Many readers will know that I have been very critical of Alice Goffman’s claims, in On the Run, that the Philadelphia police have had routine access to patient and visitor records in Philadelphia hospitals for the purpose of running warrant checks. No one has ever confirmed Goffman’s assertion, including reporters, such as Jesse Singal, who are otherwise very sympathetic to her.
Now comes Gideon Lewis-Kraus in today’s New York Times Magazine, however, and he sorta-kinda offers some support for the claim – that is, until you check his own sources, which do not actually back him up.
Lewis-Kraus writes the following:
When it comes to Goffman’s assertion that officers run IDs in maternity wards to arrest wanted fathers, another short Internet search produces corroborating examples in Dallas, New Orleans and Brockton, Mass.
Two things jump out immediately. First, Lewis-Kraus evidently found no “corroborating examples” in Philadelphia. Also, the on-line edition of his story (which has been posted since last Tuesday) did not include links to the articles he turned up in his “short Internet search," thus making it difficult to corroborate the alleged corroboration.
I therefore replicated what I assumed to be Lewis-Kraus’s search parameter, and I found three stories from Dallas, New Orleans, and Brockton. Although all three were about arrests in maternity wards, none of them – repeat, none of them – involved “running IDs” in a manner similar to Goffman’s claim. (To make sure that I had the right stories, I asked a reference librarian at Northwestern to repeat the search for the three cities, and to make it as extensive as possible; he found only the same three incidents.)
Two of the cases – in Dallas and New Orleans – involved teenaged new mothers who had been statutorily raped. They had given the names of the fathers to the authorities, who then arrested the older men when they came to visit. (In the New Orleans case, the man was 40 and the juvenile 16.) There was no “running of IDs.” The Brockton case was part of a long-planned, one-day, 23-defendant drug sweep, coordinated by the FBI, the Massachusetts State Police and the Plymouth County district attorney. It likewise had nothing to do with routinely running IDs based on visitor or patient lists.
These three stories simply cannot be read as “corroborating examples” for Goffman’s claim of routine warrant checks in hospitals. If anything, they demonstrate the opposite – that maternity ward arrests are so infrequent that they make the news. In fact, the New Orleans arrest was considered so unusual that it was even reported in New York. If there had ever been a similar incident in Philadelphia – much less three such arrests in one night, as Goffman claims to have observed – why couldn’t Lewis-Kraus find a record of it in the Philadelphia press?
The point is that Goffman did not merely claim that someone had once ever been arrested in a Philadelphia maternity ward. She claimed that the police had regular and routine access to patient and visitor lists for the purpose of running warrant checks. Here are the relevant passages from On the Run:
To round up enough young men to meet their informal quotas and satisfy their superiors, the police wait outside hospitals serving poor Black communities and run the IDs of the men walking inside. (p. 55)
According to the officers I interviewed, it is standard practice in the hospitals serving the Black community for police to run the names of visitors or patients while they are waiting around, and to take into custody those with warrants . . . . (p. 34, emphasis added)
And she provides this vignette:
I got there a few hours after the baby was born, in time to see two police officers come into Donna’s room to place Alex in handcuffs . . . . The officers told me they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list. Alex came up as having a warrant out for a parole violation, so they arrested him along with two other men on the delivery room floor. (p. 34)
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines corroborating as “to support with evidence or authority: make more certain.” Lewis-Kraus’s three newspaper stories – involving separate one-off incidents, in different cities, over a period of at least six years – do not come close to providing evidence for Goffman’s sweeping claims about the “standard practices” of the Philadelphia police.
Nonetheless, Lewis-Kraus concludes by saying “the most interesting question might not be whether Goffman was telling the truth but why she has continued to let people believe that she might not be.” Based on his inability to dig up actual support, I think that question answers itself.
Goffman apparently agrees with her informants that “the hospital is a place to be avoided at all costs” (p. 35). Their refusal to seek medical care, however, can lead to painful consequences, as some of Goffman’s subjects allowed serious injuries, including broken bones, to go untreated. On the Run, which has been assigned in undergraduate sociology classes, is thus providing academic credibility for the rumor of dangerous hospitals. It is truly distressing to see the New York Times lend further credence to what is basically a harmful urban legend.
I will have more to say about this in future posts.