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Cheap white eggs: Radiolob Dodges All Discussion of Race

Cheap white eggs: Radiolob Dodges All Discussion of Race

Our latest blog entry comes from Nathan Lents, Associate Professor in John Jay’s Department of Sciences. This entry was originally posted on Nathan Lents’ “The Human Evolution Blog.”

Blog entry by: Nathan Lents, 12/7/2015

(This blog has been updated after a twitter discussion between Professor Lents and the host and producer of Radio lab in an effort to soften the attacking tone of the original post)

I have been a regular listener to Radiolab for years and last week’s topic was of particular interest to me:Birthstory, an in-depth, exquisitely produced narrative about in vitro fertilization and surrogacy as way for two gay men to make a family.

I don’t think this was their best work. Throughout the 60 minutes of the podcast, the issue of race and racial disparities were confronted multiple times, but never discussed. There are also glaring unasked questions, whose omission reveals even more than their answers could have.

Only biological children really count.

The podcast is about Tal and Amir, two gay men from Israel who have a baby, actually three babies (!), through IVF with surrogacy. This is not at all uncommon in our modern era and I join the many that cheer when families are made this way. The first “hmmm” moment was just a couple minutes into the podcast. Amir expressed how important it was to have a baby that was ‘truly his own.’

Of course, terms like that are tossed around ubiquitously, but just imagine how that sounds to adopted kids or adoptive parents. We all know that Amir was referring to “biological” parentage and did not intend to imply that adoptive parenting isn’t “real.” But still, is that the best way to say it?

Also, at this point in the podcast, an Israeli journalist is brought in to support the notion that, apparently, having a desire for biological children is, “a very Israeli thing.” [Right, because in no other culture do we see that odd desire!] The speaker validates this point by saying that people who have children are seen as much more valuable to Israeli society than those that don’t. Again, this seems pretty universal to me. If anything, this attitude is much more intense in the Global South.

More to the point, this claim that only the procreative are valuable to society goes without challenge or discussion, even in our era when an increasing number of adults are opting not to have children and facing bizarre condemnation for doing so. On its own, this commentary may seem harmless, but in the larger context, it’s another small example of how dismissive this podcast seems to be of other cultures besides the Western one in Israel and the United States, and of people within those cultures that don’t fit the prevailing winds.

Given the topic of the podcast, this was quite surprising to me.

Foster children aren’t worth mentioning, let alone considering

Then, things started to get more overtly bothersome. While interviewing Tal and Amir about the various options they had to make a family, the hosts discussed insemination, adoption from a foreign country, and even the new phenomenon called “The New Family,” which is picking up steam in Israel and elsewhere. This is a fascinating new social phenomenon in which men and women who, separately, want to have a baby, come together to do just that and then raise the baby jointly, but separately, almost like a divorced couple. Regardless, none of the presented options appealed to Tal and Amir for various reasons.

Nowhere in this discussion was any mention of the possibility of adopting foster children. Not a word. In a podcast in which all manner of family-making was discussed, the issue of foster care was not mentioned even one time the entire hour. I found this especially galling consider the extraordinary lengths that the Tal and Amir went to in order to have their children.

Let me clear. It is not the case that Radiolab simply decided to discuss only those options that Tal and Amir flirted with. The discussion began with this quote: “You basically have two options. It used to be three options, but now just two.” [The previous third option is adoption from “third-world” countries, which is now more difficult for gay couples.] In this podcast, Radiolab basically states that “the new family” and international surrogacy are the only possible options for couples that can’t produce their own children naturally but still want to be parents.

Meanwhile, in New York City, where Radiolab is produced, nearly 17,000 kids are in foster care. Around 2,500 of them are ready and waiting for adoption. Many of those never will be and instead will instead age out of the system as orphans.

That’s just New York City. There are over 400,000 children in foster care in the US and over 100,000 of them are currently awaiting adoption. More than 20,000 kids age out of foster care in the United States every year.

In Tal and Amir’s native Israel, the foster care system is in a full-blown crisis. Emergency shelters are overflowing and just this year, the Knesset passed a bill to build more shelters and funded renewed efforts to recruit more foster parents. Adoption by same-sex parents (even those with no biological connection to the child) has been legal in Israel since 2008.

Somehow, while discussing Tal and Amir’s quest to raise a child together, it never came up that thousands of children need homes right in their own community.

To be sure, I understand that foster parenting is not everyone’s first choice when they think of how they can start a family. That’s why there are so many kids that need homes in the first place. That’s why so many of them age into group homes and then eventually age out of the system without ever getting a real home or a permanent family.

And I understand the reasons people are scared of foster children. There are legitimate concerns about permanency, the resulting pain if children are returned to parents, behavioral or emotional problems resulting from whatever circumstances brought them into foster care to begin with. I get all of that.

But isn’t it worth mentioning that these kids exist? The complete omission of this topic, while other options were at least mentioned, sends a message that foster children aren’t worthy of consideration (a lesson the older ones have probably learned already).

In the case of Tal and Amir, we have Amir’s strong and perfectly natural desire for biological children. (Tal has this desire, too, as they end up making a baby with his sperm as well, which is how they end up with three total.) However, the option of foreign adoption was briefly discussed. This means that the desire for biological children cannot completely explain the lack of mention of foster children in this section of the story.

In Israel, most of the kids in foster care are Ashkanazi, Sephardi, or Arab. In the United States, however, where Radiolab is produced and where the vast majority of its listeners reside, the foster care system is a perfect manifestation of our racial inequality. Because the biggest factors that bring children into foster care are poverty, lack of family and social support, untreated mental illness, and drug abuse, (and because those issues are suffered by Blacks and Hispanics at higher rates than Whites), our foster system is mostly filled with children of color. In 2014, of those in foster care in NYC whose race is known, 95% are Black or Hispanic.

Thus, there is an unmistakable racial element to the complete omission of the subject of foster children in this podcast, maybe not for Tal and Amir, but definitely as a topic for this podcast.

[Edit: Jad Abumrad, host of Radiolab, pointed out to me that it was Tal and Amir who introduced the options that were discussed, including international adoption, but not including foster care. The hosts then explored those options. There was no omission by Radiolab, intentional or unintentional.]

“Cheap White Eggs”

Because surrogacy for gay couples is specifically banned in Israel, Tal and Amir had to go international. The result was an incredibly complicated and expensive arrangement involving at least four countries and well over $150,000. The two surrogates would be from India, but the implantation, delivery, and neonatal care would actually take place in Nepal because this kind of surrogacy is illegal in India. (And it now is in Nepal, too.)

The eggs, however, would come from Eastern Europe.

Why Eastern Europe? With the surrogate in India and traveling to Nepal, surely eggs could be obtained in one of those countries? Why insert yet another country into this already complicated mix? This meant that they had to fly a woman from Ukraine to Nepal for a lengthy stay to harvest the eggs. That’s more borders, more logistics, more flights, and more cost. Why did they have to come from Eastern Europe?

Because that’s where you can get “cheap white eggs.”

That was the term that was used. Cheap white eggs. When Tal said this, my jaw dropped, but I held out hope that this incredibly racially charged issue would then be explored a little bit.

Nope. They laughed. They repeated the phase and everyone laughed together. Tal and Amir wanted a white baby and were willing to incur the additional logistics, expense, and risk in order to get one. And the hosts gave an understanding laugh.

They laughed because all of us in the West know that of course the baby had to be white. Who would pay that much money only to end up with a black or brown child? After all, if that was an option, they wouldn’t have to do any of this!

The phrase “cheap white eggs” gets more sinister the longer you think about it. First, it implies that white eggs, and thus white people, are a premium. It also reveals that, although there is a desire for thrift, racial preferences trumps all. These aren’t ‘white cheap eggs,’ they are ‘cheap white eggs.’ The baby had to be white. Preferably cheap, but definitely white.

To be fair to Tal and Amir, the desire to have and raise a baby that is the same race as the parents is perfectly natural, especially when the parents are the same race as each other. All else being equal, why introduce the complicated dynamics of transracial parenting into an already complicated family situation? I get that.

But all isn’t equal and the phrase “cheap white eggs” captures it perfectly. Tal and Amir may have simply wanted a baby that was their same race, but in that process they confronted the global machinations of white racial superiority. Rather than a knowing laugh, perhaps some discussion of this was warranted?

This feels like eugenics, but oh well…

The selection of the egg donor had Tal and Amir discussing the various physical characteristics that they hoped their babies would have. While I’m sure healthy and happy were understood and thus unspoken, there was sure a lot of scrutiny about eye color, hair color, and even the shape of the nose of the egg donor. At one point, Amir sort of grapples with the notion that this feels a little unseemly. He even says the word “eugenics” when expressing his discomfort, a word that resonates in Tel Aviv more than anywhere. The issue of race surrounds everything in this story, but no one seems to notice.

The scrutiny of the egg donor brings the story face-to-face with one of the most thorny ethical issues in reproductive medicine today: designer babies. Our society is inching closer and closer to the days when technology may allow us to select and edit the physical and even mental characteristics of our children.

The only discussion of this that we got was one question, “And why do you want your children to be tall?” Amir responds, “Well because it’s just easier!” The story then moves on.

Get those white babies out of there!

Fast forward and we reach the point that the three babies are now born. Then, the unthinkable happens. A powerful earthquake strikes Nepal. Devastation is everywhere. No Power. No water. Pandemonium. Death and suffering on all sides.

Given that they are the subject of the podcast, it is not surprising that the narrative quickly turns to the heroic efforts to rescue the newly born babies, along with dozens of other babies of surrogacy, whom are trapped in harm’s way. What did surprise me is how nimbly that pivot was made. Death and destruction in Nepal, BUT WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHITE BABIES?

The story describes how the Israeli government moved mountains to get these new families to safety while, sometimes literally, stepping over the suffering of the Nepalese people around them. In a particularly galling moment, Amir, now a new father, is running desperately on the street looking for help and finds an American in uniform, a security guard for the American embassy. Amir begs for help, “Please, sir, we are Israeli citizens, and we need help!”

The American security officer, of course, snaps into action and rushes them to the safety of the Israeli embassy. Clearly, saving white foreigners is the highest priority even while bleeding and broken Nepalese still filled the streets.

Again, it’s not surprising that the podcasts covered the earthquake mostly in terms of how it affects the story they’re telling. But the earthquake affected more than just this family. It killed tens of thousands and sent millions even further into hopeless poverty. Couldn’t they have paid some respect to that fact? And of course any country’s government and embassy has their first priority to take care of their own citizens, but given the disparity in wealth and resources at play here…  oh nevermind.

A look at international surrogacy

The podcast spends its last 20 minutes grappling with the ethical issues surrounding surrogacy, specifically when the surrogates are from underdeveloped countries. To their credit, their investigation reveals some blatant exploitation, misrepresentations, and the risks these surrogates are subjected to.

However, to say that their analysis is cursory would be generous. Their biggest concern seems to be that, if governments ban surrogacy, it just pushes the whole thing underground because, “the demand will still be there.” [The demand for white babies, just to be clear.]

Only two possible government responses are compared: completely unregulated and unfettered surrogacy, or total ban. I’m no family lawyer, but it seems that a middle ground deserved at least some mention? Maybe a government could allow surrogacy but demand that surrogates’ rights be protected, their risk be minimized, and their compensation be reasonable?

That is more or less what happens in Western countries. Although laws vary by state in a very imperfect legal patchwork, surrogacy happens in the US every day. For the most part, the women that participate make their choice freely, are provided with medical and life insurance, and are well compensated. Most don’t consider them victims of exploitation. Are countries like India and Nepal not capable of anything like this?

When deciding whether to use an Indian surrogate, Tal and Amir grapple with the possibility of exploitation and then quickly satisfy their scruples by assuring themselves that she is receiving a life-changing amount of money that will allow her to lift herself and her family out of poverty and secure their future. They are paying some $12,500 for “surrogacy services” and that’s a lot of money in rural India.

Only later in the podcast do we find out that less than half of that $12,500 actually went to the surrogate.

Even if it is unfair to expect them to have done any diligence regarding their surrogate (hey, that’s what their paying the agency for, right?), it is hard not to juxtapose their apparent lack of interest in their own surrogate’s life and circumstances with the righteous anger we hear from them later when they find out that she was probably paid $5,000 and possibly much less. “It’s not enough!”

I quite agree.

The surrogacy agency defends this by explaining how many middlemen are involved in getting the surrogates from India to Nepal, vetting them, examining them, getting them across the border, etc. and then reminds us that they can’t be responsible for all the problems in the world.

Radiolab asks nothing further of them, but I wish they had. The surrogacy agency is who profits from all of this and has all the power in the situation. Here’s what I may have asked

  • Are you trying to deceive people like Tal and Amir by not making the actual surrogate payment amount more clear in the contract or invoices?
  • In addition to misleading clients, does concealing the amount of payments to surrogates actually hide the exploitation of poor women?
  • What does a surrogate get if she goes through the whole procedure, becomes pregnant, but then miscarries? [This is covered later, but it is asked of the surrogates, not the agency.]
  • How will the surrogate be involved in decision-making if, during the pregnancy, complications emerge that pit her health and well-being against that of the fetus?
  • Who looks out for the legal rights and interests of the surrogates throughout the procedure? Are they provided with independent representation? [They aren’t.] Why not?

Eventually, Radiolab does focus quite a bit of time on the surrogates themselves. They include additional interviews on their website. They seem to be genuinely concerned about the women who choose to do this, why they do so, and what they go through.

Given how unwilling they are to ask any tough questions of the agency, however, this concern starts to look like mere curiosity. This is a science podcast after all. Radiolab doesn’t have human rights or women’s rights or racial equality on their masthead. That’s not what they are about. Their mission is not social justice; it’s science journalism. But this story is about much more than just medical science, and they know it. They seem to try to tell the human side.

The messages we send

Radio lab runs on around 500 radio stations and boasts a million subscribers to their podcast. As such, they have a serious responsibility to consider the messages they send each week. I urge them to consider the messages they may have unintentionally sent in this podcast: foster kids aren’t worthy, white people are more valuable and its okay to laugh about that, and it is exploited women that should be questioned about why they are so easily exploited, not the powers that do the exploiting.

I’m sure they don’t really believe any of those things, but I cannot just give them a pass. For them, as for me, not challenging something is akin to normalizing it.

Choosing sides: Militarization, murder, and mixed-metaphor in the “War on Crime”

Choosing sides: Militarization, murder, and mixed-metaphor in the “War on Crime”

This is the second in a series of blog entries from Research Operations Director Daniel Stageman, tying current research, upcoming events, and public scholarship from John Jay College faculty and staff to the contemporary conversation around criminal justice reform.

I had an intense sense of operating on the boundary of legitimate and illegitimate behavior. Clearly much of the activity itself was illegal, although reporting it would never have resulted in it being defined as “criminal.” …I felt at ease and in some ways defiant. …I realize that in a sense I am basking in the security of my temporary status as a beneficiary of state-sanctioned use of force.                                                                                                                                                                                                                               (Kraska, 2001)

Radley Balko includes this description, of Peter Kraska’s involuntary response to the experience of participating in informal (and questionably legal) SWAT Team training, in his 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. For Kraska and Balko alike, the excerpt is intended to “illustrate… the expansive and seductive powers … of a deeply embedded ideology of violence.” (Kraska, 2001)

It is no exaggeration to call Kraska the father of academic research on police militarization, his focus since 1989. His description above is an ethnographic one, a firsthand experience of a cultural milieu that he already knew well, certainly from a quantitative perspective. His capacity to be surprised by his own emotional response – essentially to the experience of target-shooting military-grade automatic weaponry, in the company of rural SWAT trainees wearing “Operation Ghetto Storm” t-shirts (Balko, pp 212-13) – gives the reader some sense of the breadth and depth, of cultural specificity and psychological motivation, hidden behind the confident conclusions of any statistical analysis, particularly those focusing on the practices, activities, and behaviors of law enforcement personnel.

Looked at in this context, FBI Director James Comey’s recent comments about the speculative phenomenon that has been labeled (unfortunately) “the Ferguson effect,” carry some disturbing implications: “In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns? …I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is surely a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.” (CNN, Oct 27)

What, exactly, is “the work that controls violent crime?” The evidence base of research designed to answer this question is extensive and constantly expanding; throw a dart at the CVs of our own Law and Police Science orCriminal Justice faculty, and your odds of hitting a useful crime control or crime prevention publication will be pretty good. Much of this literature falls under the “situational crime prevention” umbrella, which relies on disrupting the environmental factors and habitual behaviors that facilitate criminal activity. LPS faculty member (and 2015 Donal EJ MacNamara Award winner) Eric Piza’s 2012 ‘quasi-experiment’ on foot patrols in Newark is a solid example of applying this approach to police work. Its essential take-away: get police, lots of them, on foot, to patrol in geographically defined trouble spots. Studies like Piza’s often show significant reductions in index crimes like homicides, robberies, and assaults, with interventions that are this simple.

Piza’s study is also not unusual, however, in largely eliding the cultural and psychological experiences of the officers assigned to these foot patrols. While this is an issue of context rather than knowledge (Newark PD Lieutenant Brian A. O’Hara is Piza’s co-author) as the piece is a quantitative analysis rather than an ethnography, we can’t tie this simple crime control strategy to Comey’s comments without knowing something about it.

And we do know something about it, even absent direct description. We know what it isn’t. A foot patrol through a high-poverty urban neighborhood is not a no-knock raid patterned after a tactical military assault; it doesn’t involve dressing in helmets and body armor, carrying riot shields or assault rifles; it doesn’t come with backup from military assault vehicles, tear-gas grenade launchers, or ‘pain compliance’ devices – in a word, it is likely a far cry from the vision of police-work implied by the open display of “Operation Ghetto Storm” on the front of a t-shirt. In all likelihood, it involves a unique kind of vulnerability, requiring human interaction, speaking to community members outside of the harsh tones of compliance and arrest, looking neighborhood residents in the eye.

It is not difficult to see how the vocal and well-publicized protest and advocacy of highly-policed communities, who want to correct a perceived power imbalance with the law enforcement agencies that police them, could cause anxiety among those police officers who are primed to see the members of these communities as enemies. For officers who, like Kraska, are to some extent seduced by the exercise of power and the security of state-sanctioned use of force, this public demand for equity, this refusal to defer to superior force, throws into question what may be a visceral, emotional, or even involuntary aspect of their day-to-day motivation.

Why, though, should such a reassessment be described a “chill wind?” Isn’t it, instead, a necessary correction? If public safety is the mission of law enforcement, then enjoyment of the exercise of power is not an appropriate individual motivation – much less a cultural touchpoint – for the professional duties and demeanor necessary to its regular, successful function.

Radley Balko

Officers nationwide may indeed be “avoiding… informal contact” with the communities they serve, preferring the safety and anonymity of the patrol car to the visibility and vulnerability of walking a beat. If so, however – and particularly if this avoidance is correlated with rising crime rates in these communities – law enforcement leaders would do well to dedicate time and energy to the training needs that these avoidance behaviors expose. Equating community advocacy for equity and a fundamental rethink of the ways that law enforcement personnel engage with highly-policed communities to “a chill wind” – or suggesting that Black Lives Matter protesters “advocate for the murder of police officers” – flies in the face of the reality that assaults, murders, and even accidental deaths of law enforcement personnel are down significantly across 2014 and 2015.

In light of the importance of this ongoing conversation, we are lucky to be hosting Radley Balko for a John Jay Research Book Talk on Rise of the Warrior Cop thisThursday, November 5th, at 4.15pm in our main lecture hall (L.63NB). Mr. Balko has of late written consistently and forcefully in an effort to debunk the idea that Black Lives Matter and related protest movements amount to a “war on cops,” and we look forward to hearing his take on how the historical and ongoing militarization of US law enforcement ties into the current crisis. We are equally excited to get his thoughts on the future and solutions, and are happy to announce that Mr. Balko’s q&a with the John Jay community following his talk will be led by Steve Handelman, Director of the College’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice and editor of The Crime Report.

The next entry in this series will look forward to our April 22nd NACOLE Academic Symposium, with a discussion of the role civilian oversight can play in shaping law enforcement culture.

The rising crime rates narrative and the criminal justice reform conversation

The rising crime rates narrative and the criminal justice reform conversation

This is the first in a series of blog entries from Research Operations Director Daniel Stageman, tying current research, upcoming events, and public scholarship from John Jay College faculty and staff to the contemporary conversation around criminal justice reform.

Blog entry by: Daniel Stageman, 10/26/2015

On October 8th, Assistant Professor of Law and Police Science Peter Moskos tweeted this:

Cop in the Hood: Believe the hype: Murder is going up http://t.co/wfrZAFFDGt

— Peter Moskos (@PeterMoskos) October 8, 2015

Professor Moskos, a former Baltimore city cop, is in good company among law enforcement scholars in this opinion. Here’s NYU’s Mark A.R. Kleiman, architect of the renowned Project Hope program, in an exchange with John Jay Research and Evaluation Center Director Jeff Butts:

@JohnJayREC @JohnJayResearch Wish this were right. It’s not. This year breaks a 20-year downtrend in homicide. Bad news. Let’s face it.

— Mark A.R. Kleiman (@MarkARKleiman) September 9, 2015

When scholars such as Kleiman and Moskos put forward these opinions about rising homicide rates, they do so as a wake-up call to fellow researchers: build a research agenda around this issue before it’s too late.

When will it be too late? To what extent is the current US criminal justice reform consensus dependent upon the past 20 years of plummeting crime rates? Even the steeliest of reform advocates likely took notice at the recent rhetoricof New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, elected in no small part on the strength of his criminal justice reform agenda, when discussing bail reform: “Some people are irredeemable. I’m a progressive person, I’m a humanitarian, but I can also tell you some people are irredeemable and unless they are treated very, very differently they pose a danger to our society.” De Blasio made these remarks in the context of the senseless and brutal East Harlem murder of police officer Randolph Holder, but this context if anything reinforces fears about the fragility of criminal justice reform momentum: if a single horrific incident holds the potential to stall – or even reverse – years of carefully constructed,evidence-based bail reform efforts, then what risks are posed by a sustained, statistically significant, and broadly national uptick in homicide and other violent crime rates?

This is the essential question that renders academic argument about the reality, severity, or sustained presence of a possible rise in violent crime rates effectively moot: if policy-makers, practitioners, and especially the media have seized on this narrative, it is a reality that supporters of the current criminal justice reform consensus must take into account.

As an institution at the forefront of the contemporary criminal justice reform conversation, John Jay College continues to set an ambitious agenda for addressing the potential effects that a rise in the nation’s violent crime rates, along with a myriad of other factors, might have on a wide range of policy initiatives. Today and tomorrow (October 26 and 27), the College’s Prisoner Reentry Institute hosts a Laura and John Arnold Foundation-fundedRoundtable to Develop a National Pretrial Research Agenda (while the event is invitation-only, please follow our Twitter feed, and the PRI’s, where portions of the proceedings will be live-Tweeted).

Next week, the College will host Washington Post columnist Radley Balko for a Book Talk on his recent book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. Expect a frank and intense discussion of law enforcement culture and practices in the context of increased attention on – and highly publicized protests against – police killings of civilians, as well as an exploration of the potential relationship between this new context and the aforementioned rise in homicides. This will also be the subject of our next blog entry in this series, “Choosing sides: Militarization, murder, and mixed-metaphor in the ‘War on Crime.’”

Balko’s visit to John Jay comes as part of the College’s year-long initiative Bridging the Divide: Re-imagining Police-Community Relations, a series of events that will continue into the Spring Semester. Also in the New Year, the College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater will be the proud host of the second annual American Justice Summit. Following the success of the inaugural summit in 2014 (as described in our well-received report on the subject), this event will bring together the leaders of the criminal justice reform movement – from the fields of policy, advocacy, media, academia, and practice alike – for a series of public conversations assessing the movement’s progress, goals, and issues (like the potential uptick in violent crime rates) with the potential to change its course.

Finally, on April 22nd, 2016, John Jay will host the National Association for the Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) for its second annual Academic Symposium. Our third blog entry in the current series will address the progress of reforms related to law enforcement oversight and accountability, such as the recent establishment of the NYPD’s Office of the Inspector General (currently Philip K. Eure, who we are proud to say will serve as NACOLE’s Co-Chair for the Symposium) or New York State Executive Order 147, establishing a special prosecutor to investigate lethal force incidents. How dependent are these reforms on the specifics of the current political climate and the crime decline? How robust will they be in the face of a sustained uptick in violent crime rates? What is the role of oversight in supporting the basic crime control function of law enforcement agencies?

As an institution, John Jay College has heard the wake-up call on the possible rise in violent crime rates. This is not to say we accept it as a statistically significant trend, or make any predictions about its potential to continue; rather, we recognize that building and assessing an evidence base is only part of the work of moving a criminal justice reform agenda forward. Engagement in the reform conversation means recognizing that policy makers, practitioners, the media and the general public interpret and use data in different ways than researchers and scholars do. Through our public scholarship, we acknowledge that all of these constituents have a stake in criminal justice reform; the more we speak to them directly – and listen to their responses – the greater the potential role of evidence-based research in shaping the dialogue.

Please check back later in the week for new entries in this series. Thanks for reading.

Why does Trauma Cause Memory Distortion?

Why does Trauma Cause Memory Distortion?

Our latest blog entry comes as a collaborative entry by Deryn Strange, Associate Professor in John Jay’s Department of Psychology, and Nathan Lents, Associate Professor in John Jay’s Department of Sciences. This entry was originally posted on Nathan Lents’ “The Human Evolution Blog.”

Blog entry by: Deryn Strange & Nathan Lents, 10/14/2015

Our memories are not perfect reconstructions of past events. Instead, remembering a past event is a combination of processes, piecing together different details, and making inferences to fill in the gaps to create a coherent whole. Normally these inferential processes serve us well, allowing us to make fast and accurate decisions about what we’ve seen and done. But no system based on inferences will be 100% accurate.

Our current drives, biases, stereotypes, and expectations can all affect that inferential process, fundamentally distorting what we ‘remember.’ While it might be easy to accept that our memories for mundane experiences can be distorted in such a way, people have long clung to the notion that traumatic memories are different, that they are protected from any kind of memory distortion.

In fact, converging evidence demonstrates that experiences of trauma, whether a single event (e.g., a sexual assault) or a sustained stressful experience that might involve multiple trauma types (e.g., war) are also vulnerable to memory distortion. In fact, traumatic memory distortion appears to follow a particular pattern: people tend to remember experiencing even more traumathan they really did. This usually translates into greater severity of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms over time, as the remembered trauma “grows.” (For research articles documenting this, see this, this, this,this, this, this, or this.)

Simply put, over-remembering trauma is related to poorer mental health outcomes. In one example, Southwick et al. asked Desert Storm veterans at 1 month and 2 years after their return from service, whether certain events occurred during that service (e.g., experiencing sniper fire, sitting with a dying colleague). They found 88% of veterans changed their response to at least one event and 61% changed more than one. Importantly, the majority of those changes were from “no, that did not happen to me” to “yes, that happened to me.” This ‘over-remembering’ was associated with an increase in PTSD symptoms.

Why would this be? From an evolutionary perspective, it would not seem adaptive to remember an event as more traumatic over time; that would increase emotional pain and the, often crippling, symptoms of PTSD, thus delaying recovery.

One possible explanation is that, while the errors themselves are not adaptive, they are an unavoidable byproduct of an otherwise powerful and flexible memory system. This is sort of like the human ACL: although it is a weak spot in our knees, it is a consequence of an otherwise positive adaptation: bipedalism. It may be that over-remembering trauma—just like other kinds of memory errors—are the result of a failure in something called the source monitoring process.

Briefly, according to the Source Monitoring Framework, people do not store the details of an experience in their memory accompanied by labels specifying their origins. Instead, they rely on heuristics, such as how familiar the event details feel, to determine whether a remembered detail actually occurred or was merely suggested or imagined. Critically, post-event processing—such as actively imagining new details or experiencing unwanted intrusive thoughts—can increase the familiarity of new details enough that people may mistakenly claim those new details as genuine memory traces, resulting in memory distortion.

To test that explanation, our research lab performed a study in which we asked participants to watch a short film depicting a real fatal car accident in graphic detail. The film was split into a series of separate scenes separated byblank footage. Those “blank spots” represented missing elements, that is, scenes that had been deleted. Some of those missing scenes were traumatic (e.g., a child screaming for her parents), while others were non-traumatic (e.g., arrival of rescue helicopter). Twenty-four hours later, the viewers returned for a surprise test probing their memory of the film they were shown, as well as their thoughts and recollections about the film over the past 24 hours.

The participants scored well on their ability to recognize scenes that they had indeed been shown as part of the video. However, about one-fourth of the time, they “recognized” scenes that they hadn’t actually seen! They were far more likely to “over-remember” the traumatic scenes than the non-traumatic ones, and they did so with confidence.

In addition, some viewers reported symptoms to us that are analogous to PTSD. They reported thinking about the traumatic scenes when they didn’t intend or want to (intrusive thoughts) and avoiding things that reminded them of the film. Interestingly, those with the PTSD-like symptoms were more likely than the others to “over-remember” traumatic elements of the film that they hadn’t actually seen. This is further evidence of a link between PTSD symptoms and memory distortion.

If a failure in source monitoring was responsible for the memory distortion, we should be able to help the viewers sort out the memory distortions by warning them that the videos are incomplete (that some scenes are missing) before they watch the film. The viewers would then be more “on guard” in terms of their source monitoring.

In a follow-up study, we confirmed that this did in fact work. Once again, we found that the false memory formation was highest for the traumatic scenes, rather than the non-traumatic scenes. However, viewers who were warned that some content was missing were much less likely to “over-remember” scenes that they didn’t actually see. Interestingly, viewers that were shown a block of text describing the missing scenes were more likely to “over remember.”

Taken together, our data argue that inattentive source monitoring can lead to memory distortion and that these distortions are most pronounced with traumatic memories. While this does not answer the question of evolutionary value or context, per se, it does a provide a framework for understanding how these mental errors occur in the process of memory formation, which operates with high fidelity in other contexts. It may be that the flood of emotion and cognitive dissonance that accompany traumatic events overloads the cognitive processing necessary to run the heuristics of memory formation. Without those nuanced heuristics, the human brain attempts to close the loop with additional elements, real or imagined.

Is this purely an error, a shortcoming of a brain only very recently evolved with these great new cognitive powers? Maybe. Or could this process of false memory formation actually be adaptive? One biological benefit that could result from distorted memory is that exaggerated recall of trauma could serve to reinforce behavioral aversion to dangerous situations. Normally, our fear and aversion toward something dangerous wanes over time if we are not repeatedly exposed to it. The strange quirk of remembering traumatic events as even more traumatic over time may serve to mitigate this. Fear is a powerful motivator and a very important conditioning mechanism for avoiding danger.

The evolutionary reasoning goes something like this. First, we know that traumatic experiences in war can lead to PTSD and a paralyzing fear of jolts and loud sounds, an aversion that gets worse, not better, over time. If we substitute the modern war context for the Pleistocene-era African savannah, the biological value of this aversion becomes clearer. Imagine the traumatic experience of a hunter or gatherer. A near-miss with a lion, or a snake, or even an angry elephant, could result in traumatic memories. Through the “growth” of the traumatic memory, the individual would be continually conditioned to be extremely fearful toward that particular danger in the future. A PTSD-like phenomenon could result and the subject would experience extreme avoidance of the feared stimulus.

This form of trauma-induced fear conditioning would be more resilient than a genetically programmed system of fear predisposition (like the ones humans might have toward snakes and spiders) because it can operate on the individual level, instead of waiting for genetic adaptive change to occur over thousands of years.

In sum, PTSD may be an adaptive, if clumsy, neurological mechanism to train individuals to avoid very serious dangers, and the tendency to “over-remember” the trauma might be nature’s way of ensuring that the lesson is not forgotten over time.

Our Pal Al

Our Pal Al

Blog entry by: Candace McCoy and Marianna Brown Bettman, 9/29/2015

Our latest blog entry comes from Candace McCoy, Professor at John Jay – The Graduate Center at CUNY, and co-author Marianna Brown Bettman, Professor of Practice at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Law.

When the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage was announced last week, our bunch of friends in different cities read about it on the front page of the New York Times.  The “grey lady” is the “newspaper of record,” after all, and this case was historic.

Courtesy: New York Times.

Several photos illustrated the story, and we all locked eyes on the third one.  Its caption read “James Obergefell, center, a plaintiff, sued when Ohio refused to recognize his marriage to John Arthur, who died in 2013.”  True enough.  But who is the bald bespectacled guy on the left, holding Obergefell’s arm and apparently saying something to which nobody at that time is listening?

He is Al Gerhardstein.  His image takes up half the photo frame, both literally and in importance, but the Times did not identify him.  To paraphrase the late comic Henny Youngman, it’s time to give the man some respect.

Al is Obergefell’s lawyer.  He has also served as the attorney for thousands of other people since he started to practice law in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1978.  Al is a classic example of civil rights attorneys who doggedly and creatively practice law in towns and cities nationwide, working solo or in small firms that are the antithesis of large corporate ones.  Think Atticus Finch, not “The Good Wife.”  Al and his partner Jennifer Branch  “are committed to using the law to help those on the margins of power,” according to their firm’s mission statement, meaning they represent people who claim they have been victims of racial or gender-based discrimination, people who have been mistreated by the police, inmates in inhumane prisons and jails, and whistleblowers against government abuses.

This work is enormously difficult, but deeply dedicated attorneys take it on anyway.  Only a very few ever have cases that make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Obergefell case was one of those, though Al didn’t get to argue it there despite championing it through trial and subsequent appeal in the Sixth Circuit.  When it came time to appear in the U.S. Supreme Court, Al and the hometown attorneys from other states covered by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals respectfully stepped aside to let their consolidated cases be argued by legal specialists in the civil rights of LGBT people.  Your paper and every other news outlet in the nation have now reported the results.

Pals of Al have been deeply impressed and appreciative of his skills and tireless work throughout the decades.  The Obergefell case is just his most recent, stunning achievement. Every resident of the city of Cincinnati is affected daily by the outcome of the Cincinnati Collaborative on police reform, a remarkable and sustainable program begun in 2002.  It created and implemented a new model of police-neighborhood engagement now emulated nationally.  Cities like Newark and Cleveland, which among others are subject to consent decrees negotiated with the federal Department of Justice, will be the beneficiaries of the model of “civic engagement” first developed over ten years ago in Cincinnati.

They say that success has many mothers. Everybody now claims credit for birthing the Collaborative.  But Al’s pals know it was he who insisted from the start that simply settling the lawsuits from deaths of young black men was not enough – the settlement had to include enforceable orders based on political action and grassroots story-telling.  The hard-fought result was the Collaborative for police reform.

In all the celebrations of the results of court cases in these many civil rights struggles, let’s give a bit of respect to the hometown attorneys who first take them on and fight hard in the face of derision and overwhelming political resistance.

Jailbreak My Life

Jailbreak My Life

Blog entry by: Evan Misshula, 9/24/2015

Our latest blog entry comes from Evan Misshula, a doctoral candidate in Criminal Justice at John Jay College/CUNY Graduate Center. 

Over the weekend, two CUNY John Jay Computer Science majors, Marta Orlowska (’16) and Nyvia DeJesus (’16) put their skills to the test against a room full of professionals. The pair not only competed, but won major prizes at the ATT Wireless Women in Technology Hackathon for Good. They paired with two professional developers, Sara Morsi (CCNY ’14) and Igor Politov, an engineer with DealBook.

The team with John Jay Instructor and CS Club Advisor Evan Misshula, Developer Community Manager for Harman, Richard Dunbar and Hackathon Volunteer Brendan Reilly after having won the Harman API prise.

Their app, Jailbreak My Life, was a mobile resource center for returning prisoners, and the project fits well with John Jay’s many initiatives on reintegrating youth who may have experienced arrest or detention. The app used the Google Maps API to show where the user was relative to essential resources such as food, jobs, free tutoring or healthcare. In addition to using the Google Maps API, the app, built in only six hours, used a thoroughly modern stack of HTML5, Reach and Node JavaScript. Asked how they could code in a language John Jay doesn’t teach, Marta Orlowska said, “It’s not the language that is important. At John Jay, I got really good training the fundamentals like data structures and source control. With that background and a great coding partner like Sara, it was easy to contribute in just a few hours.” Meanwhile, Nyvia was learning how to leverage the Google Maps API to incorporate real-time GIS data into their application, a task that no other team mastered over the course of the event.

It was no surprise that John Jay students chose a socially relevant mobile application that combined computing and criminal justice. “Our students are often much better than many developers at seeing the large overlap between policing, incarceration, and computational problems,” said Computer Science Club advisor and Substitute Instructor Evan Misshula. “Accomplishing so much in such a short amount of time is truly an outstanding  acheivement for these emerging leaders in computer science and criminal justice.”

Pixels v Propaganda: How digital technology can stop ISIS

Pixels v Propaganda: How digital technology can stop ISIS

Blog entry by: Erin Thompson, 9/8/2015

Our latest blog entry comes from Erin L. Thompson, an assistant professor in the John Jay Art and Music Department, America’s only full-time professor of art crime. Her book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2016. Follow her at artcrimeprof.com or on twitter (@artcrimeprof) and check out her course – ART 230: Issues in Art and Crime.

Statues attacked with sledgehammers, ancient carved reliefs smashed by bulldozers, temples that survived intact for thousands of years strung with IEDs and exploded into heaps of rubble: media reports in recent months have been full of such images, as members of the extremist group ISIS have waged war against the past in Syria and Iraq.

As an archeologist and art historian, I teach my students about the destroyed artifacts and sites. Palmyra, for example, was a stop on the caravan routes that connected Rome to the Near East, India, China, and beyond. It was a fantastically wealthy city in antiquity, and its inhabitants peacefully worshipped Greek, Roman, Akkadian, and pre-Islamic Arabian deities. In other words, it was an example of exactly the type of religious diversity and tolerance that ISIS seeks to eradicate.

As an art crime expert, studying the damage done to humanity’s shared heritage through looting, theft, and the deliberate destruction of art, I have been trying to figure out why ISIS is so interested in antiquities – and how to stop them. I have argued that ISIS pretends that it is acting out of religious motivations, to “destroy idolatry,” when really they are only destroying the antiquities that they cannot easily transport out of the country, while the rest are sold to fund their campaigns.

I am also spreading the message that ISIS times its destructions of antiquities to the Western media’s news cycle, revving up interest to create yet another round of stories bemoaning our powerlessness to stop the destruction. Why? Because this message – that ISIS can, with impunity, destroy things precious to the West – is exactly the message ISIS wants to spread to potential recruits.

But this doesn’t have to be the whole story. Currently, I preparing an exhibition, to open in the John Jay Art Gallery in December, to showcase projects that are working to save threatened heritage and even to revive it when destroyed. We can make 3-D digital reconstructions of smashed antiquities. We can crowdsource analysis of satellite images to monitor further looting. We can fill war zones with cheap cameras that can record and produce 3-D printed replicas of threatened heritage. And we can even make new art that commemorates the destroyed objects and gives information about how to stop ISIS. We aren’t nearly as helpless as ISIS thinks.

You can hear me discussing more about ISIS’ destruction of art on NPR (http://bit.ly/1Fw5uVJ ;http://bit.ly/1iar1OX ; http://bit.ly/1Ub0DAa) and watch me on CNN (http://cnn.it/1PZc7p7 ;http://cnn.it/1JRvjno).

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