract Prisons Provide Great Value to Corrections.”

Do these for-profit prison corporations indeed have reason to remain optimistic about an apparently shrinking market? Both CCA’s and GEO Group’s stock prices rebounded significantly on Friday from their precipitous Thursday lows, while remaining well below their previous averages. The answer, however, may lie less in watching the reactions of the market than in the clues we can glean from two less widely-reported recent news stories. The first is a two-week old investigation from the Guardian’s Renee Feltz on (and watch out here for flying acronyms) the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) successor program to Secure Communities (SComm), the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). The second is from the Guardian’s chief reporter Ed Pilkington: an exposé of detention conditions in border facilities operated by ICE’s sister-agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

A lot of folks have a working knowledge – accompanied by an appropriate degree of moral outrage – of what private/for-profit prisons are, what mass incarceration is, what is generally wrong with the criminal justice system. A lot fewer folks, in my experience, have a parallel knowledge of the immigrant detention system: the shortlist of people who I can talk to about Secure Communities without supplying a detailed explanation seems to be limited primarily to other academic researchers and advocates in the field. Most people register surprise when I tell them that a quarter of CCA’s 2015 revenue in 2015 came from immigrant detention – specifically, from Immigration and Customs Enforcement – or that GEO Group’s revenue breakdowns are similar. Immigrant detention remains, for a variety of reasons, a uniquely profitable segment of the private corrections industry. The DOJ’s recent announcement will do nothing to reduce that.

Corrections Corporation of America revenue breakdowns, 2013-15. Source: CCA 2015 Annual Report.

What should have reduced the profitability of immigrant detention was the transition from the SComm to PEP. SComm has been described by Stanford researcher Juan M. Pedroza as a “water mill that collects removable aliens in successive buckets […] without pause across levels of priority” (Pedroza 2013, p.62) – an apt description of how the program operated for the most part indiscriminately. Secure Communities, in place from 2008 through its discontinuation in 2014, used the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system to allow ICE to surveil (at its peak) every arrest by a local law enforcement agency nationwide to determine whether the arrestee had any known immigration violations on her record. Any such violation, whether criminal or not – i.e. visa overstays, prior unauthorized entry, exclusions, etc. – would result in ICE issuing a ‘detainer’ to the arresting agency. A detainer is a request that the arresting agency hold the arrestee until ICE can take her into custody – whether the arrest results in criminal charges or not.

SComm came under criticism because of the frequency with which it led to the eventual deportation of individuals with no criminal records or very minor ones (such as status offenses like loitering, or traffic offenses like broken taillights) – some 178 thousand, or nearly half, of the 375 thousand deportations attributed to the program throughout seven years of its existence. PEP was intended to solve this very problem, ostensibly restricting detainer requests to arrestees who had been “convicted of an offense listed under the DHS civil immigration priorities, […] intentionally participated in an organized criminal gang to further the illegal activity of the gang, or poses a danger to national security”.

Except, according to Feltz’s review of data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse(TRAC), it hasn’t turned out that way. Instead, “half of the so-called ‘holds’ were placed on people who had been arrested but actually had no criminal conviction.” In fact, the TRAC report indicates that some two-thirds of the detainer requests issued by ICE under the Priority Enforcement Program were for individuals with no criminal conviction or the lowest level of offense – a proportion exceeding the approximately 50% with similar offenses (or lack thereof) detained under Secure Communities. TRAC goes on to break down the detainers by crime type; after ‘No Criminal Conviction’, offenses like ‘Traffic Offense’ (5,310 detainers in 2014), ‘Public Order Crimes’ (1,425), ‘Disorderly Conduct’ (1,223) and ‘Drug Possession’ (2,004) feature prominently. Major crimes like ‘Homicide’ (603) and ‘Sex Assault’ (1,272) together represent about 1% of the total.

Numbers like these, in the context of an ostensibly reformed immigration enforcement program, illustrate the tenacity of ICE’s institutional orientation towards maximizing deportation – as well as the difficulty of calling the deportation regime to heel, after ten-plus years of increasing local control. It is the problem that John Jay political scientist and geographer Monica Varsanyi and her co-authors address in their recent book, Policing Immigrants: Local Law Enforcement on the Front Lines (U. Chicago Press, 2016):

Being found in the country without authorization is not currently a crime, but it is increasingly regarded as such because of the merging of law-enforcement responsibilities with immigration enforcement. […] The federal government has avoided critically examining how local law-enforcement agencies identify and process the suspected unauthorized immigrants they turn over to federal immigration authorities. (p.5-6)

The thousands of unauthorized immigrants detained under PEP are, like those detained under its predecessor SComm, originally arrested by local law enforcement agencies, under local policy and for local reasons. ICE, along with its sister agency Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), have in effect become bureaucratic middle-men between local law enforcement and private/for-profit prison corporations: facilitating apprehension over which they have minimal influence, and funding detention over which they exercise minimal oversight.

It is the latter issue that Ed Pilkington’s exposé of the CBP’s Tucson holding facility brings into sharp focus.

The several deeply disturbing image show immigrant detainees packed “like sardines in a tin” under emergency blankets in a filthy holding cell. Another shows another changing a baby’s diaper amid a pile of trash on a concrete floor.

It isn’t clear whether these facilities are privately owned or operated; CBP is more opaque than ICE in this regard, and in any case, detainees are unlikely to spend more than a few days in CBP holding facilities before being deported – in contrast to ICE facilities, where immigrants can spend years before their eventual deportation. What is clear, however, is that these immigrants have been snared by an institutional culture that regards them as less than human – treating them (if the above photos are any indication) as commodities to be processed. It may be that there is no profit to be made via CBP’s short-term detention of immigrants in holding cells, but there is certainly profit to be made in returning them to the southern side of the border: Security Firm G4S contracts with CBP to remove the immigrants on what it dubs (in its promotional literature) “The Bus No One Wants to Catch”. The Marshall Project’s recent exposé (by Eli Hager and Alysia Santo) on the private prisoner transport industry demonstrates pretty decisively how this moniker is earned.

Unauthorized immigrants, regardless of the symbolic importance of the DOJ’s decision on private prisons, will remain at the center of this deadly triangle: at one end an anti-immigrant local politics of enforcement; at another the dehumanizing institutional culture of two massive federal bureaucracies; and at the third, a constantly adapting market, twisting the human bodies of detainees into corporate profit. Well-meaning federal decrees cannot substitute for deep and abiding organizational reform, or binding legislative policy; indeed, it is entirely possible they could be reversed at the stroke of a pen, depending on the results November 8th. Advocates and researchers cannot afford to take a victory lap while for-profit prison corporations adapt, and immigrant detainees suffer.

You know that the behavior is harmful. Why can’t you stop?

Our latest blog entry comes from Peggilee Wupperman, Associate Professor of Psychology at John Jay College. This entry was originally posted on 7/30/2016 on her “Beyond Self-Destructive Behavior” Blog at Psychology Today.

You have promised yourself that you are not going to engage in any dysregulated behavior this evening.

You’ve told yourself that you absolutely, positively will NOT (pick one or more: have that drink, binge on that food, take those pills, engage in self-harm, place that bet, etcetera). And you are determined to keep that promise.

Then you get home.

You have not had a particularly bad day. You cannot pinpoint any specific reason why you are experiencing cravings and/or urges that feel intolerable. And yet, suddenly all you can think about is that drink/food/pills/harm/bet/etc.

Your situation is not uncommon.

It can be easy to judge yourself in such circumstances. It can also be easy for other people to judge someone who says she/he is going to stop a dysregulated behavior – but then does not do so.

The following is a paraphrased analogy told by a woman who was working to stop drinking; however, it is also relevant to the cravings and urges often experienced when stopping any dysregulated behavior.

People who have never felt controlled by a dysregulated behavior often don’t understand why the behavior can feel so impossible to stop. So let me tell you what the cravings and urges feel like:

Imagine that you have not had any food or beverage except water for more than two days, and you feel famished. At some point, imagine that a person sets up a large buffet in the living room of your home. (This is an analogy; it does not have to make sense.) The buffet contains all of your favorite foods, and the scent of the food is overwhelming.

The person tells you that guests will be arriving to eat the food in a few hours, and you are not supposed to eat or even touch the food – since it is not yours. You agree that you will not eat any of the food.

Then the person leaves. You will be alone with the food for several hours. And you have not had anything to eat for more than two days.

At first, you might try to focus on other things – perhaps watch TV, surf the web, catch up on paperwork from the office, or talk to friends/family. However, you will likely have difficulty focusing on anything other than your intense hunger and the smell of the food.

Eventually, your cravings and urges will likely become so strong that you find it impossible to think about anything else. The urge to eat the food will seem like a powerful force that is almost controlling you. Over time, resisting your cravings/urges for even a few more minutes may feel utterly intolerable.   

That is what cravings and urges feel like when I try to stop my dsyregulated behavior.

Of course, the above story does not fit exactly with all behaviors. However, the intensity and intolerability of the cravings and/or urges do fit what many people feel when working to stop dysregulated behaviors.

Why is the intensity so strong? Earlier posts have discussed why some people find dysregulated behaviors almost impossible to resist. (For the basics, click here. For more details, click here, here, here, and here.) However, the purpose of this post is not to talk about cause. Instead, the purpose is to:

  • decrease judgement, and
  • increase understanding of what cravings and urges can feel like to someone who is in the midst of them.

The above analogy explains why distraction and good ol’ fashioned willpower will often only work for a short time. Methods do exist to help cravings and urges become more tolerable – and eventually help you feel that you are no longer controlled by cravings and urges. Most of those methods often require some form of empirically supported therapy. More details on finding such therapy will be provided in future posts.

Until then, please remember:

  • Before you judge someone who struggles with dysregulated behavior, take a moment to consider that the person’s cravings and urges may feel more intolerable than you can even imagine.
  • Before judging yourself for struggling with cravings and urges, take a moment to remind yourself that your experiences are more common than you may realize.

Why the Veepstakes matters less than you are told and more than you realize

Our latest blog entry comes from Heath Brown, Assistant Professor of Public Management at John Jay College. This entry was originally posted on 7/17/2016 at The New West (the official blog of the Western Political Science Association).

Blog entry by: Heath Brown, 7/18/2016

trumpIt is Veepstakes time again and all eyes are on the choices Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are making. Much media attention has been drawn to the possibility that the vice presidential picks will help win a key swing state in November, serve as an “attack dog” on the campaign trail, or sparkle in a future debate. While this is all possible, and negative media coverage may deter some candidates, especially women, from seeking the post, there seems to be little evidence that it ultimately matters that much for the election. (See Kyle Kopko and Christopher Devine’s Politico piece from April on this, and also Boris Heersink and Brenton Peterson’s Monkey Cage blog piece that suggests small VP effects).

Probably of more importance, Dave Hopkins argues convincingly on his blog, is that VP choices matter because of “the window that they provide into the presidential candidates who select them.” Donald Trump’s much anticipated, but ultimately delayed VP announcement, probably says something about his style of deliberation over difficult decisions.

Another reason to pay attention to the vice presidential choices are the role the person plays in presidential transition planning and early governance of the administration. Gone are the days when the vice president was referred to as “his superfluous Excellency” as one snarky Senator referred to Vice President John Adams.

In his new book, The White House Vice President: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (University Press of Kansas), Joel K. Goldstein shows how since 1976 the vice presidency has been on the rise. No longer are the responsibilities of the office what Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President surmised: “to ring the White House bell every morning and ask what is the state of the health of the president.”

Instead, vice presidents have taken on major responsibilities for assuring the success of the president, and that has commenced during the transition period. Carter announced immediately after the election that Mondale would work closely with him on selecting high-ranking administration officials and that he would consult with Mondale on program initiatives. Mondale is given particular credit for persuading Carter to choose Joseph Califano to head Housing, Education, and Welfare (HEW) and Robert Bergland as Secretary of Agriculture. Vice presidents-elect had never before held such sway during the transition period.

Mondale’s legacy has not been forgotten. Twenty-five years later, Dick Cheney, who was famously involved in his own selection, went on to direct the Bush presidential transition team. Goldstein suggests that some of Cheney’s eventual power in the White House, especially in the first-term, derived from his opportunity to “place allies in important positions” during the transition period.

Much remains the same today, and it seems likely that the eventual winner of this fall’s election will have relied on their running mate, as much for helping to secure votes, as for their work planning for the transition to power. Presidential transitions may officially begin after Election Day, but (as I wrote about on this blog in June), in reality they begin long before. Already, Trump has named Governor Chris Christie to begin his transition planning, and Clinton likely has a large transition team at work as well. I suspect their choice of running mate will join in that pre-election transition planning, helping to vet potential cabinet nominees, develop policy proposals, and figure out what the organization of new White House will look like.

While much of this planning will occur in private, out of the eye of the voting public and under-reported by the media, it lays the ground-work for governance. For this reason, while we may not be able to observe it now, the soundness of the vice presidential picks will be later judged in the effectiveness of our next president and the sound functioning of the future White House.

MSNBC Made Donald Trump

Our latest blog entry comes from Adam Berlin, Professor of English at John Jay College. This entry was originally posted on 5/6/2016 at

Blog entry by: Adam Berlin, 5/16/2016

I watch my news on MSNBC.

In the mornings I like “Morning Joe” because conservative Joe Scarborough and liberal Mika Brzezinski speak their biased hearts, yet are willing to call out inconsistencies and stupidities in their own parties.

In the evenings, I tolerate the caricatures that Rachel Madow and Chris Hayes (sometimes interchangeable from their glasses on down) have become, because they’re liberals who sometimes dig deeper into headline news and because, well, they’re smart. (Catch Rachel Madow on any show but her own and she’s a star, so much more powerful and impassioned than her I’m-so-cute-and-interesting-[and falsely humble] TV persona.)

I put up with Chris Mathews who delivers monologues instead of interviews during his interviews, and shills his books during his monologues.

I try to stay patient as Lawrence O’Donnel enunciates every single word, turning twenty minutes of material into an hour.

I’m a liberal and prefer my TV media liberal. And I certainly prefer MSNBC’s hosts to CNN’s more-conservative takes on the news. Perhaps what I like best about MSNBC is that each host has a sense of humor, can laugh openly, can take a breath and crack a joke. That’s not the case with CNN’s dour Wolf Blitzer or buttoned-up John King. I’ll give Anderson Cooper a bye for two reasons: People stop me on the street thinking I’m him, and, far more important, he can laugh at himself and others.

A sense of humor — I’m starting to think that’s the real litmus test when separating liberals from conservatives. Have you ever seen Mitch McConnell’s pursed lips smile? Have you ever heard Rush Limbaugh laugh a genuine, non-sneering laugh? Have you ever noticed what really makes that famous politically-split couple, James Carville and Mary Matalin, so different? Answer — one laughs a lot, the other perpetually scowls.

But when Cruz and Kasich got KO’d by Donald Trump, well inside the distance, MSNBC lost its sense of humor. Sure, there were lecherously-playful comments about Melania’s runway walk toward the podium where Trump would declare victory in Indiana. There were comments about the spokesmodels behind him.

Still, the predominant emotion at MSNBC wasn’t humor, wasn’t an absurdist’s delight in this new reality, a blustering reality star with the ego the size of Manhattan had become the Republican nominee. Instead, there was outrage. Instead there was incredulity and even shock. Instead, there was a reiterative listing of all the things Trump has supposedly done so wrong, so stupidly, so irresponsibly. He was labelled a hater and a racist. He was labelled a man who knows nothing about politics. He was labelled, even as he won, a loser and liability. And, by insinuation, all the people who voted for him were fools.

Here’s the rub: MSNBC is as responsible as anyone for Donald Trump’s victory. The coverage of The Don was non-stop. The discussion about The Don was non-stop. When The Don held a rally, MSNBC was there more than any other network. The reason is crass-clear — MSNBC wanted the ratings. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to criticize and make fun of than to compliment and analyze. (I’m guilty as charged in my first paragraphs here.)

Had MSNBC been principled, had they truly wanted to make a unified effort to stop Trump (which would have reflected their political views, which I’m sure, each MSNBC host would tell you, are based on principle) then they would have put their coverage where their collective mouth was. They would have limited Trump coverage. They would have given their air time to Hillary and Bernie and to some of the larger political issues that this country faces.

Several news stories that highlighted the dangers of free trade might have cut into Trump’s appeal. In-depth reporting on bankruptcies might have helped the cause. A more timely look at the history of Trump’s recently-anointed campaign manager Paul Manafort and Manafort’s relationship to Vladimir Putin might have highlighted the hypocrisy of Trump’s isolationist rants.

Instead, it was Trump-time all the time on MSNBC.

They made a choice: they covered Trump for ratings; they traded integrity for a bigger piece of the viewing pie. There’s a political word for this, a word we hear very often these days — it’s called pandering. MSNBC revealed itself as the Hillary Clinton of news stations.

I’ll keep watching MSNBC. Just like too many democrats will vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election. There’s no better alternative.

But MSNBC should come clean. MSNBC’s talking heads should remove their false masks of outrage and incredulity. They know the truth. They helped make Donald Trump possible. And, for them, that should be no laughing matter.

Civil Asset Forfeiture

A helpful introduction to civil asset forfeiture can be surveyed in the NYT of Oct. 25, 2014. Potential and actual abuse of this legal tool were well highlighted and documented in the Institute for Justice’s Policing for Profit report from Nov. 10, 2015, and attempted federal remedies can be discovered, including H.R. 5212 (113th). Where financial shenanigans are suspected, even where financial crimes cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, civil asset forfeiture remains a powerful mechanism to challenge unexplained accumulations of assets, including cash deposited at financial institutions, under preponderance of evidence standards, a threshold qualitatively and quantitatively lower than reasonable doubt. Allegations of misconduct alluded to by, among other sources, the Panama Papers become subject to wide-ranging federal and state powers, especially where the asset implicated is the deposit of U.S. dollars.

The search for suspicious cash accumulations becomes significantly more convenient where digital money is required (e.g., where possession of currency such as U.S. dollar bills is prohibited): There is no need for law enforcement to stop and seize physically – instead, submit an order to seize the account at the depository institution virtually. However, digital money can flow nearly instantaneously, so the regulatory surveillance needs to be timely, anticipating transfers. One can readily infer that the existence of undisclosed principals (e.g., shell companies concealing real beneficial owners such as individuals) will only proliferate as the movement to replace paper currency with digital money gains acceptance among key public policy-makers, especially those with fiscal and monetary oversight of major global currencies such as the U.S. (petro) dollar. Creating a legal but fictitious identity remote from legal process is not just for those seeking to avoid bankruptcy.

Recognizing that emerging trends and potent tools create opportunities in the affected disciplines (e.g., law, accounting, fraud examination, etc.), individuals with a long-term perspective (i.e., extending beyond the horizon of graduation from college) should consider that an important set of knowledge, understanding, and skills in support of these opportunities will continue to be focused on the individual’s ability to search through data, make connections, exercise imagination, and prepare tables, graphs, and narratives that summarize not only quantitative elements such as monetary figures traversing the globe but qualitative relationships such as associations among the illegitimate and legitimate fictive legal persons, their facilitators (e.g., intermediaries such as law and accounting firms, financial institutions, brokers, etc.), and the directing mind / will (i.e., the controlling individual).

Forensic Accounting Certificate Program

The formal and published description of JJCCJ’s Forensic Accounting Certificate Program reads as follows: “Forensic accounting is the application of general theories and methodologies of accounting for purpose of resolving financial issues in a legal setting. The Forensic Accounting Certificate provides in-depth learning opportunities to advance students’ knowledge of fraud examination and to develop skills in the use of investigative and analytical techniques to resolve allegations of fraud and other potential white-collar and financial crimes. The certificate provides comprehensive coverage of all types of financial crimes, but concentrates on fraud prevention, fraud detection, fraud investigation and remediation. The types of fraud schemes studied include corruption schemes, asset misappropriation, and fraudulent financial statements.

The Program provides educational preparation, which is different from experiential learning and on-the-job training, to address the problems attendant to financial crimes, especially fraud. These problems include unjust enrichment; i.e., individuals (and artificial persons) economically and financially benefit from illicit and unethical schemes that deceive victims and obtain their assets without informed consent (cf. extortion). Broadly, accounting is a methodology (quantitative and qualitative) used both to accomplish the wrongful scheme and to prevent / detect / remedy it. Importantly, accounting is a collaborative activity; i.e., there are many individuals involved in doing it (e.g., review and approvals within organizations, inspection and oversight from outside organizations), as well as collective action in setting up the ground rules (e.g., development of generally accepted accounting principles “GAAP”).

There are at least three layers subject to the forensic accounting methodology of inquiry and discovery:

  1. The negotiations, agreements, understandings, intentions, caveats, etc. between the party and counterparty (there may be many counterparties): This is economic reality – a construct evidenced by records, recollections, and other data reflective of the preservation of transaction history. In brief, economic reality may be lost, misplaced, or otherwise uncreated (e.g., there are limits to budgets and schedules dedicated to such preparations). A current (alleged) illustration of the divergence between economic reality and represented reality under layer no. 2 below is that suggested under the Panama Papers, where the economic substance of a given set of transactions may be to evade taxation and public exposure of corruption under the false cover of actually conducting meaningful business activities in offshore venues and under offshore jurisdictions. This layer may be buried to protect individuals’ privacy, but it is far from dead (even where the individuals are).
  2. The accepted interpretations reported by the party and counterparty: These tend to be mirrored reflections of each other; e.g., one party’s expense is another party’s revenue. However, there are important exceptions (e.g., fair value accounting that allows the reporting of unrealized gains / losses without accompaniment by an actual transaction with a counterparty). Public filings to the SEC are common examples of these interpretations, which are submitted under the overarching guideline of avoiding stating anything materially misleading or omitting something that renders the submission materially misleading. This layer is official reality, which may or may not reflect economic reality under layer no. 1 above. For example, ‘accounting facts’ such as Enron’s earnings per share in a given period may not be factual; these may be later restated as information about improper financial engineering overwhelms the outdated ‘official reality’ of ‘accounting facts.’
  3. The reinterpretation performed by the forensic accounting team (there may be many reinterpretations, especially in litigation, which often features battles of experts): A common misperception about forensic accounting is that it depends entirely or even primarily on the actions of accountants. In practice, specialists from other disciplines are helpful, even necessary. For example, consider submission of a medical expense claim by an insured patient. Under layer no. 1 there may be voluminous records and discussions among the individuals responsible for developing the welfare / health care plan. Specialists’ language would be used to distinguish coverable procedures from those not covered. Lawyers, doctors, hospital, pharmaceutical, and insurance administrators, pharmacy benefit managers, actuaries, etc. would contribute to the development of the plan. The result as exchanged among interested parties under layer no. 2 is the plan with its terms and conditions. To many parties, especially patients / claimants without sophisticated legal, medical, and insurance knowledge (read: an overwhelming majority of us), the outcome of whether a procedure is covered and for how much (e.g., reasonable, necessary, customary, etc.) is usually accepted, perhaps grudgingly, notwithstanding the inherent biases in the system (e.g., insurers have a financial interest in limiting losses, medical providers have a financial interest in maximizing revenues, plan sponsors have a financial interest in preserving the assets of the plan, designated claims review team constituents have their own divergent personal and professional financial interests, etc.) that may distort and prejudice the financial interest of the patient / claimant. In brief, inspection and oversight (i.e., checks and balances) within the system may be inadequate in any given case / claim.

Effective inspection and oversight depends on the funding of impartial and competent forensic accounting teams. Independence is neither sufficient nor necessary. Where impartiality is lacking, independence may function as a misleading amplifier of voices that should be countered – not raised. Where competency is lacking, well – don’t need to go there.

Who Are You (aka the Case of the Unknown Directors)?

According to the NYT of May 12, 2016: “Security experts who have studied the attacks said the thieves probably were lurking inside the bank systems for months before they were detected.” This compilation of expert opinion was directed at fraudulent financial transactions originating inside an unidentified commercial bank that allegedly lost millions of dollars (U.S. dollars?) of its own digital money (not its customers’ digital money!) Thus, it knows the accounts charged (not its customers). It has the audit trail for these electronic thefts by deception (i.e., it has evidence of who did what). However, its internal control systems were not sufficiently robust and redundant to prevent these financial transactions as they occurred under apparently authorized protocols (though the issue as to whether these controls provided “reasonable assurance” will survive this post). The transactions seemed OK at initiation and authorization stages, and they might not have been detected under its review processes until too late (i.e., the digital money was moved from the initial fraudulent transferee to downstream fraudulent transferees – though the soundness of this argument remains to be seen). Let’s hope the bank’s a better custodian of its customers’ digital money than its own.

Compare these instances of corrupt insiders whose credentials were apparently vetted and approved by the principal (i.e., whether the bank as employer of these corrupt employees or the bank as prime contractor of these corrupt independent subcontractors/agents) with the instances of allegedly shady dealings touching the hub of the Panama law firm in the so-called Panama Papers scandal: many of these principals and the actions generating such prodigious amounts of digital funds (U.S. dollars?) were cloaked under the labyrinth of multiple layers of legal fictions spread across the playing field of electronic global finance.

Next Halloween I will be trick-or-treating as the ABC LLC incorporated in Delaware or Nauru – not sure yet. Or I could go as myself, grab handfuls of candies, and run. However, I suppose the strategy offering the greatest return on investment would be to work with a bank – a safe distance from the candy distributors – and absorb whatever digital funds reside in these distributors’ bank accounts and park these under the ownership of some yet-to-named legal fiction in some yet-to-be identified venue while sipping margaritas on a yet-to-be identified beach where it’s way warmer at the end of October than here in the NYC metropolitan area? Or maybe in the woods of Vermont?

Civilian oversight, policing research, and open data: Beginning a new public conversation

Civilian oversight, policing research, and open data: Beginning a new public conversation

Our latest blog entry comes from Dan Stageman, Director of Research Operations for the Office for the Advancement of Research at John Jay College.

Blog entry by: Dan Stageman, 4/19/2016

In February of 2015, the National Association for the Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) held its first academic symposium in partnership with Seattle University. The event – held in the wake of the police-civilian conflict that erupted following the Ferguson verdict, and coinciding a scheduled Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Seattle – was entitled Moving Beyond Discipline: The Role of Civilians in Police Accountability.

This Friday, April 22nd, John Jay College will host NACOLE’s second academic symposium, in the context of the ensuing year of national discourse on police-community relations. The title for this new symposium – Building Public Trust: Generating Evidence to Enhance Police Accountability and Legitimacy – speaks to the nature of how this conversation has evolved in the nearly 18 months since the Ferguson verdict. As the visceral anger and destructive unrest that accompanied those initial protests in Missouri has cooled, the Black Lives Matter movement has coalesced into a social, cultural, and political force to be reckoned with. An initially forceful counter-protest movement, which attempted to connect the ‘Ferguson Effect’ of ubiquitous public surveillance and perceived hostility toward law enforcement with an apparent rise in violent crime and homicide rates in cities across the country, has dwindled to a background murmur.

Perhaps most important for the criminal justice scholarly community, law enforcement policy-makers have begun to listen to the concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement and allied advocacy organizations  – and to respond in ways that push the conversation forward. Many of these responses have the potential to bring fundamental changes to the practice of law enforcement, the philosophy of policing, and – in the long term – the culture that makes many American law enforcement agencies so resistant to change.

The starting point for many of the constructive policy responses to the concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement is the Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, to which both NACOLE staff and John Jay College faculty made a number of important contributions. This week’s academic symposium takes as a particular focus the Report’s Action Item 1.3.1:

To embrace a culture of transparency, law enforcement agencies should make all department policies available for public review and regularly post on the department’s website information about stops, summonses, arrests, reported crime, and other law enforcement data aggregated by demographics. (13)

One year after the Report’s release, it is difficult to overstate the importance of this action item, or the impact that it has already had on departmental policies in major city law enforcement agencies across the country. Analyses like those produced by John Jay’s Misdemeanor Justice Project – on many years of misdemeanor arrests, summonses, and enforcement rates in NYC – would not have been possible without data shared by the NYPD. Commissioner William Bratton’s continued support for the project – even as he occasionally takes issue with its findings – perhaps speaks as much to a shift in open-data policy nationwide as it does to philosophical differences between Bratton and his predecessor, Raymond W. Kelly.

For as much as major law enforcement agencies have themselves engendered a shift toward making publicly available important data on law enforcement activity, a more important driver of openness appears in the Task Force Report’s Recommendation 2.8:

Some form of civilian oversight of law enforcement is important in order to strengthen trust with the community. Every community should define the appropriate form and structure of civilian oversight to meet the needs of that community. (26)

Civilian oversight in NYC took a giant step forward with Local Law 70 and the formation of the NYPD Office of the Inspector General in 2013. Appointed to the post in March of 2014, Philip K. Eure (who serves as committee co-chair for the NACOLE Symposium) has approached data-sharing and evidence-based assessment as one of the core functions of his office, pushing the NYPD on its use of litigation data in one of its first official reports.

This push for open data, in response to the concerns raised by recent protest movements and advocacy efforts, is an effort well-suited to the agencies tasked with formal civilian oversight of law enforcement; the question of what to do with this data once it is shared with the public is one that research scholars need to answer. In the hands of social scientists, open data can be transformed into a staggering number of genuinely useful tools: algorithms for predicting potential police misconduct, a relational database and typology for analyzing departmental trends in use of force, or a process-oriented framework for designing the roll-out of a major urban police department’s body-worn camera policy.

All of these tools will be featured, in presentations from the researchers who designed them, at Friday’s Symposium. The conversations that follow – led by leading oversight professionals, and including an audience of academics, policymakers, funders, law enforcement practitioners, and members of the public – should provide an open forum that pushes these researchers to refine their work and better respond to the needs of the communities whose advocacy helped make them possible.

Ultimately, however, these partnerships and the tools to which they give rise are only one link in a chain that should end with the general public. True transparency is about communicating the workings of formerly opaque institutions to the public those institutions are ostensibly intended to serve. Transparency in law enforcement should strive to correct the informational imbalance between the police and highly-policed communities – an imbalance that allows an arresting officer to pull up the intimate details of a suspect’s life on a computer screen with the touch of a button, but prevents community members from knowing the realities of, and the rationales for, the manner in which they are policed.

Both scholars and oversight agencies are often ill-suited to make the final connections that communicate their vital work to the publics – particularly highly-policed communities – they mean to benefit. The vital role for journalists in disseminating the evidence-base that these researchers are working to build cannot be overstated. Resources like The Crime Report’s media toolkits and Guggenheim Fellowships, that support evidence-based criminal justice journalism, make it possible for journalists to better communicate the meaning of publicly available data to a public that might not have the expertise to digest this data directly.

Why the Trump presidential transition has just begun

Why the Trump presidential transition has just begun

Our latest blog entry comes from Heath Brown, assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College. This entry was originally posted on

Blog entry by: Heath Brown, 4/14/2016 (original: 4/13/16)

For much of this presidential campaign, Donald Trump (R) has been dismissed as an nonserious performer, capable of drawing large crowds and attention, but not much more. Seemingly unaware of many policy details and unwilling to name who has shaped his view on key issues, what a Trump administration would actually look like has remained a mystery.

That mystery may have just been solved. After a stinging defeat in the Wisconsin primary, Trump elevated Paul Manafort’s role on his campaign to oversee the GOP convention delegate process. The choice of Manafort signals not just a change in direction for the campaign, but also gives a strong indication of what a Trump White House might look like.

Manafort is a seasoned Washington insider, operating at the intersection of money, politics and influence for the last four decades. How Manafort rose to prominence suggests several important, yet largely underappreciated, aspects of electing a new president.

After Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Manafort was named coordinator of personnel during Reagan’s transition to power. The presidential transition period — often eclipsed by the attention paid to the campaign — occurs over 77 days between Election Day and the inauguration in January. It is during this period that hundreds of critical decisions are made about public policy and who will be appointed to join the new president in the White House and in the Cabinet.

For Reagan, personnel decisions were no trivial matter. Reagan’s team adhered to the mantra that “personnel is policy” to emphasize how important it was to have a team of ideological loyalists to implement his agenda. Manafort helped Reagan appoint an array of conservative stalwarts across government, hundreds drawn from the new brain centers of the conservative movement: the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution. Many were brand new to Washington, arriving in Washington, D.C. from California after decades of loyalty to Reagan.

Yet when the transition period ended, Manafort didn’t follow others in the conservative movement into the Reagan administration. Instead, Manafort and his partners on the transition team, Roger Stone and Charlie Black, opted to start their own lobbying firm. Manafort traded on his service to a newly elected president not with a job in the White House, but by peddling influence in the then-burgeoning field of high-priced lobbying.

To be sure, Manfort was not the first to lay the foundation of a lucrative future on K Street during a presidential transition. Twenty years earlier, Clark Clifford helped John Kennedy transition from candidate to president, but did not later join the Kennedy administration. Instead, Kennedy joked that “all he asked in return was that we advertise his law firm on the backs of one-dollar bills.”

Fifty years later, Trump’s choice of Manafort suggests several things. First, if Trump hadn’t yet started planning for his transition, he is now. Manafort knows exactly how much work must be completed immediately after the election and that planning must begin long before November.

Second, in choosing Manafort, Trump’s history of vague answers about whom he would appoint will soon change — if not publicly, then at least privately. While he courts delegates for the GOP convention, Manafort will also begin assembling the names of supporters who will be considered for key posts in a possible Trump administration. Given the aversion of many establishment Republican insiders to Trump, these names may come from as far away as they did during Reagan’s transition, likely holding few allegiances to the Republican Party, but a deep commitment to Trumpism.

Finally, during Trump’s pre-election transition, it seems likely that he will not be averse to a prominent role for lobbyists and influence-peddling. President Obama famously imposed strict restrictions on what lobbyists could and could not do during his transition, and every indication suggests that 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney would have upheld this precedent if he had been elected. However, the choice of Manafort indicates that Trump may not be as concerned about the conflicts-of-interest inherent to having lobbyists plan for his administration while at the same time representing clients who have ongoing business with government.

For months, experts have worried about the lack of clarity on policy and personnel issues from Trump. We may now be entering a phase where those worries will shift to the increasingly clear picture of what a Trump administration will look like. As many focus on Manafort’s effectiveness as presidential campaign adviser, all should keep an eye on Manafort as presidential transition planner, too.

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