Alice Goffman’s Book on “Fugitive Life” in Philly Under Attack

Critics say Penn alum's depiction of police routinely requesting visitor info from hospitals is the stuff of urban legend. She says otherwise.

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Last year, Alice Goffman published On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, an adaptation of her dissertation at Princeton. For six years, while a student at Penn and at Princeton, Goffman immersed herself in a Philadelphia neighborhood that she writes is “a lower-income Black neighborhood not far from [Penn’s] campus.” The book is an ethnography of the lives of the young men (and a few women) she hung out with in the neighborhood. She changed names and calls it “6th Street,” to avoid identifying her subjects.

In the book, her subjects are profiled, beaten harassed and tracked by the Philadelphia Police. She writes of police stealing from suspects. She says she witnessed 24 different police raids, including one where she was handcuffed, and four instances of men from 6th Street released from police custody with bloody fingertips.

It was met with massive praise upon release. Goffman, the daughter of esteemed sociologist Erving Goffman and a Philadelphia native who went to the Baldwin School, had already won a major award for her dissertation. Malcolm Gladwell called it “exceptional … devastating.” Cornel West said it was “the best treatment I know of the wretched underside of neo-liberal capitalist America.” The New York Times said it was “a remarkable feat of reporting.”

Goffman, now a professor of sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, has recently come under criticism. An anonymous take-down has floated around in academic circles. Northwestern law professor Steven Lubet, in an essay in the online book review site The New Rambler, accused Goffman of being “an accomplice in the evident commission of a major felony,” as well as getting facts wrong about policing in Philadelphia.

Goffman’s lawyer, David Rudovsky, told the Times he’s not aware of any legal investigation.

Let’s just look at one small part of the critique of Goffman. In the book, she writes: “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, or those whose injuries or presence there constitutes grounds for a new arrest or a violation of probation or parole.” She writes of an instance where police, who had arrived at the hospital with a shooting victim, ran the name of one of her subjects, Alex. He had an outstanding warrant and was taken into custody — along with two other men — the day his baby was born, despite the mother’s pleas to police. None, Goffman writes, were related to the shooting the police had arrived at the hospital for.

Both Lubet, in his critique, and Yale Law School professor James Forman, in The Atlantic, are skeptical of Goffman’s “standard practice” claim. “For example, I was astonished by her account of the police trolling maternity wards for parole violators,” Forman writes. “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.” Police officers and other law enforcement officers I talked with had similar stories. “It’s absurd to even think that we would tolerate something like that,” Police spokesman John Stanford told the Inquirer last year.

Goffman replied to Lubet’s criticism recently, and singled out one Philadelphia hospital’s identification policies:

Many hospitals in Philadelphia require visitors to show ID at the registration desk and register as a visitor; some, like the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, selectively run the names of these visitors in criminal databases.

Contacted via email, Goffman writes she was only referring to CHOP’s policy of patient screening, citing guidelines posted on its website: “To maintain a safe environment, we ask anyone 18 and older who is entering the Hospital or the Wood Center, for any reason, to show a photo ID. We may use your ID to check a variety of sources, including public registries that identify individuals who may pose a risk to children. We reserve the right to use this information to restrict access to Hospital locations as appropriate.” She declined to speak on the record otherwise.

I contacted CHOP to ask about their policy, and if it was connected to the police. They responded with a statement (emphasis theirs).

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) requires positive identification of all adult hospital visitors as part of its security policy. Under our policy, all visitors over the age of 18 are asked for a valid driver’s license or other government-approved identification before being issued a visitor’s pass. All identification is checked for any convictions under statutes commonly known as “Megan’s Laws”, which are a matter of public record. Pursuant to our policy, visitors with convictions under a “Megan’s Law” statute are not permitted entry into the hospital. No information is shared beyond hospital security. CHOP is not aware of any instance in which representatives of any law enforcement agency have requested access to our electronic visitor database.”

The Megan’s Law database is a public one that anyone can access online. Only sworn law-enforcement officers (police, DA investigators, et cetera) have logins for the private database which contains information about open warrants. CHOP says it has its own security force, rather than police officers, in the hospital.

Goffman likely didn’t do her fieldwork at CHOP, though not every hospital has a strict ID policy for visitors. In addition to children’s hospitals, maternity wards are generally stricter. A Temple Health spokesperson said ID is not required at its hospital unless it’s for a “restricted room” (such as a victim of a violent crime, or if the family requests it). Temple does require visitors to check in at security to ask for a patient’s room number; it limits guests to two to a room.

Lubet argues Goffman has reprinted an “urban legend” and validated it. “Goffman has now embedded it in ethnographic lore, and it could well be accepted as fact by sociology and social work majors,” he writes. “If repeated uncritically by future social workers in urban areas, this could have the ripple effect of further discouraging young African-American men from obtaining necessary medical care, which would be a shame.” (Alex’s arrest, first published in an academic paper, has already been cited in the American Sociological Review.)

“I had a litany of people, places and things I would warn clients about who contacted me on a warrant so I could get them into court without getting arrested first; stay off hot corners, full stops at stop signs, watch who you’re hanging out with — because more warrants in one place increase the chances of someone coming to get you, etc.,” Jeff Deeney, a social worker in Philadelphia, emails. “‘Don’t go to CHOP if you have a warrant’ isn’t something I ever heard because why would CHOP be in the business of serving warrants?”

It’s hard to say if Goffman has popularized the story; it is one that appears to have been spread for a long time. Google is full of searches asking the question. People are scared of it. There is not much evidence, other than Goffman’s account, of the “standard practice… for police to run the names of visitors or patients” at hospitals that serve poor, black Philadelphia neighborhoods. (To keep her subjects out of legal trouble, Goffman says she destroyed her notes after her dissertation was completed.)

But it is verifiable people in the U.S. have been arrested at hospitals, even ones for children. News stories usually say the police were tipped off by an unknown informant. Police in Leesburg, Florida, Tased a new father in April after getting a tip he’d be at the maternity ward. In 2013, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported police shot a man at a children’s hospital after they received a tip there was a wanted felon there. People have even been arrested on the way to the hospital: In Western Pennsylvania last year, a 19-year-old was driving his pregnant girlfriend to the hospital but didn’t think they’d make it in time. He flagged down police to ask for help. They arrested him after learning he had a suspended license and a warrant out for his arrest.

Goffman’s book seems to argue that hospitals ought to be safe spaces, where visitors like new fathers do not have to fear arrest even if they have open warrants against them. How much you agree with that statement probably depends on how much of a bleeding-heart liberal hippie you are, and how much you agree with On the Run’s critiques of over-criminalization in Philadelphia. Others might play the “what about this crime” game, pointing out people have been arrested on drug charges at hospitals, as have child molesters. Despite being a hospital with a strict ID policy, CHOP does say it is one of those safe spaces and hasn’t ever been asked for info on visitors.

Goffman’s university is standing by her, releasing a statement: “There have been various recent critiques of UW-Madison sociologist Alice Goffman’s book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, including claims of research misconduct. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has carefully considered the misconduct claims and found them to be without merit. The critiques are all part of scholarly debate, which the university hopes will be held in keeping with the highest academic standards. The work of Dr. Goffman is important and she continues to have the full support of our university as the conversation on her work continues.” According to Goffman’s bio, she’s on leave from the school through the Fall of 2016.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.