Author Archives: Heidi Knoblauch

Special Interview with Eli Silverman on Recent Stop-And-Frisk Trial

Eli Silverman, JustPublics@365

Professor Eli Silverman

This past week, I interviewed Eli Silverman, PhD (Professor, Emeritus, john Jay and Graduate Center, CUNY), about his experience testifying as an expert witness in the recent stop-and-frisk trial, Floyd, et al. v. New York City. In this interview, I asked Professor Silverman about his involvement as one of the leading scholars working on the issue of stop-and-frisk in New York City and his experience translating academic research to a wider audience. We also discussed the potential changes that will occur as a result of District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling and the ramifications of stepping outside the academy and into the courtroom.


Can you share a bit about yourself, and your involvement as one of the leading scholars working on the issues of Stop-And-Frisk in New York City?

I have been involved for some many years on research on the NYPD. I wrote a book [NYPD Battles Crime: Innovative Strategies in Policing] that came out in 1999 that was updated in 2001, which dealt with the reforms, the very important reforms that were introduced in the police department in 1994. I went back before then, but focused on that period, from 1994 on, which was a very significant period in terms of management and crime reduction and reforms. It was essentially a positive book. But when I updated it in 2001 with an epilogue, I found I was hearing many stories and discussions about how some of the things I had considered positive were being distorted and turned on its head, and had resulted, had stemmed from management pressure from the headquarters to really just produce numbers, and these numbers were the number of summonses, the number of arrests, the number of Stop-And-Frisks, and all in the name of driving down crime.

How did you get involved with the recent Stop-And-Frisk case in New York City?

I was approached by someone I knew from the PD, who had retired, named Dr. John Eterno. He was a former captain. He is a dean now at Molloy. He had been writing and hearing stories on this as well. He approached me and said, “Let’s do some research.” So we decided to look into this issue, but the police department had become very closed and exhibited a total lack of transparency. So we did a survey of retired captains and above, which had startling results and turned out to, the story appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, which caused quite a stir a few years ago. That was a survey we did. And then we did subsequently a second survey. But the first survey and other research we did resulted in a book called The Crime Numbers Game: Management by Manipulation. We talked about this phenomenon of what they call downgrading crime, moving it from felony. The major crimes that are reported in the U.S. and in New York are what I have called felony crimes, the seven major crimes, that’s how police departments keep score and compare themselves with one another. But the way they were doing it was not taking crime reports. They were moving felony crimes into other categories that’s called misdemeanor crimes, which are not publicly known. There was manipulation. Part of the manipulation ran parallel with this enormous pressure from above to drive down crime and produce activities that they thought drove down crime, and not worry about any of the collateral effects and the impacts of these strategies.

When were you approached to testify for the trial? 

John and I were approached many months before the trial came to pass. We had discussions with them and they thought our research was relevant. The part of our research that they thought was relevant was the research, the two surveys that we did, 2004, 2008. In 2008 we did even a more extensive survey of retired people from all ranks of the police department, and those results were even more dramatic as we refined our survey. We found that the biggest up-tick in these pressures, in a number of areas including Stop-And-Frisk, occurred in 2002 in the Bloomberg-Kelly era. So the plaintiffs, the lawyers for the plaintiffs approached us. They wanted us to report on our research and testify. John could not testify because he was involved in the police department in some of these related activities. So it fell upon me to testify, which was one very stressful experience, but ultimately gratifying because the judge did cite our research, and the judge did cite my testimony, among many other things in her decision, but she did do that.

What changes do you foresee with District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s recent ruling on this controversial policing practice?

She wrote two decisions. One is the liability decision, which is goes through the whole thing. If you get a chance to look at, it’s unbelievable. This was a nine-10 week with tons of material and documents. She, when you read it, it’s like some 150-some-odd pages. I think it’s extremely comprehensive and extremely analytical. She goes through all this, and she just peels away the layers of the police department defense. The police department, there was an earlier case called the Daniels case, where the police department agreed to make changes, under what’s called a consent decree, no admittance of anything wrong. But in this case, the Daniels case, which has been in the works for many years, it was clear that these things that police department agreed to do, it wasn’t even a question of whether it was on the back burner or the front burner. It wasn’t on any burner. They were just narrowly focused on crime reduction. So these constitutional legal issues were not addressed. In fact, our second survey asked the question, whether there was a pressure to obey constitutional legal positions. That was the only area where the pressure decreased. In other words, while pressure to increase Stop-And-Frisk, summons, and arrests climbed, the pressure to really do it correctly, or as we said in the questionnaire, to obey constitutional legal rights, that went down. It was quite stark.

In answer to your question, the judge issued the liability, which goes through all this, and in the second decision, which is some 50-some-odd pages, I think, is called the remedy. This speaks to your question, I think. The remedy may be pretty stark. It’s uncertain now because she appointed a federal monitor. Now no police department wants to be overseen by a federal monitor, because they don’t like someone overseeing it. But the federal monitor has to report to the judge in terms of changes that she recommends in training, in changes in supervision, in changed in how forms are filled out. She recommended pilot precincts where the officers would wear cameras so it will record the interaction. So it’s not sully fleshed out what in fact will happen, but the potential is for something quite significant. Plus the fact that this is an open-ended, this introduction of a federal monitor, that she selected a lawyer. It’s open-ended, and it depends on what he works out and what the judge approves, and how long this goes on. So this could be quite a long-standing thing.

To me, it’s a very, very sad legacy of a fine police department that’s gone astray because the leadership has taken it astray. To have this record of crime decline, which we agree with, John and I, although from what we’ve ascertained we would guess it’s about half of what they claim. But nevertheless, to have this fine record, and then it actually being sullied by just the obstinance and the refusal to talk to anybody or any of the critics. The city council, as you may know, introduced the Stop-And-Frisk bill, and inspector general, and both of those were passed over the mayor’s veto. So there can be some very long-term implications. And it’s even more dramatic than that, because the New York so-called police model has been a model for not only other cities throughout the world, but throughout the U.S., but throughout the world. I just came back from Denmark where some of this stuff is percolating. I’ve been in Australia. I’ve been in Paris, which modeled this whole issue of performance measurement and management. If it’s done right it’s great, but it it’s done wrong it can have all these perverse consequences. And this has been spreading all over. And everyone now does know or will know what’s happened to the police department and their once fine reputation. Now it’s going to be a whole different ball game, and this model is not going to be be all for everyone. They’re going to have to look more carefully at how it’s done.

Some academics might be hesitant to get involved with such a controversial issue. So what do you say to critics who might question your objectivity as a scholar now, after your involvement?

You know, there’s an old saying, as a scholar all you can do is speak the truth as you know it to power. I mean, I was a reluctant warrior in this. I didn’t seek this out. In fact, when we first got our first survey results, we were floored. We were floored by the extent of it. And not only that, we had a place where they would write comments. And the comments… The interesting thing is, most of the cops agree with us. We get emails and comments and stuff all the time. But they have to remain anonymous, except for those who are recorded. I don’t know if you are aware, but there have been several who have recorded this stuff from their own station house, Schoolcraft, and Palenko, and others. So it’s not just us saying this. There’s tons of evidence to support it. But it was very stressful. At times I almost said, “Let’s forget it,” because the city did everything they could to keep me out from testifying, including demanding all our research, even the research that was not relevant to the court case.

We balked at that because it’s our research. We worked on it, and nothing to do with the court case. We had to agree that it would be held confidential. We gave some. But it wasn’t, I can assure you, it wasn’t something that I leaped into. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t feel that the plaintiff’s case was very valid and made sense, and really was for the good. Now obviously I’m now high on the party list of the NYPD leadership, which I was when I wrote the first book. But, you know, that’s just the consequences of doing this.

But I try, everyone tries to be objective, or everyone should. We tried to be objective. We tried to call it as we saw it. The city tried to throw out our results. They tried to negate it. They tried to keep me out. And at times I said to the lawyers, I said, “You know, this is too much. I don’t really need all this.” And they said, “No. No.” I said, “It’s just too much.” They said, “They’re doing it.” What they told me is that the other side was doing it in order to discourage me and keep me out.


What sort of lessons have you learned do you have from your experience with this case about academics entering a train that’s more frequently trod by activists and journalists?

I think academics have to make a judgment for themselves. Do they want to go forward with what their research uncovers? If they feel their research is valid, and they feel that it’s supportive of a valid cause, then I think every academic has to make a choice for him or herself, whether they feel they want to be supportive. And you know, there is an argument for academic research just not being academic and in the social arena. The interesting thing is, the interesting thing here is, you have to be creative in order to get the data, especially when an organization, and here you have a large organization or a large bureaucracy, is totally nontransparent. The police department has not provided data, not responded, and we spell this out in the book, freedom of information requests.

So the academic, if he or she wants to pursue that, then they have to be creative and say, “How else can I get at this topic, if the institution itself is not providing the, giving me access?” I had access in my first book. In this one we didn’t. But what we did, fortunately, John was a retired member, and had access to the retirees list. And so we did this first through a mail list, and second through a computer program. But you have to be willing. It’s time consuming. But if you believe in something, then you have to make a decision. Do you go forward, or do you just throw in the towel. And if you believe in something then it’s an individual decision, I feel. In the process, you’re going to encounter great obstacles, and there’s no question it’s going to be stressful. Doug Muzzier asked me in an interview, he said, “Who should play you in the movie?” He was being, you know, kidding. I said, “Someone who’s very nervous.”

But that’s the nature of the game. I know this from other academics I know who have testified in cases that by nature it’s very stressful. Even before you testify, in the pretrial examination they try to knock you out, and they try to dismiss what you’ve said. And then they provide. The second day I was there, I was presented with a chart of retirees and how they were. I’d never seen this. But the city lawyer presented it to me. The plaintiff’s lawyer and the city lawyer were going back and forth whether that should be entered into the record. I had never seen this chart. And I said to the judge, I said, “May I object, your honor?” And she said, “Yes, depending on what you have to say.” I said, “Well, this chart is bogus. It doesn’t represent what it pretends to.” And then she queried the person and the city attorney, and she didn’t allow it.

There’s a certain amount of risk. I guess that’s what I’m saying. And one has to make the judgment, is the risk worth taking. In this case, the fact that on my testimony and our research was one piece in the overall decision, was gratifying, and in a way a confirmation of our research.


Juan Battle on the Social Justice Sexuality Initiative

In this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series, I interview Juan Battle on his work heading the Social Justice Sexuality Initiative.

Juan BattleProfessor Battle is Professor of Sociology, Public Health, & Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is also the Coordinator of the Africana Studies Certificate Program. In this interview we talk about the goals of the Social Justice Sexuality Initiative as well as collecting survey data and acquiring funding. Professor Battle ends by talking about his work with community activists and sharing the large amount of data he collected.

Podcast – Juan Battle on the Social Justice Sexuality Initiative

JustPublics@365 Podcast Episode Janet Gornick

Janet Gornick on Income Inequality; Heidi Knoblauch; Luxembourg Income Study Center (LIS), inequality, the Graduate Center, CUNY

In this week’s episode of the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series, I interview Janet Gornick on her research on working families and income inequality. Professor Gornick is Professor of Political Science and Sociology and director of the Luxembourg Income Study Center (LIS) at the City University of New York. In this interview we talk about the impact of income inequality and why people should care about issues of inequality. She answers questions about her research on duel earner families and the work of LIS. Professor Gornick ends the interview with insights into how her work has been used by activists and how she sees herself as a scholar-activist.

Jessie Daniels, Chase Robinson, and Matthew K. Gold on JustPublics@365

JustPublics@365 is launching its podcast series this week! The weekly podcast highlights academic research on social justice and inequality. To kick off the podcast series, I sat down with Jessie Daniels, Chase Robinson, and Matthew K. Gold to talk about the project’s goals and how JustPublics@365 leverages digital media. In this interview I ask the three principle investigators of JustPublics@365 about knowledge streams and the ways that digital media can foster “public scholarship.”

Podcast – Jessie Daniels, Chase Robinson, and Matthew K. Gold on JustPublics@365

Podcast Series Launch

This October, JustPublics@365 is launching a podcast series highlighting research by CUNY faculty on issues of social justice and inequality.

The series will feature the work of faculty from the Political Science, Sociology, English, Psychology, Social Work, Anthropology, and Music departments who will share insights from their research as well as how they came to do the research they do and how that research might connect to social justice activism and may have an impact on the world beyond academia.

Scheduled interviews include conversations with Janet Gornick, Juan BattleMargaret ChinMike Fabricant, Michelle Fine, Ashley DawsonFrancis Fox Piven, Victoria Sanford, Leith Mullings and others.

The first podcast, an interview with Janet Gornick, will be released on Monday, October 7.

Smart Phones and Academic Research

For academics, smartphone cameras can be used to gather and document information during field research, augment presentations, and connect to a wider audience through the myriad of communities online. Scholars in fields as different as clinical medicine and art are using smartphone technology to not only aid in research but also to share their findings with people who would not otherwise be engaged with their academic research. We’ve put together a list of some examples below.

(Photo from Flicker Creative Commons)

Pelckmans, Lotte. (2009). Phoning anthropologists: the Mobile Phone’s reshaping of anthropological research,” in Mobile phones: The new talking drums of everyday Africa, 23-49.

Pelckmans addresses the new methodological options of the phone as a multiple tool (visual, archiving, recording, broadcasting) and its potential as a research assistant.

Baker, C., Schleser, M., & Molga, K. (2009). Aesthetics of mobile media art. Journal of Media Practice, 10(2-3), 2-3.

In this article, three London-based creative practitioners examine the new emerging possibilities of mobile media in the domain of art and media practice. The three practice-based research projects reflect their diverse backgrounds and perspectives within the emerging field of mobile media, in an effort to define the new genre of mobile media art aesthetics. Despite the different approaches towards working with mobile media, a shared original aesthetic emerges specific to the mobile phone. The article focuses on the pixilated, low-resolution mobile screen aesthetic, interface, production processes and uses, made possible by the mobile phone, revealing their contribution to the field of screen media in the decade of HD. Within the collaborative examination of the work, the authors attempt to define an emerging category of Mobile Media Art.

Clinical Medicine
Jayaraman, C., Kennedy, P., Dutu, G., & Lawrenson, R. (2008). Use of mobile phone cameras for after-hours triage in primary care. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, 14(5), 271-274.

Mobile phone images might be useful in after-hours triage of primary care. We conducted a study to identify population access to mobile phone cameras and to assess the clinical usefulness of mobile phone cameras. The survey was conducted among 480 patients attending two rural New Zealand practices. There were significantly more Maori owners compared to non-Maori (P = 0.002). Age was a significant factor influencing the ownership of mobile phones. We also conducted a clinical quiz among health professionals to assess how the provision of images on a mobile phone and on CD-ROM (to simulate the image that would be seen if email was used to transmit the images) influenced diagnostic confidence. Ten photographable clinical conditions were used to quiz 30 health professionals who were randomized into three groups of 10 each on diagnostic confidence. Images were found to significantly increase diagnostic confidence in all cases except one. It appears that mobile phone cameras are generally acceptable to patients and likely to be of practical use to rural practitioners in a range of clinical scenarios. 

Early Childhood Education
Plowman, L., & Stevenson, O. (2012). Using mobile phone diaries to explore children’s everyday lives. Childhood, 19(4), 539-553.

This article describes a novel approach to experience sampling as a response to the challenges of researching the everyday lives of young children at home. Parents from 11 families used mobile phones to send the research team combined picture and text messages to provide ‘experience snapshots’ of their child’s activities six times on each of three separate days. The article describes how the method aligns with an ecocultural approach, illustrates the variation in children’s experiences and provides sufficient detail for researchers to adapt the method for the purposes of collecting data in other contexts. The article summarizes the benefits and shortcomings from the perspectives of families and researchers. 

Beddall-Hill, N. L., Jabbar, A., & Al Shehri, S. (2011). Social mobile devices as tools for qualitative research in education: iPhones and iPads in ethnography, interviewing, and design-based research. Journal of the Research Center for Educational Technology, 7(1), 67-89.

This paper’s focus is on the development of research methodologies to investigate learning in higher education. These methodologies have made use of Social Mobile Devices (SMD) for data collection, a relativity new concept in qualitative research. The paper provides examples of practice linked with discussions from the Learning Without Frontiers Conference 2011 (LWF 2011) around the constraints, affordances, and ethical issues inherent in the use of SMDs for research. While the researchers used Apple iPhones and Apple iPads, this should not limit the applicability of the paper to other devices. It is hoped that this paper will aid the development of these tools for research purposes in the future through wider discussion, use, and dissemination. Technological development of SMDs continues unabated, hence developing methodologies around their use is an important task that will enable researchers to take advantage of the future applications they provide, whilst being aware of their impact upon the research process.

Wells, K. (2011). The strength of weak ties: the social networks of young separated asylum seekers and refugees in London. Children’s Geographies, 9(3-4), 319-329.

This paper is about the social networks of young unaccompanied asylum seekers and refugees in London. It discusses the findings of a 12-month qualitative study using photo elicitation interviews with eight young refugees to explore their social networks. The analysis points to the potential of social networks to provide emotional and material support for young refugees and discusses the extent to which social capital flows through these networks. It explores the importance of place and gender in shaping their entry into and formation of these networks. It concludes that the formation of weak ties particularly to institutional actors is important in providing young refugees with access to material and cultural resources. 

Weng, Y. H., Sun, F. S., & Grigsby, J. D. (2012). GeoTools: An android phone application in geology. Computers & Geosciences.

GeoTools is an Android application that can carry out several tasks essential in geological field studies. By employing the accelerometer in the Android phone, the application turns the handset into a pocket transit compass by which users can measure directions, strike and dip of a bedding plane, or trend and plunge of a fold. The application integrates functionalities of photo taking, videotaping, audio recording, and note writing with GPS coordinates to track the location at which each datum was taken. A time-stamped file name is shared by the various types of data taken at the same location. Data collected at different locations are named in a chronological sequence. At the end of each set of operations, GeoTools also automatically generates an XML file to summarize the characteristics of data being collected corresponding to a specific location. In this way, GeoTools allows geologists to use a multimedia approach to document their field observations with a clear data organization scheme in one handy gadget. 

Reading, A. (2009). Mobile witnessing: ethics and the camera phone in the ‘war on terror’. Globalizations, 6(1), 61-76.

Some of the first images rapidly circulated globally in news media of the London Bombings on 7 July 2005 were taken by non-journalists using mobile camera phones. This paper explores some of the ethical issues raised by mobile phone witnessing in the ‘war on terror’. The article uses a performative approach to witnessing in which mobile testimony is seen in terms of performances and speech acts between different parties, including mute witnesses, the survivor witness and the witness(es) to the survivor (s). The approach enables us to see the significance of global mobilities and mobilizations in relation to ethics and mobile witnessing, rather than focusing only the ethics associated with the discrete mobile witness image itself. The article examines some of the global virtual traces and data trajectories on the World Wide Web associated with a mobile camera phone image taken by a witness survivor, Adam Stacey in the 7 July 2005 London Bombings. This suggests that mobile witnessing involves a fluid and travelling involvement in data capture, data sharing, and receipt, through global networks mobilized through multiple mobilities. Mobile witnessing has trajectories across and moments of emplacement between the self and the other, the individual and the group, the private and the public, the citizen and the professional journalist, the living body and the machine. In traversing the ordinary and the extraordinary, speech and speechlessness, mobile witnessing can involve engagement beyond mere spectatorship, establishing new ways of recording events in the ‘war on terror’.

Cox, R. J. (2007). Machines in the archives: Technology and the coming transformation of archival reference. First Monday, 12(11).

Technology is transforming the way in which researchers gain access to archives, not only in the choices archivists make about their uses of technology but in the portable technologies researchers bring with them to the archives. This essay reviews the implications of electronic mail, instant messaging and chat, digital reference services, Web sites, scanners, digital cameras, folksonomies, and various adaptive technologies in facilitating archival access. The new machines represent greater, even unprecedented, opportunities for archivists to support one of the main elements of their professional mission, namely, getting archival records used.

Smart phones are also being used in historical, archival research.  Here is a recent article from the NYT.

Information & Library Science
Boyer, D. (2010). From Internet to iPhone: providing mobile geographic access to Philadelphia’s historic photographs and other special collections. The Reference Librarian, 52(1-2), 47-56. contains more than 95,000 map and photographic records from the City of Philadelphia Department of Records and other local institutions, searchable and viewable by geographic location and other criteria. The Department of Records further expanded public access capabilities through the release of optimized for smartphones, enabling users to view historic photos of a location as they stroll the streets of Philadelphia. serves as a case study for how libraries can use mobile technologies to increase access to their special collections and provide learning opportunities that transcend the traditional web site.

Gromik, N. A. (2012). Cell phone video recording feature as a language learning tool: A case study. Computers & Education, 58(1), 223-230.

This paper reports on a case study conducted at a Japanese national university. Nine participants used the video recording feature on their cell phones to produce weekly video productions. The task required that participants produce one 30-second video on a teacher-selected topic. Observations revealed the process of video creation with a cell phone. The weekly video performances indicated that students were able to increase the number of words they spoke in one monologue. The surveys indicated that participants believed that using the cell phone video recording feature was a useful activity. However, they did not believe that such a task was transferable to other courses. The discussion emphasizes that, due to technological advances, educators need to understand the benefits and challenges of integrating cell phone devices as learning tools in their classrooms. In addition, whereas in the past researchers focused on reading and writing skills, this article reveals that it is now possible to use the video recording feature to evaluate learners’ speaking skills.

Anzai, Y. (2013, March). Mobile Photo Note-taking to Support EFL Learning. In Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (Vol. 2013, No. 1, pp. 2012-2020).

We take photos to reinforce our memory in our daily life. However, it is not so common to take photos in language classrooms, in spite of the fact that mobile phones are a device almost all students have, and taking photos with mobile phones is also a common activity. So, in this study, we explore the effect of mobile photo note-taking, which may have a significant impact on how we learn. An EFL instruction was developed based on the dual coding theory (DCT) framework. There are scarcely any studies which have examined mobile photo note-taking to verify the dual-coding theory. The study found that mobile photo note-taking has positive effects on EFL learning, particularly in memorizing and retaining English vocabulary. The author concludes with a call for further study to identify the cause of the positive effects.

Rollo, M. E., Ash, S., Lyons-Wall, P., & Russell, A. (2011). Trial of a mobile phone method for recording dietary intake in adults with type 2 diabetes: evaluation and implications for future applications. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, 17(6), 318-323.

We evaluated a mobile phone application (Nutricam) for recording dietary intake. It allowed users to capture a photograph of food items before consumption and store a voice recording to explain the contents of the photograph. This information was then sent to a website where it was analysed by a dietitian. Ten adults with type 2 diabetes (BMI 24.1–47.9 kg/m2)recorded their intake over a three-day period using both Nutricam and a written food diary. Compared to the food diary, energy intake was under-recorded by 649 kJ (SD 810) using the mobile phone method. However, there was no trend in the difference between dietary assessment methods at levels of low or high energy intake. All subjects reported that the mobile phone system was easy to use. Six subjects found that the time taken to record using Nutricam was shorter than recording using the written diary, while two reported that it was about the same. The level of detail provided in the voice recording and food items obscured in photographs reduced the quality of the mobile phone records. Although some modifications to the mobile phone method will be necessary to improve the accuracy of self-reported intake, the system was considered an acceptable alternative to written records and has the potential to be used by adults with type 2 diabetes for monitoring dietary intake by a dietitian.

Kikunaga, Shigeshi, et al. (2007). The application of a handheld personal digital assistant with camera and mobile phone card (Wellnavi) to the general population in a dietary survey. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, 53(2), 109-116.

This study was carried out to examine first, the validity of a new dietary assessment method, a handheld personal digital assistant with camera and mobile phone card (Wellnavi), in comparison with a weighed diet record as a reference method and second, the relation between obesity and underreporting in the Wellnavi method in 27 men and 48 women volunteers aged 30-67 y from the general population. On the validity, there were significant correlations (0.32-0.75) between the daily nutrient intakes measured by the Wellnavi method and the weighed diet record method in all the subjects except for some nutrients such as iron, magnesium and vitamin E. Results similar to those from the group of all the subjects were obtained in the men’s group and the women’s group. In all the subjects and the men’s group and the women’s group, the differences in the daily nutrient intakes between the two dietary assessment methods were statistically significant.

Winddance Twine, F. (2006). Visual ethnography and racial theory: Family photographs as archives of interracial intimacies. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 29(3), 487-511.

I propose a model for employing photograph-elicitation interviews in longitudinal ethnographic research on race and intimacy by drawing upon research that I conducted among British interracial families between 1995 and 2003. I evaluate my use of family photographs in photo-elicitation interviews as a methodological tool, a source of primary data and as evidence for theory. I used photo-interviews as a collaborative methodological tool to clarify and challenge theories that I had developed to explain how white birth mothers of African-descent children negotiate their “racial profiles” in public and private arenas. I analyse a case study of one transracial mother who strategically employed family photographs to project respectable “presentations” of her interracial familial life.

An undergraduate sociology student named Amanda Hills “spent six weeks showing adolescent girls how to use iPhones to record and edit videos about their lives.”
See a report about this work here.

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Inspired by this cutting edge work and want to learn more about ways to incorporate smartphone cameras into your own work? You may want to take one of these workshops on Smart Photos with Smart Phones” on Wednesday, July 24 (register here) and Thursday, August 8 (register here). The workshops are offered by JustPublics@365 in collaboration with the CUNY J-School.

If you’ve read the news lately, you might think the ‘war on drugs’ is coming to an end. Just last week, Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie showed his support for a bill that would allow people who have overdosed and their friends to call 911 without fear of punishment. Two weeks ago, Deputy Director of the National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli, said “we have to think of [the ‘war on drugs’] as a public health issue and a public health response in partnership with law enforcement.” And, three weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that 32 million Americans will have access to drug treatment programs when the Affordable Care Act goes into full effect.

These are great triumphs and signal the beginning of a shift towards thinking about drug policy in a public health framework. So, does this mean that the war on drugs is over? Can we sit back and relax? Hardly.

On Friday, as a social media reporter on behalf of JustPublics@365, I went to a conference on drug policy in Buffalo, New York.  Knowing about the history of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the racist underpinnings of New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy makes me somewhat “educated” about drug policy, but as a white female getting her Ph.D. at Yale University, I thought I had never been effected by the war on drugs.

It turns out I have, and so have you.

The ‘war on drugs’ is a war on people. It has targeted people of color – specifically young black and hispanic men – but it has a lasting effect on all of us regardless of age, sex, or race. It has created a culture of mass incarceration and elevated racial tensions in my communities. It has cost tax payers billions of dollars and allowed big businesses to profit from the mass incarceration of millions of Americans. It has created a system that every American should want to change or, at the very least, be aware of.

On the first day of the conference, which was hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, there was a screening of The House I Live In. This documentary film exposes the failures of the ‘war on drugs’ and has been getting a lot of buzz. A central argument in the movie is that drug laws were introduced to control ethnic minorities and a theme that is consistently repeated by the interviewees is that the ‘war on drugs’ has ravaged their lives and destroyed their communities.

I had seen the movie before but, unless your heart is made of stone, the stories make you want to do everything in your power to change drug policy in this country.

So, what could I do? My career choice had taken me in a different direction from public health and I was by no means a good community organizer. What action could I take?

I sat in on panel about harm reduction and drug policy the next day with the voices from The House I Live In still whirling around in my mind. Julie Netherland from Drug Policy Alliance opened up the discussion with a question: how can we push harm reduction beyond individual interventions. Since I had always equated “harm reduction” with “needle exchange” I perked up. What did she mean?

She meant that working on drug policy is, in and of itself, harm reduction and that by focusing on policy rather than individual behavior change we can accomplish a lot. Changing drug policy from a criminal justice model to a public health model is harm reduction because it minimizes the harm the ‘war on drugs’ does to communities. Changing policy changes the stigma that most drug users feel – that is harm reduction.

This panel made me realize that I could do my own form of harm reduction: I could write and I could vote.

At the last panel of the conference, gabriel sayegh from the Drug Policy Alliance encouraged people to work on a local level rather than a national level to move drug policy towards a public health model. Marsha Weissman, Executive Director of the Center for Community Alternatives, reminded the audience that, “there are still people in New York State prisons doing life sentences on drug related crimes.” And, she declared, “our work is not done.”

On the flight back from Buffalo, I drafted Nydia Velázquez, my Congresswomen. It said:

“My name is Heidi Knoblauch and I am writing today because I believe the ‘war on drugs’ is doing more harm than good. I believe New York State should not use the criminal justice system to control drug use. I am in favor of policies that provide drug treatment rather than incarceration for drug users. I urge you to support legislation that takes a public health approach to drug policy.”

Sending this letter is a form of harm reduction and I encourage all of you to take this small step towards better drug policy in New York State. If you do not have time to write a letter, please use mine. You can find your representatives here.

Round Table Public Health: Resisting or Expanding Criminalizaton?

How should we respond to drug users – with jail or treatment?  Is a public health approach to drug use a way to resist criminalization? Or, does public health just replicate control in new forms? These are some of the issues raised when people talk about public health and criminalization, and this has been an important week for talking about these issues.

Just yesterday, the Drug Policy Alliance and the New York Academy of Medicine released their Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy (pdf).  A multi-year effort, the Blueprint makes a strong case for what they call a “four pillar approach” to drug policy.  The pillars are:  prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and public safety.  The first three of these – prevention, treatment and harm reduction (such as syringe exchange) – are rooted in public health responses to drugs rather than the “lock them up and throw away the key” approach of the last 30 years.

Blueprint DPA NYAM graphics

On Monday, the day before the Blueprint release,  I took part in a round table conversation with a mixture of academics, activists, and journalists about these same issues. In a small group we tackled the following question: is public health resisting or expanding criminalization?

As each of us went around the table to introduce ourselves, I realized that there was a mixture of historians, lawyers, LGBTQ activists, public health professors, and journalists that made for an engaging, lively discussion.

The conversation opened with a declarative statement: the public health model is concerned with communities and populations, not individual behavior. “The criminal justice model is an individual behavior model,” said Ernie Drucker, author of Plague of Prisons, “and that’s why we should not use the criminal justice model to address issues of drug use and addiction.” Others agreed, but pointed out that public health has been a coercive tool and that it was important to be skeptical of behavior control methods being practiced under the guise of public health.

This part of the discussion produced more questions than answers. We wondered, how would public health drug policies be any different than criminal justice drug policies? What were the public health options for addressing drug use and addiction? Would public health officials be better suited for the problems of addiction than criminal justice officials? PHTweet_03

(You can see more of the Twitter updates from this session here.)

Rebecca Tiger (@rtigernyc), author of Judging Addicts: Drug Courts and Coercion in the Justice System, was especially wary of turning the problem of drug use and addition over to public health without some critical examination of the history of public health practices.


(You can see more of the Twitter updates from this session here.)

Recognizing that public health has increasingly focused on individual behavior change, the group questioned when public health began to focus on behavior modification. I suggested that the visual anti-tuberculosis campaigns in early twentieth century, which aggressively targeted individuals with posters that told them to stop behaviors such as spitting and coughing, could have been the beginning of the use of mass media for individual behavior change.

Rebecca Tiger questioned how the media contributes to the public discourse about drugs in the United States. In response, Sandeep Junnarkar talked about how he encourages his students to move away from mass media and focus their own blogs or even radio blogs. Rebecca said she thought the mass media has been perpetuating the “criminalization conversation” and one of the biggest obstacle in switching the conversation towards decriminalization and public health. By encouraging his students to think more broadly about where they publish their work, Sandeep said he hopes there will be a new generation of journalists that can help sway the conversation.


(You can see more of the Twitter updates from this session here.)

The conversation cycled back to a discussion of the American public health framework when someone brought up the legacy of Progressive Era reform movements on present day public health. There were those who adamantly declared that public health was necessarily population and community based and those who were wary of public health practices. Clearly, we had not come to a consensus about the role of public health in decriminalization efforts.

The conversation, appropriately, raised more questions than it answered. Ernie Drucker said that part of the solution to the many questions and problems raised in the discussion was to have more cross boundary/cross disciplinary conversations like this one.

I completely agree.

You can see the archived livestream of our discussion here.  And, soon, we’ll have a more polished, edited video.

If you’re in the Buffalo, NY area and want to continue this conversation, you’ll want to attend this conference, May 2-3, at the Baldy Center for Law & Policy.  FREE and open to the public.