What pit bulls can teach us about profiling.
One afternoon last February, buy more about Guy Clairoux picked up his two-and-a half-year-old son, information pills Jayden, order from day care and walked him back to their house in the west end of Ottawa, Ontario. They were almost home. Jayden was straggling behind, and, as his father’s back was turned, a pit bull jumped over a back-yard fence and lunged at Jayden. “The dog had his head in its mouth and started to do this shake,” Clairoux’s wife, JoAnn Hartley, said later. As she watched in horror, two more pit bulls jumped over the fence, joining in the assault. She and Clairoux came running, and he punched the first of the dogs in the head, until it dropped Jayden, and then he threw the boy toward his mother. Hartley fell on her son, protecting him with her body. “JoAnn!” Clairoux cried out, as all three dogs descended on his wife. “Cover your neck, cover your neck.” A neighbor, sitting by her window, screamed for help. Her partner and a friend, Mario Gauthier, ran outside. A neighborhood boy grabbed his hockey stick and threw it to Gauthier. He began hitting one of the dogs over the head, until the stick broke. “They wouldn’t stop,” Gauthier said. “As soon as you’d stop, they’d attack again. I’ve never seen a dog go so crazy. They were like Tasmanian devils.” The police came. The dogs were pulled away, and the Clairouxes and one of the rescuers were taken to the hospital. Five days later, the Ontario legislature banned the ownership of pit bulls. “Just as we wouldn’t let a great white shark in a swimming pool,” the province’s attorney general, Michael Bryant, had said, “maybe we shouldn’t have these animals on the civilized streets.”
Pit bulls, descendants of the bulldogs used in the nineteenth century for bull baiting and dogfighting, have been bred for “gameness,” and thus a lowered inhibition to aggression. Most dogs fight as a last resort, when staring and growling fail. A pit bull is willing to fight with little or no provocation. Pit bulls seem to have a high tolerance for pain, making it possible for them to fight to the point of exhaustion. Whereas guard dogs like German shepherds usually attempt to restrain those they perceive to be threats by biting and holding, pit bulls try to inflict the maximum amount of damage on an opponent. They bite, hold, shake, and tear. They don’t growl or assume an aggressive facial expression as warning. They just attack. “They are often insensitive to behaviors that usually stop aggression,” one scientific review of the breed states. “For example, dogs not bred for fighting usually display defeat in combat by rolling over and exposing a light underside. On several occasions, pit bulls have been reported to disembowel dogs offering this signal of submission.” In epidemiological studies of dog bites, the pit bull is overrepresented among dogs known to have seriously injured or killed human beings, and, as a result, pit bulls have been banned or restricted in several Western European countries, China, and numerous cities and municipalities across North America. Pit bulls are dangerous.
Of course, not all pit bulls are dangerous. Most don’t bite anyone. Meanwhile, Dobermans and Great Danes and German shepherds and Rottweilers are frequent biters as well, and the dog that recently mauled a Frenchwoman so badly that she was given the world’s first face transplant was, of all things, a Labrador retriever. When we say that pit bulls are dangerous, we are making a generalization, just as insurance companies use generalizations when they charge young men more for car insurance than the rest of us (even though many young men are perfectly good drivers), and doctors use generalizations when they tell overweight middle-aged men to get their cholesterol checked (even though many overweight middle-aged men won’t experience heart trouble). Because we don’t know which dog will bite someone or who will have a heart attack or which drivers will get in an accident, we can make predictions only by generalizing. As the legal scholar Frederick Schauer has observed, “painting with a broad brush” is “an often inevitable and frequently desirable dimension of our decision-making lives.”
Another word for generalization, though, is “stereotype,” and stereotypes are usually not considered desirable dimensions of our decision-making lives. The process of moving from the specific to the general is both necessary and perilous. A doctor could, with some statistical support, generalize about men of a certain age and weight. But what if generalizing from other traits—such as high blood pressure, family history, and smoking—saved more lives? Behind each generalization is a choice of what factors to leave in and what factors to leave out, and those choices can prove surprisingly complicated. After the attack on Jayden Clairoux, the Ontario government chose to make a generalization about pit bulls. But it could also have chosen to generalize about powerful dogs, or about the kinds of people who own powerful dogs, or about small children, or about back-yard fences—or, indeed, about any number of other things to do with dogs and people and places. How do we know when we’ve made the right generalization?
In July of last year, following the transit bombings in London, the New York City Police Department announced that it would send officers into the subways to conduct random searches of passengers’ bags. On the face of it, doing random searches in the hunt for terrorists—as opposed to being guided by generalizations—seems like a silly idea. As a columnist in New York wrote at the time, “Not just ‘most’ but nearly every jihadi who has attacked a Western European or American target is a young Arab or Pakistani man. In other words, you can predict with a fair degree of certainty what an Al Qaeda terrorist looks like. Just as we have always known what Mafiosi look like—even as we understand that only an infinitesimal fraction of Italian-Americans are members of the mob.”
But wait: do we really know what mafiosi look like? In “The Godfather,” where most of us get our knowledge of the Mafia, the male members of the Corleone family were played by Marlon Brando, who was of Irish and French ancestry, James Caan, who is Jewish, and two Italian-Americans, Al Pacino and John Cazale. To go by “The Godfather,” mafiosi look like white men of European descent, which, as generalizations go, isn’t terribly helpful. Figuring out what an Islamic terrorist looks like isn’t any easier. Muslims are not like the Amish: they don’t come dressed in identifiable costumes. And they don’t look like basketball players; they don’t come in predictable shapes and sizes. Islam is a religion that spans the globe.
“We have a policy against racial profiling,” Raymond Kelly, New York City’s police commissioner, told me. “I put it in here in March of the first year I was here. It’s the wrong thing to do, and it’s also ineffective. If you look at the London bombings, you have three British citizens of Pakistani descent. You have Germaine Lindsay, who is Jamaican. You have the next crew, on July 21st, who are East African. You have a Chechen woman in Moscow in early 2004 who blows herself up in the subway station. So whom do you profile? Look at New York City. Forty per cent of New Yorkers are born outside the country. Look at the diversity here. Who am I supposed to profile?”
Kelly was pointing out what might be called profiling’s “category problem.” Generalizations involve matching a category of people to a behavior or trait—overweight middle-aged men to heart-attack risk, young men to bad driving. But, for that process to work, you have to be able both to define and to identify the category you are generalizing about. “You think that terrorists aren’t aware of how easy it is to be characterized by ethnicity?” Kelly went on. “Look at the 9/11 hijackers. They came here. They shaved. They went to topless bars. They wanted to blend in. They wanted to look like they were part of the American dream. These are not dumb people. Could a terrorist dress up as a Hasidic Jew and walk into the subway, and not be profiled? Yes. I think profiling is just nuts.”
Pit-bull bans involve a category problem, too, because pit bulls, as it happens, aren’t a single breed. The name refers to dogs belonging to a number of related breeds, such as the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and the American pit bull terrier—all of which share a square and muscular body, a short snout, and a sleek, short-haired coat. Thus the Ontario ban prohibits not only these three breeds but any “dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar” to theirs; the term of art is “pit bull-type” dogs. But what does that mean? Is a cross between an American pit bull terrier and a golden retriever a pit bull-type dog or a golden retriever-type dog? If thinking about muscular terriers as pit bulls is a generalization, then thinking about dangerous dogs as anything substantially similar to a pit bull is a generalization about a generalization. “The way a lot of these laws are written, pit bulls are whatever they say they are,” Lora Brashears, a kennel manager in Pennsylvania, says. “And for most people it just means big, nasty, scary dog that bites.”
The goal of pit-bull bans, obviously, isn’t to prohibit dogs that look like pit bulls. The pit-bull appearance is a proxy for the pit-bull temperament—for some trait that these dogs share. But “pit bullness” turns out to be elusive as well. The supposedly troublesome characteristics of the pit-bull type—its gameness, its determination, its insensitivity to pain—are chiefly directed toward other dogs. Pit bulls were not bred to fight humans. On the contrary: a dog that went after spectators, or its handler, or the trainer, or any of the other people involved in making a dogfighting dog a good dogfighter was usually put down. (The rule in the pit-bull world was “Man-eaters die.”)
A Georgia-based group called the American Temperament Test Society has put twenty-five thousand dogs through a ten-part standardized drill designed to assess a dog’s stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness in the company of people. A handler takes a dog on a six-foot lead and judges its reaction to stimuli such as gunshots, an umbrella opening, and a weirdly dressed stranger approaching in a threatening way. Eighty-four per cent of the pit bulls that have been given the test have passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund. “We have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs,” Carl Herkstroeter, the president of the A.T.T.S., says. “I’ve tested half of them. And of the number I’ve tested I have disqualified one pit bull because of aggressive tendencies. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children.” It can even be argued that the same traits that make the pit bull so aggressive toward other dogs are what make it so nice to humans. “There are a lot of pit bulls these days who are licensed therapy dogs,” the writer Vicki Hearne points out. “Their stability and resoluteness make them excellent for work with people who might not like a more bouncy, flibbertigibbet sort of dog. When pit bulls set out to provide comfort, they are as resolute as they are when they fight, but what they are resolute about is being gentle. And, because they are fearless, they can be gentle with anybody.”
Then which are the pit bulls that get into trouble? “The ones that the legislation is geared toward have aggressive tendencies that are either bred in by the breeder, trained in by the trainer, or reinforced in by the owner,” Herkstroeter says. A mean pit bull is a dog that has been turned mean, by selective breeding, by being cross-bred with a bigger, human-aggressive breed like German shepherds or Rottweilers, or by being conditioned in such a way that it begins to express hostility to human beings. A pit bull is dangerous to people, then, not to the extent that it expresses its essential pit bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it. A pit-bull ban is a generalization about a generalization about a trait that is not, in fact, general. That’s a category problem.
One of the puzzling things about New York City is that, after the enormous and well-publicized reductions in crime in the mid-nineteen-nineties, the crime rate has continued to fall. In the past two years, for instance, murder in New York has declined by almost ten per cent, rape by twelve per cent, and burglary by more than eighteen per cent. Just in the last year, auto theft went down 11.8 per cent. On a list of two hundred and forty cities in the United States with a population of a hundred thousand or more, New York City now ranks two hundred-and-twenty-second in crime, down near the bottom with Fontana, California, and Port St. Lucie, Florida. In the nineteen-nineties, the crime decrease was attributed to big obvious changes in city life and government—the decline of the drug trade, the gentrification of Brooklyn, the successful implementation of “broken windows” policing. But all those big changes happened a decade ago. Why is crime still falling?
The explanation may have to do with a shift in police tactics. The N.Y.P.D. has a computerized map showing, in real time, precisely where serious crimes are being reported, and at any moment the map typically shows a few dozen constantly shifting high-crime hot spots, some as small as two or three blocks square. What the N.Y.P.D. has done, under Commissioner Kelly, is to use the map to establish “impact zones,” and to direct newly graduated officers—who used to be distributed proportionally to precincts across the city—to these zones, in some cases doubling the number of officers in the immediate neighborhood. “We took two-thirds of our graduating class and linked them with experienced officers, and focussed on those areas,” Kelly said. “Well, what has happened is that over time we have averaged about a thirty-five-per-cent crime reduction in impact zones.”
For years, experts have maintained that the incidence of violent crime is “inelastic” relative to police presence—that people commit serious crimes because of poverty and psychopathology and cultural dysfunction, along with spontaneous motives and opportunities. The presence of a few extra officers down the block, it was thought, wouldn’t make much difference. But the N.Y.P.D. experience suggests otherwise. More police means that some crimes are prevented, others are more easily solved, and still others are displaced—pushed out of the troubled neighborhood—which Kelly says is a good thing, because it disrupts the patterns and practices and social networks that serve as the basis for lawbreaking. In other words, the relation between New York City (a category) and criminality (a trait) is unstable, and this kind of instability is another way in which our generalizations can be derailed.
Why, for instance, is it a useful rule of thumb that Kenyans are good distance runners? It’s not just that it’s statistically supportable today. It’s that it has been true for almost half a century, and that in Kenya the tradition of distance running is sufficiently rooted that something cataclysmic would have to happen to dislodge it. By contrast, the generalization that New York City is a crime-ridden place was once true and now, manifestly, isn’t. People who moved to sunny retirement communities like Port St. Lucie because they thought they were much safer than New York are suddenly in the position of having made the wrong bet.
The instability issue is a problem for profiling in law enforcement as well. The law professor David Cole once tallied up some of the traits that Drug Enforcement Administration agents have used over the years in making generalizations about suspected smugglers. Here is a sample:
Arrived late at night; arrived early in the morning; arrived in afternoon; one of the first to deplane; one of the last to deplane; deplaned in the middle; purchased ticket at the airport; made reservation on short notice; bought coach ticket; bought first-class ticket; used one-way ticket; used round-trip ticket; paid for ticket with cash; paid for ticket with small denomination currency; paid for ticket with large denomination currency; made local telephone calls after deplaning; made long distance telephone call after deplaning; pretended to make telephone call; traveled from New York to Los Angeles; traveled to Houston; carried no luggage; carried brand-new luggage; carried a small bag; carried a medium-sized bag; carried two bulky garment bags; carried two heavy suitcases; carried four pieces of luggage; overly protective of luggage; disassociated self from luggage; traveled alone; traveled with a companion; acted too nervous; acted too calm; made eye contact with officer; avoided making eye contact with officer; wore expensive clothing and jewelry; dressed casually; went to restroom after deplaning; walked rapidly through airport; walked slowly through airport; walked aimlessly through airport; left airport by taxi; left airport by limousine; left airport by private car; left airport by hotel courtesy van.
Some of these reasons for suspicion are plainly absurd, suggesting that there’s no particular rationale to the generalizations used by D.E.A. agents in stopping suspected drug smugglers. A way of making sense of the list, though, is to think of it as a catalogue of unstable traits. Smugglers may once have tended to buy one-way tickets in cash and carry two bulky suitcases. But they don’t have to. They can easily switch to round-trip tickets bought with a credit card, or a single carry-on bag, without losing their capacity to smuggle. There’s a second kind of instability here as well. Maybe the reason some of them switched from one-way tickets and two bulky suitcases was that law enforcement got wise to those habits, so the smugglers did the equivalent of what the jihadis seemed to have done in London, when they switched to East Africans because the scrutiny of young Arab and Pakistani men grew too intense. It doesn’t work to generalize about a relationship between a category and a trait when that relationship isn’t stable—or when the act of generalizing may itself change the basis of the generalization.
Before Kelly became the New York police commissioner, he served as the head of the U.S. Customs Service, and while he was there he overhauled the criteria that border-control officers use to identify and search suspected smugglers. There had been a list of forty-three suspicious traits. He replaced it with a list of six broad criteria. Is there something suspicious about their physical appearance? Are they nervous? Is there specific intelligence targeting this person? Does the drug-sniffing dog raise an alarm? Is there something amiss in their paperwork or explanations? Has contraband been found that implicates this person?
You’ll find nothing here about race or gender or ethnicity, and nothing here about expensive jewelry or deplaning at the middle or the end, or walking briskly or walking aimlessly. Kelly removed all the unstable generalizations, forcing customs officers to make generalizations about things that don’t change from one day or one month to the next. Some percentage of smugglers will always be nervous, will always get their story wrong, and will always be caught by the dogs. That’s why those kinds of inferences are more reliable than the ones based on whether smugglers are white or black, or carry one bag or two. After Kelly’s reforms, the number of searches conducted by the Customs Service dropped by about seventy-five per cent, but the number of successful seizures improved by twenty-five per cent. The officers went from making fairly lousy decisions about smugglers to making pretty good ones. “We made them more efficient and more effective at what they were doing,” Kelly said.
Does the notion of a pit-bull menace rest on a stable or an unstable generalization? The best data we have on breed dangerousness are fatal dog bites, which serve as a useful indicator of just how much havoc certain kinds of dogs are causing. Between the late nineteen-seventies and the late nineteen-nineties, more than twenty-five breeds were involved in fatal attacks in the United States. Pit-bull breeds led the pack, but the variability from year to year is considerable. For instance, in the period from 1981 to 1982 fatalities were caused by five pit bulls, three mixed breeds, two St. Bernards, two German-shepherd mixes, a pure-bred German shepherd, a husky type, a Doberman, a Chow Chow, a Great Dane, a wolf-dog hybrid, a husky mix, and a pit-bull mix—but no Rottweilers. In 1995 and 1996, the list included ten Rottweilers, four pit bulls, two German shepherds, two huskies, two Chow Chows, two wolf-dog hybrids, two shepherd mixes, a Rottweiler mix, a mixed breed, a Chow Chow mix, and a Great Dane. The kinds of dogs that kill people change over time, because the popularity of certain breeds changes over time. The one thing that doesn’t change is the total number of the people killed by dogs. When we have more problems with pit bulls, it’s not necessarily a sign that pit bulls are more dangerous than other dogs. It could just be a sign that pit bulls have become more numerous.
“I’ve seen virtually every breed involved in fatalities, including Pomeranians and everything else, except a beagle or a basset hound,” Randall Lockwood, a senior vice-president of the A.S.P.C.A. and one of the country’s leading dogbite experts, told me. “And there’s always one or two deaths attributable to malamutes or huskies, although you never hear people clamoring for a ban on those breeds. When I first started looking at fatal dog attacks, they largely involved dogs like German shepherds and shepherd mixes and St. Bernards—which is probably why Stephen King chose to make Cujo a St. Bernard, not a pit bull. I haven’t seen a fatality involving a Doberman for decades, whereas in the nineteen-seventies they were quite common. If you wanted a mean dog, back then, you got a Doberman. I don’t think I even saw my first pit-bull case until the middle to late nineteen-eighties, and I didn’t start seeing Rottweilers until I’d already looked at a few hundred fatal dog attacks. Now those dogs make up the preponderance of fatalities. The point is that it changes over time. It’s a reflection of what the dog of choice is among people who want to own an aggressive dog.”
There is no shortage of more stable generalizations about dangerous dogs, though. A 1991 study in Denver, for example, compared a hundred and seventy-eight dogs with a history of biting people with a random sample of a hundred and seventy-eight dogs with no history of biting. The breeds were scattered: German shepherds, Akitas, and Chow Chows were among those most heavily represented. (There were no pit bulls among the biting dogs in the study, because Denver banned pit bulls in 1989.) But a number of other, more stable factors stand out. The biters were 6.2 times as likely to be male than female, and 2.6 times as likely to be intact than neutered. The Denver study also found that biters were 2.8 times as likely to be chained as unchained. “About twenty per cent of the dogs involved in fatalities were chained at the time, and had a history of long-term chaining,” Lockwood said. “Now, are they chained because they are aggressive or aggressive because they are chained? It’s a bit of both. These are animals that have not had an opportunity to become socialized to people. They don’t necessarily even know that children are small human beings. They tend to see them as prey.”
In many cases, vicious dogs are hungry or in need of medical attention. Often, the dogs had a history of aggressive incidents, and, overwhelmingly, dog-bite victims were children (particularly small boys) who were physically vulnerable to attack and may also have unwittingly done things to provoke the dog, like teasing it, or bothering it while it was eating. The strongest connection of all, though, is between the trait of dog viciousness and certain kinds of dog owners. In about a quarter of fatal dog-bite cases, the dog owners were previously involved in illegal fighting. The dogs that bite people are, in many cases, socially isolated because their owners are socially isolated, and they are vicious because they have owners who want a vicious dog. The junk-yard German shepherd—which looks as if it would rip your throat out—and the German-shepherd guide dog are the same breed. But they are not the same dog, because they have owners with different intentions.
“A fatal dog attack is not just a dog bite by a big or aggressive dog,” Lockwood went on. “It is usually a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions—the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation. I’ve been involved in many legal cases involving fatal dog attacks, and, certainly, it’s my impression that these are generally cases where everyone is to blame. You’ve got the unsupervised three-year-old child wandering in the neighborhood killed by a starved, abused dog owned by the dogfighting boyfriend of some woman who doesn’t know where her child is. It’s not old Shep sleeping by the fire who suddenly goes bonkers. Usually there are all kinds of other warning signs.”
Jayden Clairoux was attacked by Jada, a pit-bull terrier, and her two pit-bull–bullmastiff puppies, Agua and Akasha. The dogs were owned by a twenty-one-year-old man named Shridev Café, who worked in construction and did odd jobs. Five weeks before the Clairoux attack, Café’s three dogs got loose and attacked a sixteen-year-old boy and his four-year-old half brother while they were ice skating. The boys beat back the animals with a snow shovel and escaped into a neighbor’s house. Café was fined, and he moved the dogs to his seventeen-year-old girlfriend’s house. This was not the first time that he ran into trouble last year; a few months later, he was charged with domestic assault, and, in another incident, involving a street brawl, with aggravated assault. “Shridev has personal issues,” Cheryl Smith, a canine-behavior specialist who consulted on the case, says. “He’s certainly not a very mature person.” Agua and Akasha were now about seven months old. The court order in the wake of the first attack required that they be muzzled when they were outside the home and kept in an enclosed yard. But Café did not muzzle them, because, he said later, he couldn’t afford muzzles, and apparently no one from the city ever came by to force him to comply. A few times, he talked about taking his dogs to obedience classes, but never did. The subject of neutering them also came up—particularly Agua, the male—but neutering cost a hundred dollars, which he evidently thought was too much money, and when the city temporarily confiscated his animals after the first attack it did not neuter them, either, because Ottawa does not have a policy of preëmptively neutering dogs that bite people.
On the day of the second attack, according to some accounts, a visitor came by the house of Café’s girlfriend, and the dogs got wound up. They were put outside, where the snowbanks were high enough so that the back-yard fence could be readily jumped. Jayden Clairoux stopped and stared at the dogs, saying, “Puppies, puppies.” His mother called out to his father. His father came running, which is the kind of thing that will rile up an aggressive dog. The dogs jumped the fence, and Agua took Jayden’s head in his mouth and started to shake. It was a textbook dog-biting case: unneutered, ill-trained, charged-up dogs, with a history of aggression and an irresponsible owner, somehow get loose, and set upon a small child. The dogs had already passed through the animal bureaucracy of Ottawa, and the city could easily have prevented the second attack with the right kind of generalization—a generalization based not on breed but on the known and meaningful connection between dangerous dogs and negligent owners. But that would have required someone to track down Shridev Café, and check to see whether he had bought muzzles, and someone to send the dogs to be neutered after the first attack, and an animal-control law that insured that those whose dogs attack small children forfeit their right to have a dog. It would have required, that is, a more exacting set of generalizations to be more exactingly applied. It’s always easier just to ban the breed.
Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage.
Murray Barr was a bear of a man, doctor an ex-marine, view six feet tall and heavyset, and when he fell down—which he did nearly every day—it could take two or three grown men to pick him up. He had straight black hair and olive skin. On the street, they called him Smokey. He was missing most of his teeth. He had a wonderful smile. People loved Murray.
His chosen drink was vodka. Beer he called “horse piss.” On the streets of downtown Reno, where he lived, he could buy a two-hundred-and-fifty-millilitre bottle of cheap vodka for a dollar-fifty. If he was flush, he could go for the seven-hundred-and-fifty-millilitre bottle, and if he was broke he could always do what many of the other homeless people of Reno did, which is to walk through the casinos and finish off the half-empty glasses of liquor left at the gaming tables.
“If he was on a runner, we could pick him up several times a day,” Patrick O’Bryan, who is a bicycle cop in downtown Reno, said. “And he’s gone on some amazing runners. He would get picked up, get detoxed, then get back out a couple of hours later and start up again. A lot of the guys on the streets who’ve been drinking, they get so angry. They are so incredibly abrasive, so violent, so abusive. Murray was such a character and had such a great sense of humor that we somehow got past that. Even when he was abusive, we’d say, ‘Murray, you know you love us,’ and he’d say, ‘I know—and go back to swearing at us.”
“I’ve been a police officer for fifteen years,” O’Bryan’s partner, Steve Johns, said. “I picked up Murray my whole career. Literally.”
Johns and O’Bryan pleaded with Murray to quit drinking. A few years ago, he was assigned to a treatment program in which he was under the equivalent of house arrest, and he thrived. He got a job and worked hard. But then the program ended. “Once he graduated out, he had no one to report to, and he needed that,” O’Bryan said. “I don’t know whether it was his military background. I suspect that it was. He was a good cook. One time, he accumulated savings of over six thousand dollars. Showed up for work religiously. Did everything he was supposed to do. They said, ‘Congratulations,’ and put him back on the street. He spent that six thousand in a week or so.”
Often, he was too intoxicated for the drunk tank at the jail, and he’d get sent to the emergency room at either Saint Mary’s or Washoe Medical Center. Marla Johns, who was a social worker in the emergency room at Saint Mary’s, saw him several times a week. “The ambulance would bring him in. We would sober him up, so he would be sober enough to go to jail. And we would call the police to pick him up. In fact, that’s how I met my husband.” Marla Johns is married to Steve Johns.
“He was like the one constant in an environment that was ever changing,” she went on. “In he would come. He would grin that half-toothless grin. He called me ‘my angel.’ I would walk in the room, and he would smile and say, ‘Oh, my angel, I’m so happy to see you.’ We would joke back and forth, and I would beg him to quit drinking and he would laugh it off. And when time went by and he didn’t come in I would get worried and call the coroner’s office. When he was sober, we would find out, oh, he’s working someplace, and my husband and I would go and have dinner where he was working. When my husband and I were dating, and we were going to get married, he said, ‘Can I come to the wedding?’ And I almost felt like he should. My joke was ‘If you are sober you can come, because I can’t afford your bar bill.’ When we started a family, he would lay a hand on my pregnant belly and bless the child. He really was this kind of light.”
In the fall of 2003, the Reno Police Department started an initiative designed to limit panhandling in the downtown core. There were articles in the newspapers, and the police department came under harsh criticism on local talk radio. The crackdown on panhandling amounted to harassment, the critics said. The homeless weren’t an imposition on the city; they were just trying to get by. “One morning, I’m listening to one of the talk shows, and they’re just trashing the police department and going on about how unfair it is,” O’Bryan said. “And I thought, Wow, I’ve never seen any of these critics in one of the alleyways in the middle of the winter looking for bodies.” O’Bryan was angry. In downtown Reno, food for the homeless was plentiful: there was a Gospel kitchen and Catholic Services, and even the local McDonald’s fed the hungry. The panhandling was for liquor, and the liquor was anything but harmless. He and Johns spent at least half their time dealing with people like Murray; they were as much caseworkers as police officers. And they knew they weren’t the only ones involved. When someone passed out on the street, there was a “One down” call to the paramedics. There were four people in an ambulance, and the patient sometimes stayed at the hospital for days, because living on the streets in a state of almost constant intoxication was a reliable way of getting sick. None of that, surely, could be cheap.
O’Bryan and Johns called someone they knew at an ambulance service and then contacted the local hospitals. “We came up with three names that were some of our chronic inebriates in the downtown area, that got arrested the most often,” O’Bryan said. “We tracked those three individuals through just one of our two hospitals. One of the guys had been in jail previously, so he’d only been on the streets for six months. In those six months, he had accumulated a bill of a hundred thousand dollars—and that’s at the smaller of the two hospitals near downtown Reno. It’s pretty reasonable to assume that the other hospital had an even larger bill. Another individual came from Portland and had been in Reno for three months. In those three months, he had accumulated a bill for sixty-five thousand dollars. The third individual actually had some periods of being sober, and had accumulated a bill of fifty thousand.”
The first of those people was Murray Barr, and Johns and O’Bryan realized that if you totted up all his hospital bills for the ten years that he had been on the streets—as well as substance-abuse-treatment costs, doctors’ fees, and other expenses—Murray Barr probably ran up a medical bill as large as anyone in the state of Nevada.
“It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray,” O’Bryan said.
Fifteen years ago, after the Rodney King beating, the Los Angeles Police Department was in crisis. It was accused of racial insensitivity and ill discipline and violence, and the assumption was that those problems had spread broadly throughout the rank and file. In the language of statisticians, it was thought that L.A.P.D.’s troubles had a “normal” distribution—that if you graphed them the result would look like a bell curve, with a small number of officers at one end of the curve, a small number at the other end, and the bulk of the problem situated in the middle. The bell-curve assumption has become so much a part of our mental architecture that we tend to use it to organize experience automatically.
But when the L.A.P.D. was investigated by a special commission headed by Warren Christopher, a very different picture emerged. Between 1986 and 1990, allegations of excessive force or improper tactics were made against eighteen hundred of the eighty-five hundred officers in the L.A.P.D. The broad middle had scarcely been accused of anything. Furthermore, more than fourteen hundred officers had only one or two allegations made against them—and bear in mind that these were not proven charges, that they happened in a four-year period, and that allegations of excessive force are an inevitable feature of urban police work. (The N.Y.P.D. receives about three thousand such complaints a year.) A hundred and eighty-three officers, however, had four or more complaints against them, forty-four officers had six or more complaints, sixteen had eight or more, and one had sixteen complaints. If you were to graph the troubles of the L.A.P.D., it wouldn’t look like a bell curve. It would look more like a hockey stick. It would follow what statisticians call a “power law” distribution—where all the activity is not in the middle but at one extreme.
The Christopher Commission’s report repeatedly comes back to what it describes as the extreme concentration of problematic officers. One officer had been the subject of thirteen allegations of excessive use of force, five other complaints, twenty-eight “use of force reports” (that is, documented, internal accounts of inappropriate behavior), and one shooting. Another had six excessive-force complaints, nineteen other complaints, ten use-of-force reports, and three shootings. A third had twenty-seven use-of-force reports, and a fourth had thirty-five. Another had a file full of complaints for doing things like “striking an arrestee on the back of the neck with the butt of a shotgun for no apparent reason while the arrestee was kneeling and handcuffed,” beating up a thirteen-year-old juvenile, and throwing an arrestee from his chair and kicking him in the back and side of the head while he was handcuffed and lying on his stomach.
The report gives the strong impression that if you fired those forty-four cops the L.A.P.D. would suddenly become a pretty well-functioning police department. But the report also suggests that the problem is tougher than it seems, because those forty-four bad cops were so bad that the institutional mechanisms in place to get rid of bad apples clearly weren’t working. If you made the mistake of assuming that the department’s troubles fell into a normal distribution, you’d propose solutions that would raise the performance of the middle—like better training or better hiring—when the middle didn’t need help. For those hard-core few who did need help, meanwhile, the medicine that helped the middle wouldn’t be nearly strong enough.
In the nineteen-eighties, when homelessness first surfaced as a national issue, the assumption was that the problem fit a normal distribution: that the vast majority of the homeless were in the same state of semi-permanent distress. It was an assumption that bred despair: if there were so many homeless, with so many problems, what could be done to help them? Then, fifteen years ago, a young Boston College graduate student named Dennis Culhane lived in a shelter in Philadelphia for seven weeks as part of the research for his dissertation. A few months later he went back, and was surprised to discover that he couldn’t find any of the people he had recently spent so much time with. “It made me realize that most of these people were getting on with their own lives,” he said.
Culhane then put together a database—the first of its kind—to track who was coming in and out of the shelter system. What he discovered profoundly changed the way homelessness is understood. Homelessness doesn’t have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. “We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly,” he said. “In Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days. And they never come back. Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”
The next ten per cent were what Culhane calls episodic users. They would come for three weeks at a time, and return periodically, particularly in the winter. They were quite young, and they were often heavy drug users. It was the last ten per cent—the group at the farthest edge of the curve—that interested Culhane the most. They were the chronically homeless, who lived in the shelters, sometimes for years at a time. They were older. Many were mentally ill or physically disabled, and when we think about homelessness as a social problem—the people sleeping on the sidewalk, aggressively panhandling, lying drunk in doorways, huddled on subway grates and under bridges—it’s this group that we have in mind. In the early nineteen-nineties, Culhane’s database suggested that New York City had a quarter of a million people who were homeless at some point in the previous half decade —which was a surprisingly high number. But only about twenty-five hundred were chronically homeless.
It turns out, furthermore, that this group costs the health-care and social-services systems far more than anyone had ever anticipated. Culhane estimates that in New York at least sixty-two million dollars was being spent annually to shelter just those twenty-five hundred hard-core homeless. “It costs twenty-four thousand dollars a year for one of these shelter beds,” Culhane said. “We’re talking about a cot eighteen inches away from the next cot.” Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, a leading service group for the homeless in Boston, recently tracked the medical expenses of a hundred and nineteen chronically homeless people. In the course of five years, thirty-three people died and seven more were sent to nursing homes, and the group still accounted for 18,834 emergency-room visits—at a minimum cost of a thousand dollars a visit. The University of California, San Diego Medical Center followed fifteen chronically homeless inebriates and found that over eighteen months those fifteen people were treated at the hospital’s emergency room four hundred and seventeen times, and ran up bills that averaged a hundred thousand dollars each. One person—San Diego’s counterpart to Murray Barr—came to the emergency room eighty-seven times.
“If it’s a medical admission, it’s likely to be the guys with the really complex pneumonia,” James Dunford, the city of San Diego’s emergency medical director and the author of the observational study, said. “They are drunk and they aspirate and get vomit in their lungs and develop a lung abscess, and they get hypothermia on top of that, because they’re out in the rain. They end up in the intensive-care unit with these very complicated medical infections. These are the guys who typically get hit by cars and buses and trucks. They often have a neurosurgical catastrophe as well. So they are very prone to just falling down and cracking their head and getting a subdural hematoma, which, if not drained, could kill them, and it’s the guy who falls down and hits his head who ends up costing you at least fifty thousand dollars. Meanwhile, they are going through alcoholic withdrawal and have devastating liver disease that only adds to their inability to fight infections. There is no end to the issues. We do this huge drill. We run up big lab fees, and the nurses want to quit, because they see the same guys come in over and over, and all we’re doing is making them capable of walking down the block.”
The homelessness problem is like the L.A.P.D.’s bad-cop problem. It’s a matter of a few hard cases, and that’s good news, because when a problem is that concentrated you can wrap your arms around it and think about solving it. The bad news is that those few hard cases are hard. They are falling-down drunks with liver disease and complex infections and mental illness. They need time and attention and lots of money. But enormous sums of money are already being spent on the chronically homeless, and Culhane saw that the kind of money it would take to solve the homeless problem could well be less than the kind of money it took to ignore it. Murray Barr used more health-care dollars, after all, than almost anyone in the state of Nevada. It would probably have been cheaper to give him a full-time nurse and his own apartment.
The leading exponent for the power-law theory of homelessness is Philip Mangano, who, since he was appointed by President Bush in 2002, has been the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a group that oversees the programs of twenty federal agencies. Mangano is a slender man, with a mane of white hair and a magnetic presence, who got his start as an advocate for the homeless in Massachusetts. In the past two years, he has crisscrossed the United States, educating local mayors and city councils about the real shape of the homelessness curve. Simply running soup kitchens and shelters, he argues, allows the chronically homeless to remain chronically homeless. You build a shelter and a soup kitchen if you think that homelessness is a problem with a broad and unmanageable middle. But if it’s a problem at the fringe it can be solved. So far, Mangano has convinced more than two hundred cities to radically reëvaluate their policy for dealing with the homeless.
“I was in St. Louis recently,” Mangano said, back in June, when he dropped by New York on his way to Boise, Idaho. “I spoke with people doing services there. They had a very difficult group of people they couldn’t reach no matter what they offered. So I said, Take some of your money and rent some apartments and go out to those people, and literally go out there with the key and say to them, ‘This is the key to an apartment. If you come with me right now I am going to give it to you, and you are going to have that apartment.’ And so they did. And one by one those people were coming in. Our intent is to take homeless policy from the old idea of funding programs that serve homeless people endlessly and invest in results that actually end homelessness.”
Mangano is a history buff, a man who sometimes falls asleep listening to old Malcolm X speeches, and who peppers his remarks with references to the civil-rights movement and the Berlin Wall and, most of all, the fight against slavery. “I am an abolitionist,” he says. “My office in Boston was opposite the monument to the 54th Regiment on the Boston Common, up the street from the Park Street Church, where William Lloyd Garrison called for immediate abolition, and around the corner from where Frederick Douglass gave that famous speech at the Tremont Temple. It is very much ingrained in me that you do not manage a social wrong. You should be ending it.”
The old Y.M.C.A. in downtown Denver is on Sixteenth Street, just east of the central business district. The main building is a handsome six-story stone structure that was erected in 1906, and next door is an annex that was added in the nineteen-fifties. On the ground floor there is a gym and exercise rooms. On the upper floors there are several hundred apartments—brightly painted one-bedrooms, efficiencies, and S.R.O.-style rooms with microwaves and refrigerators and central airconditioning—and for the past several years those apartments have been owned and managed by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Even by big-city standards, Denver has a serious homelessness problem. The winters are relatively mild, and the summers aren’t nearly as hot as those of neighboring New Mexico or Utah, which has made the city a magnet for the indigent. By the city’s estimates, it has roughly a thousand chronically homeless people, of whom three hundred spend their time downtown, along the central Sixteenth Street shopping corridor or in nearby Civic Center Park. Many of the merchants downtown worry that the presence of the homeless is scaring away customers. A few blocks north, near the hospital, a modest, low-slung detox center handles twenty-eight thousand admissions a year, many of them homeless people who have passed out on the streets, either from liquor or—as is increasingly the case—from mouthwash. “Dr. ——Dr. Tich, they call it—is the brand of mouthwash they use,” says Roxane White, the manager of the city’s social services. “You can imagine what that does to your gut.”
Eighteen months ago, the city signed up with Mangano. With a mixture of federal and local funds, the C.C.H. inaugurated a new program that has so far enrolled a hundred and six people. It is aimed at the Murray Barrs of Denver, the people costing the system the most. C.C.H. went after the people who had been on the streets the longest, who had a criminal record, who had a problem with substance abuse or mental illness. “We have one individual in her early sixties, but looking at her you’d think she’s eighty,” Rachel Post, the director of substance treatment at the C.C.H., said. (Post changed some details about her clients in order to protect their identity.) “She’s a chronic alcoholic. A typical day for her is she gets up and tries to find whatever ‘s going to drink that day. She falls down a lot. There’s another person who came in during the first week. He was on methadone maintenance. He’d had psychiatric treatment. He was incarcerated for eleven years, and lived on the streets for three years after that, and, if that’s not enough, he had a hole in his heart.”
The recruitment strategy was as simple as the one that Mangano had laid out in St. Louis: Would you like a free apartment? The enrollees got either an efficiency at the Y.M.C.A. or an apartment rented for them in a building somewhere else in the city, provided they agreed to work within the rules of the program. In the basement of the Y, where the racquetball courts used to be, the coalition built a command center, staffed with ten caseworkers. Five days a week, between eight-thirty and ten in the morning, the caseworkers meet and painstakingly review the status of everyone in the program. On the wall around the conference table are several large white boards, with lists of doctor’s appointments and court dates and medication schedules. “We need a staffing ratio of one to ten to make it work,” Post said. “You go out there and you find people and assess how ‘re doing in their residence. Sometimes we’re in contact with someone every day. Ideally, we want to be in contact every couple of days. We’ve got about fifteen people we’re really worried about now.”
The cost of services comes to about ten thousand dollars per homeless client per year. An efficiency apartment in Denver averages $376 a month, or just over forty-five hundred a year, which means that you can house and care for a chronically homeless person for at most fifteen thousand dollars, or about a third of what he or she would cost on the street. The idea is that once the people in the program get stabilized they will find jobs, and start to pick up more and more of their own rent, which would bring someone’s annual cost to the program closer to six thousand dollars. As of today, seventy-five supportive housing slots have already been added, and the city’s homeless plan calls for eight hundred more over the next ten years.
The reality, of course, is hardly that neat and tidy. The idea that the very sickest and most troubled of the homeless can be stabilized and eventually employed is only a hope. Some of them plainly won’t be able to get there: these are, after all, hard cases. “We’ve got one man, he’s in his twenties,” Post said. “Already, he has cirrhosis of the liver. One time he blew a blood alcohol of .49, which is enough to kill most people. The first place we had he brought over all his friends, and they partied and trashed the place and broke a window. Then we gave him another apartment, and he did the same thing.”
Post said that the man had been sober for several months. But he could relapse at some point and perhaps trash another apartment, and they’d have to figure out what to do with him next. Post had just been on a conference call with some people in New York City who run a similar program, and they talked about whether giving clients so many chances simply encourages them to behave irresponsibly. For some people, it probably does. But what was the alternative? If this young man was put back on the streets, he would cost the system even more money. The current philosophy of welfare holds that government assistance should be temporary and conditional, to avoid creating dependency. But someone who blows .49 on a Breathalyzer and has cirrhosis of the liver at the age of twenty-seven doesn’t respond to incentives and sanctions in the usual way. “The most complicated people to work with are those who have been homeless for so long that going back to the streets just isn’t scary to them,” Post said. “The summer comes along and they say, ‘I don’t need to follow your rules.’ ” Power-law homelessness policy has to do the opposite of normal-distribution social policy. It should create dependency: you want people who have been outside the system to come inside and rebuild their lives under the supervision of those ten caseworkers in the basement of the Y.M.C.A.
That is what is so perplexing about power-law homeless policy. From an economic perspective the approach makes perfect sense. But from a moral perspective it doesn’t seem fair. Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand—and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. Yet that’s just what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging Dr. Tich gets. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Yet when the homeless man trashes his apartment we give him another. Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency.
We also believe that the distribution of social benefits should not be arbitrary. We don’t give only to some poor mothers, or to a random handful of disabled veterans. We give to everyone who meets a formal criterion, and the moral credibility of government assistance derives, in part, from this universality. But the Denver homelessness program doesn’t help every chronically homeless person in Denver. There is a waiting list of six hundred for the supportive-housing program; it will be years before all those people get apartments, and some may never get one. There isn’t enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit—to observe the principle of universality—isn’t as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot. Being fair, in this case, means providing shelters and soup kitchens, and shelters and soup kitchens don’t solve the problem of homelessness. Our usual moral intuitions are little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.
A few miles northwest of the old Y.M.C.A. in downtown Denver, on the Speer Boulevard off-ramp from I-25, there is a big electronic sign by the side of the road, connected to a device that remotely measures the emissions of the vehicles driving past. When a car with properly functioning pollution-control equipment passes, the sign flashes “Good.” When a car passes that is well over the acceptable limits, the sign flashes “Poor.” If you stand at the Speer Boulevard exit and watch the sign for any length of time, you’ll find that virtually every car scores “Good.” An Audi A4 —”Good.” A Buick Century—”Good.” A Toyota Corolla—”Good.” A Ford Taurus—”Good.” A Saab 9-5—”Good,” and on and on, until after twenty minutes or so, some beat-up old Ford Escort or tricked-out Porsche drives by and the sign flashes “Poor.” The picture of the smog problem you get from watching the Speer Boulevard sign and the picture of the homelessness problem you get from listening in on the morning staff meetings at the Y.M.C.A. are pretty much the same. Auto emissions follow a power-law distribution, and the air-pollution example offers another look at why we struggle so much with problems centered on a few hard cases.
Most cars, especially new ones, are extraordinarily clean. A 2004 Subaru in good working order has an exhaust stream that’s just .06 per cent carbon monoxide, which is negligible. But on almost any highway, for whatever reason—age, ill repair, deliberate tampering by the owner—a small number of cars can have carbon-monoxide levels in excess of ten per cent, which is almost two hundred times higher. In Denver, five per cent of the vehicles on the road produce fifty-five per cent of the automobile pollution.
“Let’s say a car is fifteen years old,” Donald Stedman says. Stedman is a chemist and automobile-emissions specialist at the University of Denver. His laboratory put up the sign on Speer Avenue. “Obviously, the older a car is the more likely it is to become broken. It’s the same as human beings. And by broken we mean any number of mechanical malfunctions—the computer’s not working anymore, fuel injection is stuck open, the catalyst ‘s not unusual that these failure modes result in high emissions. We have at least one car in our database which was emitting seventy grams of hydrocarbon per mile, which means that you could almost drive a Honda Civic on the exhaust fumes from that car. It’s not just old cars. It’s new cars with high mileage, like taxis. One of the most successful and least publicized control measures was done by a district attorney in L.A. back in the nineties. He went to LAX and discovered that all of the Bell Cabs were gross emitters. One of those cabs emitted more than its own weight of pollution every year.”
In Stedman’s view, the current system of smog checks makes little sense. A million motorists in Denver have to go to an emissions center every year—take time from work, wait in line, pay fifteen or twenty-five dollars—for a test that more than ninety per cent of them don’t need. “Not everybody gets tested for breast cancer,” Stedman says. “Not everybody takes an AIDS test.” On-site smog checks, furthermore, do a pretty bad job of finding and fixing the few outliers. Car enthusiasts—with high-powered, high-polluting sports cars—have been known to drop a clean engine into their car on the day they get it tested. Others register their car in a faraway town without emissions testing or arrive at the test site “hot”—having just come off hard driving on the freeway—which is a good way to make a dirty engine appear to be clean. Still others randomly pass the test when they shouldn’t, because dirty engines are highly variable and sometimes burn cleanly for short durations. There is little evidence, Stedman says, that the city’s regime of inspections makes any difference in air quality.
He proposes mobile testing instead. Twenty years ago, he invented a device the size of a suitcase that uses infrared light to instantly measure and then analyze the emissions of cars as they drive by on the highway. The Speer Avenue sign is attached to one of Stedman’s devices. He says that cities should put half a dozen or so of his devices in vans, park them on freeway off-ramps around the city, and have a police car poised to pull over anyone who fails the test. A half-dozen vans could test thirty thousand cars a day. For the same twenty-five million dollars that Denver’s motorists now spend on on-site testing, Stedman estimates, the city could identify and fix twenty-five thousand truly dirty vehicles every year, and within a few years cut automobile emissions in the Denver metropolitan area by somewhere between thirty-five and forty per cent. The city could stop managing its smog problem and start ending it.
Why don’t we all adopt the Stedman method? There’s no moral impediment here. We’re used to the police pulling people over for having a blown headlight or a broken side mirror, and it wouldn’t be difficult to have them add pollution-control devices to their list. Yet it does run counter to an instinctive social preference for thinking of pollution as a problem to which we all contribute equally. We have developed institutions that move reassuringly quickly and forcefully on collective problems. Congress passes a law. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgates a regulation. The auto industry makes its cars a little cleaner, and—presto—the air gets better. But Stedman doesn’t much care about what happens in Washington and Detroit. The challenge of controlling air pollution isn’t so much about the laws as it is about compliance with them. It’s a policing problem, rather than a policy problem, and there is something ultimately unsatisfying about his proposed solution. He wants to end air pollution in Denver with a half-dozen vans outfitted with a contraption about the size of a suitcase. Can such a big problem have such a small-bore solution?
That’s what made the findings of the Christopher Commission so unsatisfying. We put together blue-ribbon panels when we’re faced with problems that seem too large for the normal mechanisms of bureaucratic repair. We want sweeping reforms. But what was the commission’s most memorable observation? It was the story of an officer with a known history of doing things like beating up handcuffed suspects who nonetheless received a performance review from his superior stating that he “usually conducts himself in a manner that inspires respect for the law and instills public confidence.” This is what you say about an officer when you haven’t actually read his file, and the implication of the Christopher Commission’s report was that the L.A.P.D. might help solve its problem simply by getting its police captains to read the files of their officers. The L.A.P.D.’s problem was a matter not of policy but of compliance. The department needed to adhere to the rules it already had in place, and that’s not what a public hungry for institutional transformation wants to hear. Solving problems that have power-law distributions doesn’t just violate our moral intuitions; it violates our political intuitions as well. It’s hard not to conclude, in the end, that the reason we treated the homeless as one hopeless undifferentiated group for so long is not simply that we didn’t know better. It’s that we didn’t want to know better. It was easier the old way.
Power-law solutions have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis. Even the promise of millions of dollars in savings or cleaner air or better police departments cannot entirely compensate for such discomfort. In Denver, John Hickenlooper, the city’s enormously popular mayor, has worked on the homelessness issue tirelessly during the past couple of years. He spent more time on the subject in his annual State of the City address this past summer than on any other topic. He gave the speech, with deliberate symbolism, in the city’s downtown Civic Center Park, where homeless people gather every day with their shopping carts and garbage bags. He has gone on local talk radio on many occasions to discuss what the city is doing about the issue. He has commissioned studies to show what a drain on the city’s resources the homeless population has become. But, he says, “there are still people who stop me going into the supermarket and say, ‘I can’t believe you’re going to help those homeless people, those bums.'”
Early one morning a year ago, Marla Johns got a call from her husband, Steve. He was at work. “He called and woke me up,” Johns remembers. “He was choked up and crying on the phone. And I thought that something had happened with another police officer. I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, what happened?’ He said, ‘Murray died last night.’ ” He died of intestinal bleeding. At the police department that morning, some of the officers gave Murray a moment of silence.
“There are not many days that go by that I don’t have a thought of him,” she went on. “Christmas comes— and I used to buy him a Christmas present. Make sure he had warm gloves and a blanket and a coat. There was this mutual respect. There was a time when another intoxicated patient jumped off the gurney and was coming at me, and Murray jumped off his gurney and shook his fist and said, ‘Don’t you touch my angel.’ You know, when he was monitored by the system he did fabulously. He would be on house arrest and he would get a job and he would save money and go to work every day, and he wouldn’t drink. He would do all the things he was supposed to do. There are some people who can be very successful members of society if someone monitors them. Murray needed someone to be in charge of him.”
But, of course, Reno didn’t have a place where Murray could be given the structure he needed. Someone must have decided that it cost too much.
“I told my husband that I would claim his body if no one else did,” she said. “I would not have him in an unmarked grave.”
A sociologist offers an anatomy of explanations.
Little Timothy is playing with his older brother Geoffrey, price when he comes running to his mother.
“Mommy, Mommy, ” he starts in. “I was playing with my truck, and then Geoffrey came and he said it was his turn to play with the truck even though it’s my truck and then he pushed me.”
“Timothy!” his mother says, silencing him. “Don’t be a tattletale.”
Timothy has heard that phrase—”Don’t be a tattletale”—countless times, and it always stops him short. He has offered his mother an eyewitness account of a crime. His mother, furthermore, in no way disputes the truth of his story. Yet what does she do? She rejects it in favor of a simplistic social formula: Don’t be a tattletale. It makes no sense. Timothy’s mother would never use such a formula to trump a story if she were talking to his father. On the contrary, his mother and father tattle to each other about Geoffrey all the time. And, if Timothy were to tattle on Geoffrey to his best friend, Bruce, Bruce wouldn’t reject the story in favor of a formula, either. Narratives are the basis of Timothy’s friendship with Bruce. They explain not just effects but causes. They matter—except in this instance, of a story told by Timothy to Mommy about Geoffrey, in which Mommy is suddenly indifferent to stories altogether. What is this don’t-be-a-tattletale business about?
In “Why?” (Princeton; $24.95), the Columbia University scholar Charles Tilly sets out to make sense of our reasons for giving reasons. In the tradition of the legendary sociologist Erving Goffman, Tilly seeks to decode the structure of everyday social interaction, and the result is a book that forces readers to reëxamine everything from the way they talk to their children to the way they argue about politics.
In Tilly’s view, we rely on four general categories of reasons. The first is what he calls conventions—conventionally accepted explanations. Tilly would call “Don’t be a ” a convention. The second is stories, and what distinguishes a story (“I was playing with my truck, and then Geoffrey came in . . .”) is a very specific account of cause and effect. Tilly cites the sociologist Francesca Polletta’s interviews with people who were active in the civil-rights sit-ins of the nineteen-sixties. Polletta repeatedly heard stories that stressed the spontaneity of the protests, leaving out the role of civil-rights organizations, teachers, and churches. That’s what stories do. As Tilly writes, they circumscribe time and space, limit the number of actors and actions, situate all causes “in the consciousness of the actors,” and elevate the personal over the institutional.
Then there are codes, which are high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes recondite procedural rules and categories. If a loan officer turns you down for a mortgage, the reason he gives has to do with your inability to conform to a prescribed standard of creditworthiness. Finally, there are technical accounts: stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority. An academic history of civil-rights sit-ins wouldn’t leave out the role of institutions, and it probably wouldn’t focus on a few actors and actions; it would aim at giving patient and expert attention to every sort of nuance and detail.
Tilly argues that we make two common errors when it comes to understanding reasons. The first is to assume that some kinds of reasons are always better than others—that there is a hierarchy of reasons, with conventions (the least sophisticated) at the bottom and technical accounts at the top. That’s wrong, Tilly says: each type of reason has its own role.
Tilly’s second point flows from the first, and it’s that the reasons people give aren’t a function of their character—that is, there aren’t people who always favor technical accounts and people who always favor stories. Rather, reasons arise out of situations and roles. Imagine, he says, the following possible responses to one person’s knocking some books off the desk of another:
- Sorry, buddy. I’m just plain awkward.
- I’m sorry. I didn’t see your book.
- Nuts! I did it again.
- Why did you put that book there?
- I told you to stack up your books neatly.
The lesson is not that the kind of person who uses reason No. 1 or No. 2 is polite and the kind of person who uses reason No. 4 or No. 5 is a jerk. The point is that any of us might use any of those five reasons depending on our relation to the person whose books we knocked over. Reason-giving, Tilly says, reflects, establishes, repairs, and negotiates relationships. The husband who uses a story to explain his unhappiness to his wife—”Ever since I got my new job, I feel like I’ve just been so busy that I haven’t had time for us”—is attempting to salvage the relationship. But when he wants out of the marriage, he’ll say, “It’s not you—it’s me.” He switches to a convention. As his wife realizes, it’s not the content of what he has said that matters. It’s his shift from the kind of reason-giving that signals commitment to the kind that signals disengagement. Marriages thrive on stories. They die on conventions.
Consider the orgy of reason-giving that followed Vice-President Dick Cheney’s quail-hunting accident involving his friend Harry Whittington. Allies of the Vice-President insisted that the media were making way too much of it. “Accidents happen,” they said, relying on a convention. Cheney, in a subsequent interview, looked penitently into the camera and said, “The image of him falling is something I’ll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there’s Harry falling. And it was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life.” Cheney told a story. Some of Cheney’s critics, meanwhile, focussed on whether he conformed to legal and ethical standards. Did he have a valid license? Was he too slow to notify the White House? They were interested in codes. Then came the response of hunting experts. They retold the narrative of Cheney’s accident, using their specialized knowledge of hunting procedure. The Cheney party had three guns, and on a quail shoot, some of them said, you should never have more than two. Why did Whittington retrieve the downed bird? A dog should have done that. Had Cheney’s shotgun been aimed more than thirty degrees from the ground, as it should have been? And what were they doing in the bush at five-thirty in the afternoon, when the light isn’t nearly good enough for safe hunting? The experts gave a technical account.
Here are four kinds of reasons, all relational in nature. If you like Cheney and are eager to relieve him of responsibility, you want the disengagement offered by a convention. For a beleaguered P.R. agent, the first line of defense in any burgeoning scandal is, inevitably, There is no story here. When, in Cheney’s case, this failed, the Vice-President had to convey his concern and regret while not admitting that he had done anything procedurally wrong. Only a story can accomplish that. Anything else—to shrug and say that accidents happen, for instance—would have been perceived as unpardonably callous. Cheney’s critics, for their part, wanted the finality and precision of a code: he acted improperly. And hunting experts wanted to display their authority and educate the public about how to hunt safely, so they retold the story of Cheney’s accident with the benefit of their specialized knowledge.
Effective reason-giving, then, involves matching the kind of reason we give to the particular role that we happen to be playing at the time a reason is necessary. The fact that Timothy’s mother accepts tattling from his father but rejects it from Timothy is not evidence of capriciousness; it just means that a husband’s relationship to his wife gives him access to a reasongiving category that a son’s role does not. The lesson “Don’t be a tattletale”—which may well be one of the hardest childhood lessons to learn—is that in the adult world it is sometimes more important to be appropriate than it is to be truthful.
Two years ago, a young man named Anthony mugged a woman named Anne on a London street. Anthony was caught and convicted, and a few days before he was sentenced he sat down with Anne for a face-to-face meeting, as an exercise in what is known as “restorative justice.” The meeting was videotaped by a criminal-justice research group, and to watch the video is to get an even deeper sense of the usefulness of Tilly’s thinking.
“We’re going to talk about what’s happened,” the policeman moderating the meeting begins. “Who’s been affected, and how they’ve been affected, and see what we can do to make things better.”
Anthony starts. He has a shaved head, a tattoo on his neck, and multiple piercings in his eyebrows and ears. Beside him is his partner, Christy, holding their baby boy. “What happened is I had a bad week. Been out of work for a couple of weeks. Had my kneecap broken. . . . I only had my dad in this country, who I don’t get on with. We had no gas in our flat. Me and Christy were arguing all that morning. The baby had been screaming. We were hungry.” His story comes out painfully and haltingly. “It was a bit too much. All my friends I was asking to loan me a couple of pounds. They just couldn’t afford to give it to me. . . . I don’t know what got into me. I just reached over and took your bag. And I’m really sorry for it. And if there is anything I can do to make up for it, I’m willing to do it. I know you probably don’t want me anywhere near you.”
Anne has been listening closely, her husband, Terry, next to her. Now she tells her side of the story. She heard a sound like male laughter. She turned, and felt her purse being pulled away. She saw a man pulling up his hood. She ran after him, feeling like a “complete idiot.” In the struggle over her bag, her arm was injured. She is a journalist and has since had difficulty typing. “The mugging was very small,” she says. “But the effect is not going away as fast as I expected. . . . It makes life one notch less bearable.”
It was Christy’s turn. She got the call at home. She didn’t know exactly what had happened. She took the baby and walked to the police station, angry and frightened. “We got ourselves in a situation where we were relying on the state, and we just can’t live off the money,” Christy says. “And that’s not your problem.” She starts to cry. “He’s not a drug addict,” she continues, looking at her husband. Anthony takes the baby from her and holds him. “If we go to court on Monday, and he does get three years for what he’s done, or six years, that’s his problem. He done it. And he’s got to pay for what he’s done. I wake up and hear him cry”—she looks at the baby—”and it kills me. I’m in a situation where I can’t do anything to make this better. . . . I just want you to know. The first thing he said to me when he walked in was ‘I apologized.’ And I said, ‘That makes what difference?’ ”
Watching the conference is a strange experience, because it is utterly foreign to the criminal process of which it is ostensibly a part. There is none of the oppressive legalese of the courtroom. Nothing is “alleged”; there are no “perpetrators.” The formal back-and-forth between questioner and answerer, the emotionally protective structure of courtroom procedure, is absent. Anne and Terry sit on comfortable chairs facing Christy and Anthony. They have a conversation, not a confrontation. They are telling stories, in Tilly’s sense of that word: repairing their relationship by crafting a cause-and-effect account of what happened on the street.
Why is such storytelling, in the wake of a crime, so important? Because, Tilly would argue, some social situations don’t lend themselves to the easy reconciliation of reason and role. In Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections,” for example, one of the characters, Gary, is in the midst of a frosty conversation with his wife, Caroline. Gary had the sense, Franzen writes, “that Caroline was on the verge of accusing him of being ‘depressed,’ and he was afraid that if the idea that he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit his right to his opinions. . . . Every word he spoke would become a symptom of disease; he would never again win an argument.” Gary was afraid, in other words, that a technical account of his behavior—the explanation that he was clinically depressed—would trump his efforts to use the stories and conventions that permitted him to be human. But what was his wife to do? She wanted him to change.
When we say that two parties in a conflict are “talking past each other,” this is what we mean: that both sides have a legitimate attachment to mutually exclusive reasons. Proponents of abortion often rely on a convention (choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester). Opponents of abortion turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Is it any surprise that the issue has proved to be so intractable? If you believe that stories are the most appropriate form of reason-giving, then those who use conventions and technical accounts will seem morally indifferent—regardless of whether you agree with them. And, if you believe that a problem is best adjudicated through conventions or technical accounts, it is hard not to look upon storytellers as sensationalistic and intellectually unserious. By Tilly’s logic, abortion proponents who want to engage their critics will have to become better storytellers—and that, according to the relational principles of such reason-giving, may require them to acknowledge an emotional connection between a mother and a fetus. (Ironically, many of the same members of the religious right who have so emphatically demonstrated the emotional superiority of stories when it comes to abortion insist, when it comes to Genesis, on a reading of the Bible as a technical account. Thus do creationists, in the service of reasongiving exigency, force the Holy Scripture to do double duty as a high-school biology textbook.)
Tilly argues that these conflicts are endemic to the legal system. Laws are established in opposition to stories. In a criminal trial, we take a complicated narrative of cause and effect and match it to a simple, impersonal code: first-degree murder, or second-degree murder, or manslaughter. The impersonality of codes is what makes the law fair. But it is also what can make the legal system so painful for victims, who find no room for their voices and their anger and their experiences. Codes punish, but they cannot heal.
So what do you do? You put Anne and her husband in a room with Anthony and Christy and their baby boy and you let them talk. In a series of such experiments, conducted in Britain and Australia by the criminologists Lawrence Sherman and Heather Strang, restorative-justice programs have shown encouraging results in reducing recidivism rates among offenders and psychological trauma among victims. If you view the tape of the Anthony-Anne exchange, it’s not hard to see why. Sherman said that when the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales watched it at home one night he wept.
“If there is anything I can do, please say it,” Anthony says.
“I think most of what you can do is between the two of you, actually,” Anne says to Anthony and Christy. “I think if you can put your lives back together again, then that’s what needs to be done.”
The moderator tells them all to take a break and help themselves to “Metropolitan Police tea and coffee and chocolate biscuits.”
Anne asks Christy how old the baby is, and where they are living. It turns out that their apartment has been condemned.Terry stands up and offers the baby a chocolate biscuit, and the adults experience the kind of moment that adults have in the company of babies, where nothing matters except the child in front of them.
“He’s a good baby,” Christy says. A convention. One kind of reason is never really enough.