How does aggressive police surveillance transform an urban neighborhood? A sociologist reports from the inside.

Tim McDonagh

  • By Alice Goffman

    University of Chicago

One consequence of racism and segregation is that many American whites know little or nothing about the daily lives of African Americans. Black America's least-understood communities are those poor, hyper-segregated places we once called ghettos. These neighborhoods are not far away, but they might as well be on the moon. The only news most people ever hear about the inner city comes from grim headlines; the only residents they can name are characters on The Wire. Of course, ignorance of a community doesn't stop outsiders from having opinions about it or passing laws that govern it. But those opinions, based on stereotypes and catchphrases, make it difficult to conduct meaningful public deliberation about social policy. And the laws, all too often, harm people who have enough going against them already.

While most Americans are detached from the urban poor, social scientists have been examining and formulating theories about their lives for more than a century. One line of research, exemplified by a chapter from Elijah Anderson's Streetwise (1990), explores policing practices in the tough-on-crime era that began in the 1970s. Anderson looked at interactions between police and young black men in Philadelphia. He found that such men were at constant risk of being stopped, harassed, and even arrested, whether or not they had committed a crime. In these circumstances, Anderson wrote, a black youth "knows, or soon finds out, that he exists in a legally precarious state. Hence he is motivated to avoid the police, and his public life becomes severely circumscribed."

According to Alice Goffman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, things have only gotten worse in the quarter century since Anderson wrote those words. Goffman spent six years doing fieldwork in a poor, almost all-black part of Philadelphia, starting in 2002, when she was an undergraduate (and a student of Anderson's) at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the first people she got to know on Sixth Street—her pseudonym for the neighborhood—was a thin, bearded 22-year-old she calls Mike. A month after she met him, Mike went into hiding; Goffman learned that he was wanted on a shooting charge, and that this wasn't his first brush with the law. Many of his associates were fugitives as well. Some had outstanding arrest warrants for crimes. Others were being sought for violating terms of parole, failing to pay court costs, or missing a court date.

Goffman was a sociology major, but her coursework hadn't prepared her for the phenomenon she was witnessing. The situation of men like Mike and his friends had not figured prominently in previous ethnographies of the inner city. Whereas Anderson and others had written about young men who were continually suspected by the police but who had some chance of walking free after a street stop, the men Goffman studied were actually wanted. If the police were to stop them and discover their fugitive status, they would be taken into custody. These men also risked arrest for noncriminal activity that violated their probation or parole—staying out past curfew, for instance, or visiting a part of town where they weren't allowed to be. As a result, they lived their lives on the run.

Goffman set out to understand what it means to be a fugitive in a place where so many others are fugitives, too. This question led to broader ones: How do high incarceration rates and intensive policing affect a neighborhood as a whole? What happens when the criminal-justice system extends its tentacles into every part of a community's daily life?

The police, in Goffman's portrayal in On the Run, are at full-fledged war with residents. They beat up people under arrest, steal from suspects, smash up homes while serving warrants, and use the results of surveillance to turn lovers or family members against one another. Such behavior shocks Goffman, at least at first. But the neighborhood's longtime residents are more resigned. To them, police raids are like thunderstorms: take cover if you can, and don't go back outside until it stops raining.

Police surveillance on Sixth Street has few limits, as one of Mike's friends, Alex, learns when he accompanies his girlfriend, Donna, to the hospital for the birth of their first child. Shortly after the delivery, police officers arrive to handcuff Alex. One of them tells Goffman that they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim and followed their practice of running the names of men on the visitors' list; Alex's name came back with a warrant attached. (The warrant had nothing to do with the shooting; Donna later tells Goffman that it had been issued when Alex was found to be violating his parole by driving after his license had been revoked.) Donna begs the officers to let Alex stay and promises to go with him to the police station the next day, but to no avail. They take Alex into custody, along with two other men on the maternity ward. Once his friends learn of his arrest, they decide to avoid hospitals, even at the cost of missing their own children's births.

The police beat up people under arrest, steal from suspects, smash up homes while serving warrants.

In places like Sixth Street, Goffman argues, "the sheer scope of policing and imprisonment … is transforming community life in ways that are deep and enduring, not only for the young men who are their targets but for their family members, partners, and neighbors." She writes at length, for instance, about how the police coerce mothers and girlfriends into revealing a fugitive's whereabouts by threatening them with arrest, eviction, or loss of custody of their children. She notes that a woman who yields to such pressure may come under criticism from others in the community, while those who resist may be regarded as strong and loyal. To Goffman, this is an example of what happens once the criminal-justice system "has come to occupy a central place" in people's lives.

Goffman is a compelling writer, and she supports her argument with one vivid anecdote after another. Her descriptions of aggressive surveillance and gratuitously violent arrests are consistent with earlier research on policing in poor urban communities. Her terrifying accounts of abusive behavior by police executing search warrants also echo stories I heard from countless clients during my six years as a public defender in Washington, D.C.

But other police practices that Goffman describes may be outliers. For example, I was astonished by her account of the police trolling maternity wards for parole violators. I had never heard of such a thing. When I spoke with civil-rights attorneys and public defenders in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and with a police official in New Haven, Connecticut, I couldn't find a single person who knew of a case like Alex and Donna's.

It is also worth considering whether the young men in On the Run are representative of young men in low-income black neighborhoods. In one important sense, they are. Nationally—not just on Sixth Street—staggering percentages of black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under criminal-justice supervision. The Sentencing Project estimates the proportion at one in three. In the poorest neighborhoods, it's even higher.