Is it true, as Alice Goffman asserted in On the Run, that
To round up enough young men to meet their informal quotas and satisfy their superiors, the [Philadelphia] police wait outside hospitals serving poor Black communities and run the IDs of the men walking inside. (p. 55)
In his recent New York Times profile, Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote that he had found corroboration for the claim “that officers run IDs in maternity wards to arrest wanted fathers.” I have already provided links showing that his three newspaper articles – from Dallas, New Orleans, and Brockton, MA – described incidents that were not at all similar to Goffman’s claims of a police gantlet at the door, or routine searches of maternity patient and visitor lists.
In this post, I will address Lewis-Kraus’s other supposed corroboration, based on “a Philadelphia public defender and a deputy mayor [who] told me that the practice does not at all seem beyond plausibility.”
Needless to say, many untrue things may not “seem beyond plausibility,” so that is hardly confirmation that the police cordon ever really existed. Moreover, “seeming plausibility” falls far well short of any standard of proof previously known to law, journalism, or social science, and the comment itself obviously implies that Lewis-Kraus’s sources had no first-hand – or even second-hand – information about the alleged police activity in hospitals.
Even though Lewis-Kraus’s assertion is basically meaningless, I decided to follow up by contacting Everett Gillison, who served under Philadelphia’s former Mayor Michael Nutter, as Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Chief of Staff (he was in office until end of Nutter’s second term, which was Jan. 4 of this year). Gillison had previously spent 28 years with the Philadelphia Defender Service, ultimately as a senior trial attorney in the Special Defense and Homicide Unit.
I provided Gillison with the Goffman quote at the beginning of this post, and asked if it described a “standard practice” of the Philadelphia police (as Goffman had called it on page 34 of On the Run). He replied,
The passage about hospitals is NOT in any way a standard practice. I spent almost 28 years as a public defender in Philadelphia and the last 8 years as Deputy Mayor and Chief of Staff. This is not a practice, period. (Emphasis original.)
When Lewis-Kraus pressed Goffman about the accuracy of one of her claims – the article does not say which one – she objected to “getting officials who are white men in power to corroborate them.” “Finding ‘legitimate’ people to validate the claims,” she said, “feels wrong to me on just about every level.’
Goffman’s position would make her enviably impervious to refutation, but put that aside. Nothing should feel wrong about asking Everett Gillison about the police in Philadelphia. He is an African-American who has dedicated virtually his entire professional life to public service, including almost three decades in defense of young men just like Goffman’s informants. He is well aware of actual police abuses and “improper excesses,” as he put it in an email. “They are disturbing enough,” he told me.
The story of routine warrant arrests at Philadelphia hospitals turns out to be an unsubstantiated urban legend. No one other than Alice Goffman has ever reported seeing or hearing of the supposed practice, and no one other than Gideon Lewis-Kraus has even sorta-kinda endorsed its existence. Unfortunately, it has inflicted real harm on real people, including some of Goffman’s own subjects who have allowed severe injuries to go untreated for fear of warrant checks in the emergency room. The New York Times Magazine should never have lent the rumor credence, and would have done a far greater service by helping put it to rest.
There are many other factual problems in On the Run, but this one is the most harmful. I will explain why in my next post.