The Society of Fugitives

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

Tim McDonagh

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.

But in another, equally important sense, Goffman’s characters are atypical. Many of the guys on Sixth Street—especially the ones with whom she spends the most time—are violent offenders, and they are often armed. Steve pistol-whips a man who has called him a snitch. Mike engages in multiple gun battles with a man who robbed him. On one occasion, when Mike gets angry with Marie, the mother of his children, he pays another woman a bag of marijuana to assault her. He watches the beating from his car and calls out for the woman to hit Marie again and again. Ronny raises bail money for Mike by borrowing Mike’s gun, robbing a house, and selling the loot. Chuck, one of Mike’s best friends and among the book’s most prominent characters, owns two guns, bullets, and a bulletproof vest. One young man, new to Sixth Street and high on PCP, murders someone from a rival neighborhood during a dice game. The ensuing violence puts the entire community at risk as bullets fly into the homes of law-abiding residents.

With one exception I know of—Dwayne Betts, writing in Slate—most reviewers of On the Run seem to regard such violence as routine. Like Goffman, they make it sound as though most young black men in poor communities behave this way. For example, Alex Kotlowitz, in The New York Times Book Review, writes of Mike, “Like the others we meet, he’s neither hero nor villain. He’s simply trying to get by.” But most young men in the inner city who are “simply trying to get by” don’t commit the violent offenses that Mike and his friends commit.

This is a crucial point. Ever since Marvin Wolfgang’s landmark study, Delinquency in a Birth Cohort (1972), criminologists have known that a small percentage of repeat offenders are responsible for most violent crime. Wolfgang and his research team studied 10,000 Philadelphia boys from childhood into adulthood and discovered that 6 percent of the group was responsible for two-thirds of the violent crime. Other researchers have confirmed and extended Wolfgang’s insight. Studies in Boston over the past two decades have found that youth gangs, which are involved in more than half of the city’s homicides, comprise only 1 percent of the young-adult population.

Previous ethnographers have also found that a minority of young black men in poor communities engage in violent crime, and that even fewer carry guns. In Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (2011), a superb book that should be read alongside On the Run, the sociologist Victor Rios reports on his study of 40 heavily policed teens in Oakland, California. Most of his subjects had been arrested, but few resorted to the kind of violence we see on Sixth Street. Rios writes, “I found that the youths did not typically take up arms and assault others. In most cases, conflicts usually found resolution—or at least a stalemate—in harsh conversations.”

To her credit, Goffman devotes a chapter to “clean people,” residents who have managed to stay out of trouble. Still, her book ends up reinforcing the belief that the average young black man in a neighborhood like Sixth Street is violent and prone to take up arms. This falsehood has been the basis for many tough-on-crime measures, including some that were instituted as part of the war on drugs. Now that this war has become a damaged brand, the measures have been repackaged and resold as part of a war on guns. Thus, during the recent debate over New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, then–police chief Raymond Kelly argued that aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics “take guns off the street and save lives.” Opponents countered (correctly) that armed offenders are the exception, even in low-income minority neighborhoods, and that it is a mistake to police all blacks as if they were high-rate offenders.

The fact that Goffman’s subjects have serious criminal histories impairs our ability to generalize from some of her findings. For example, her central characters are all wanted on warrants at one time or another, some of them repeatedly (Mike has 10 warrants altogether). To Goffman, this indicates that Philadelphia’s criminal-justice system issues too many warrants. But it may simply indicate that Mike and his friends are unusually criminally active.

Most young men in the inner city who are “simply trying to get by” don’t commit violent offenses.

Perhaps anticipating this challenge, Goffman extends her inquiry beyond the most criminally active members of the community. When she conducts a door-to-door survey of Sixth Street, she finds that about half the men there were wanted on warrants over a three-year period. This is astounding; no previous researcher has reported such a high concentration of fugitives living in one community. This raises questions that Goffman doesn’t answer with precision, but that I hope she and others will explore in the future: How many of these warrants were for failure to pay court costs—which should rarely if ever be imposed on poor people in the first place—versus something more serious, such as skipping a court date? Does fugitive status affect the lives of less criminally involved young men in the same ways it affects the lives of Mike and his friends? If it does, and if other communities harbor equally large proportions of fugitives, Goffman has discovered a profound social problem that deserves further research and a policy response.

As it stands, Goffman’s book requires us to confront the limitations and failures of our criminal-justice policies to date. Not least, On the Run reminds us that while we as a society have devoted vast resources to apprehending and punishing men like Mike and his friends, we have done little to attempt to set them onto a better path earlier in life. As Goffman says,

Many in law enforcement recognize that poverty, unemployment, and the drugs and violence that accompany them are social problems that cannot be solved by arresting people. But the police and the courts are not equipped with social solutions. They are equipped with handcuffs and jail time.

She couldn’t be more right.

Consider Chuck’s story. His mother was addicted to crack, and he himself sold drugs off and on as a teenager. But he was a decent student—he made it to his senior year, played on the basketball team, and was earning B’s and C’s. Things began to fall apart when he got into a fight at school. Even though the other guy’s injuries were minor, Chuck was charged with aggravated assault and sent to the county jail. After eight months, most of the charges were dismissed and he was released. But when he tried to re-enroll in school at age 19, he was turned away; the school said he was too old.

What if the system had responded differently to Chuck’s school-yard fight? What if, instead of an aggravated-assault charge and a bed in the county jail, Chuck had received an in-school suspension, or a chance to participate in a restorative-justice program through which he could make amends to the young man he assaulted? What if the high school had allowed him to return and graduate? None of this is impossible to envision; it is how the world works right now for those with resources and, occasionally, in a few places, for those without them. It is how the world could, and should, work on Sixth Street.