Studying Urban Crime By Befriending A Neighborhood

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As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Alice Goffman decided to study the crime problem in a Philadelphia neighborhood by completely immersing herself in the life.

Over the next six years, she lived in the neighborhood she calls "6th street." She hung out with young African American men who were in and out of prison and often on the run from police for both minor and major infractions.

Goffman also experienced firsthand what it was like to be interrogated by the police and what happens when a SWAT team breaks down your door. She also witnessed a young man get killed as he left her car.

Goffman observed how the intense police surveillance of the neighborhood often encouraged the criminal behavior it was meant to prevent.

Now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Alice Goffman has published her account of those years in the new book "On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City" (excerpt below)

She joins Here & Now's Robin Young to discuss those years in Philadelphia.

Note: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.

Book Excerpt: 'On the Run'

By Alice Goffman

Chapter One: The 6th Street Boys and Their Legal Entanglements


On quiet afternoons, Chuck would sometimes pass the time by teaching his twelve- year-old brother, Tim, how to run from the police. They’d sit side by side on the iron back- porch steps of their two-story home, facing the shared concrete alley that connects the small fenced- in backyards of their block to those of the houses on the next.

“What you going to do when you hear the sirens?” Chuck asked.

“I’m out,” his little brother replied.

“Where you running to?”


“You can’t run here—they know you live here.”

“I’ma hide in the back room in the basement.”

“You think they ain’t tearing down that little door?”

Tim shrugged.

“You know Miss Toya?”


“You can go over there.”

“But I don’t even know her like that.”


“Why I can’t go to Uncle Jean’s?”

“’Cause they know that’s your uncle. You can’t go to nobody that’s connected to you.”

Tim nodded his head, seeming happy to get his brother’s attention no matter what he was saying.

Chuck was the eldest of three brothers. He shared a small, second-floor bedroom with Tim, seven years his junior, and Reggie, born right between them. Reggie had left for juvenile detention centers by the time he turned eleven, so Tim didn’t know his middle brother very well.

He looked up to Chuck almost like a father.

When Tim was a baby, his dad had moved down to South Carolina and married a woman there; he did not keep in touch. Reggie’s father was worse: an in-the-way (no-account) man of no consequence or merit, in prison on long bids and then out for stints of drunken robberies. Reggie said he wouldn’t recognize him in the street. By contrast, Chuck’s father came around a lot during his early years, a fact that Chuck sometimes mentioned when trying to explain why he knew right from wrong and his younger brothers did not.

The boys’ mother, Miss Linda, had been five years into a heavy crack habit when she became pregnant with Chuck, and continued using as the boys grew up. With welfare cuts the family had very little government assistance, and Miss Linda never could hold a job for more than a few months at a time. Her father’s post office pension paid the household bills, but he didn’t pay for food or clothes or school supplies. He said it was beyond what he could do, and not his responsibility anyway.

At thirteen Chuck began working for a local dealer, which meant that he could buy food for himself and Tim instead of asking his mother for money she didn’t have. His access to crack also meant that he could better regulate his mother’s addiction. Now she came to him to get drugs, and mostly stopped prostituting herself and selling off their household possessions when she needed a hit. In high school Chuck got arrested a number of times, but the cases didn’t stick and he continued working for the dealer.

By his sophomore year, Chuck’s legs were sticking out past the edge of the bunk bed he shared with Tim. He cleared out the unfinished basement and moved his mattress and clothing down there. The basement flooded and smelled like mildew and sometimes the rats bit him, but at least he had his own space. Tim was eight when Chuck moved out of their room, and he tried to put a brave face on it. When he couldn’t sleep, he padded down to the basement and crawled into bed with his brother.

In his senior year, when we met, Chuck stood six feet tall and had a build shaped by basketball and boxing his two favorite sports. That winter, he got into a fight in the school yard with a kid who had called his mom a crack whore. According to the police report, Chuck didn’t hurt the other guy much, only pushed his face into the snow, but the school cops charged him with aggravated assault. It didn’t matter, Chuck said, that he was on the basketball team, and making Cs and Bs. Since he’d just turned eighteen, the aggravated assault case landed him in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, a large pink and gray county jail on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia, known locally as CFCF or simply the F.

About a month after Chuck went to jail, Tim stopped speaking. He would nod his head yes or no, but didn’t say any words. When Chuck called home from jail he asked his mother to put Tim on the phone, and he would talk to his little brother about what he imagined was happening back at home.

“Mike prolly don’t be coming around no more, now that his baby-mom about to pop. She probably big as shit right now. If it’s a boy he going to be skinny like his pops, but if it’s a girl she’ll be a fat- ass like her mom.” Tim never answered, but sometimes he smiled. Chuck kept talking until his minutes ran out. In his letters and phone calls home, Chuck tried to persuade his mother to take his little brother to the jail for visiting hours. “He just need to see me, like, he ain’t got nobody out there.” Miss Linda didn’t have the state ID required to visit inmates in county jail, only a social security card and an old voter registration card, and anyway she hated seeing her sons locked up. Chuck’s friends Mike and Alex offered to take Tim along with them, but since Tim was a minor, his parent or guardian had to go, too. Eight months after Chuck was taken into custody, the judge threw out most of the charges and Chuck came home, with only a couple hundred dollars in court fees hanging over his head. When Tim saw his brother walking up the alley, he cried and clung to his leg. He tried to stay awake through the evening festivities but finally fell asleep with his head in Chuck’s lap.

Over the next few months, Chuck patiently coaxed his brother to start speaking again. He stayed in most nights and played video games with Tim on the old TV in the living room. He even moved back up to Tim’s room for a while, so Tim wouldn’t be alone at night. He extended his bed with a folding chair, propping his legs up on it and cursing when they fell through.

“He’ll get it back,” Chuck said. “He just needs some QT [quality time].”

Tim nodded hopefully.

The following fall, Chuck tried to re- enroll as a senior, but the high school would not admit him; he had already turned nineteen. Then the judge on his old assault case issued a warrant for his arrest, because he hadn’t paid $225 in court fees that came due a few weeks after his assault case ended. He spent a few months on the run before going downtown to the Warrant and Surrender Office of the Criminal Justice Center to see if he could work something out with the judge. It was a big risk: Chuck wasn’t sure if they’d take him into custody on the spot.

Instead, the court clerk worked out a monthly payment plan, and Chuck came home, jubilant, that afternoon. That fall Tim started speaking again. He remained very quiet, preferring to communicate with a small smile or a shake of his head. Tim’s first arrest came later that year, after he’d turned eleven. Chuck was driving Tim to school in his girlfriend’s car, and when a cop pulled them over the car came up as stolen in California. Chuck had a pretty good idea which one of his girlfriend’s relatives had stolen the car, but he didn’t say anything. “Wasn’t going to help,” he said. The officer took both brothers into custody, and down at the police station they charged Chuck with receiving stolen property. They charged Tim with accessory, and later a judge in the juvenile court placed Tim on three years of probation.

With this probation sentence hanging over Tim’s head, any encounter with the police might mean a violation and a trip to juvenile detention, so Chuck began teaching his little brother how to run from the police in earnest: how to spot undercover cars, how and where to hide, how to negotiate a police stop so that he didn’t put himself or those around him at greater risk.


Chuck and Tim’s middle brother, Reggie, came home for a few months then. He was an overweight young man of fifteen, and already developing a reputation as good muscle for robberies. Older guys in the neighborhood referred to him as a cannon, meaning a person of courage and commitment. Reggie had heart, they said. He wouldn’t back down from danger. Miss Linda described her middle son as a goon. Unlike herself and her oldest son, Chuck, Reggie seemed utterly uninterested in neighborhood gossip. He didn’t care if someone else was out there making money or getting girls—he only cared if he was.

“And he fearless,” she said with some pride. “A stone- cold gangster.”

Reggie also had a lesser- known artistic side: he wrote rhymes on the outside, and penned a number of “’hood” novels while he was locked up. When Reggie came home this time, he planned a number of daring schemes to rob armored cars or big- time drug dealers, but he could rarely find anyone around 6th Street willing to team up with him. “Niggas be backing out at the last minute!” he lamented to me, half- jokingly.

“They ain’t got no heart.”

Chuck tried to discourage Reggie from these robberies, but Reggie didn’t seem to have the patience for making slow money selling drugs hand to hand, so he contributed only sporadically to the household. “My brother’s the breadwinner,” he acknowledged. A month after he turned fi fteen, Reggie tested positive for marijuana at a routine probation meeting. (This is referred to as a piss test, and when you test positive, it is called hot piss.) The probation board issued him a technical violation, and instead of allowing them to take him into custody, Reggie ran out of the building. They soon issued a bench warrant for his arrest.

That evening, Reggie explained that there was no point in turning himself in, because being in juvenile detention is much worse than living on the run.

“How long are you going to be on the run for?” I asked.

“Till I turn myself in.”

“That’s what you’re going to do?”

“No, that’s something I could do, but I’m not.”


“’Cause what happened last time I turned myself in? Time.”

“Last time when you got locked up you had turned yourself in?”

“Did I.”

“How long did you sit before your case came up?”

“Like nine months.”

During the time Reggie was on the run from this probation violation, he also became a suspect in an armed robbery case, so the police issued a body warrant—an open warrant for those accused of committing new crimes—for his arrest. The robbery had been caught on tape, and the footage was even aired on the six o’clock news. The cops began driving around the neighborhood with Reggie’s picture and asking people to identify him. They raided his mother’s house in the middle of the night, and the next morning Reggie told me:

Yo, the law ran up in my crib last night talking about they had a body warrant for a armed robbery. I ain’t rob nobody since I had to get that bail money for my brother last year. . . . They talking ’bout they going to come back every night till they grab me. Now my mom saying she going to turn me in ’cause she don’t want the law in her crib. . . . I’m not with it. I ain’t going back to jail. I’ll sleep in my car if I have to.

In fact, Reggie did take to sleeping in his car, and managed to live on the run for a few months before the cops caught him.

* * *

Some people in the neighborhood said that Chuck and his younger brothers got into so much trouble because their fathers weren’t around, and their mother failed to set a good example. By virtually all accounts, Miss Linda was an addict and had not raised her boys well. One had only to step foot inside her house to know this: it smelled of piss and vomit and stale cigarettes, and cockroaches roamed freely across the countertops and soiled living room furniture. But many of Chuck’s friends had mothers who hadn’t succumbed to crack, who  worked two jobs and went to church. These friends, too, were spending a lot of their time dealing with the police and the courts.


Mike was two years older than Chuck and had grown up just a block away in a two- story home shared with his mother and uncle, who had inherited the house from Mike’s grandfather. His mother kept an exceptionally clean house and held down two and sometimes three jobs.

Mike’s first arrest had come at thirteen, when the police stopped, searched, and arrested him for carrying a small quantity of marijuana. He was put on probation and managed to stay out of trouble long enough to finish high school by taking night classes, as the large graduation photo on his mother’s mantel attested.

The two jobs Mike’s mom worked meant that he had more money growing up than most of the other guys—enough for new school clothes and Christmas gifts. Chuck and Alex sometimes joked that as a result of this relatively privileged upbringing, Mike had too strong an appetite for the finer things in life, like beautiful women and the latest fashion. His elaborate morning routine of clothes ironing, hair care, body lotion, and sneaker buffing was the source of much amusement. “Two full hours from the shower to the door,” Chuck quipped. Mike defended these habits and affinities, claiming that they came from an ambition to make something more of himself than what he was given.

At twenty- two, Mike was working part time at a pharmaceutical warehouse and selling crack on the side for extra cash. His high school girlfriend was about to give birth to their second child.

A few weeks after his daughter was born, Mike lost the job at the warehouse. Complications with his daughter’s birth had caused him to miss work too many days in a row. He spent the first six months of his daughter’s life in a fruitless and humiliating attempt to find work; then he persuaded a friend from another neighborhood to give him some crack to sell on credit.

Mike had no brothers or sisters but often went around with his young boy Ronny, whom he regarded as a brother and in more sentimental moments as a godson. Ronny was a short and stocky boy who wore do-rags that concealed a short Afro, and hoodies that he pulled down to cover most of his face. His mother had gotten strung out on crack while he was growing up, and he spent his early years shuttling between homeless shelters. An adopted aunt on his father’s side raised Ronny until he was twelve. When this beloved aunt died, his maternal grandmother took over his care. That’s when the trips to detention centers started.

A self- proclaimed troublemaker, Ronny was repeatedly kicked out of school for things like hitting his teacher or trying to steal the principal’s car. When his grandmother asked him to be good, he smiled with one corner of his mouth and said, “I want to, Nanna, but I can’t promise nothing. I can’t even say I’m going to try.” Daily she threatened to send him away to a juvenile detention center. Ronny began to carry a gun at thirteen, and at fifteen he shot himself in the leg while boarding a bus. Ronny was also an excellent dancer and, in his words, “a lil’ pimp.”

The first time we had a real conversation, we were driving to various jails in the city to find where Mike was being held, because the police had arrested him earlier that morning. We were sitting in my car, and Ronny asked how old I was. I told him my age at the time: twenty-one. After a moment he grinned and said, “I’ve been with women older than you.” Soon after we met, Ronny made a name for himself in the neighborhood by getting into a cop chase from West to South Philly, first by car and then on foot through a gas station, a Laundromat, and an arcade. He spent most of the next six years in juvenile detention centers in upstate Pennsylvania and Maryland.


Alex had grown up a few blocks off 6th Street, but he hung out there all through his childhood and became good friends with Chuck and Mike in high school. He lived with his mother, but when he turned fi fteen his father had reconnected with the family, which improved their circumstances substantially. His dad owned two small businesses in the neighborhood, and Alex got to hang out there after school.

By twenty- three, Alex was a portly man with a pained and tired look about him, as if the weight of caring for his two toddlers and their mothers were too much for him to bear. He had sold crack and pills on the block in his teens and spent a year upstate on a drug conviction. By his early twenties, he was working hard to live in compliance with his two-year parole sentence. He worked part time at his dad’s heating and air-conditioning repair shop, moving to full-time hours by the end of 2004. Sometimes Mike and Chuck grudgingly noted that if their dads owned a small business they’d have jobs, too, but mostly they seemed happy for Alex and hoped he could keep his good thing going.


Anthony was twenty-two years old when we met, and living in an abandoned Jeep off 6th Street. The year before, his aunt kicked him out of her house because she caught him stealing from her purse, though Anthony denied this. He occasionally found day- labor work in light construction, sometimes getting on a crew for a few weeks at a time. In between, Mike sometimes gave him a little crack to sell, though he was never any good at selling it because he put up no defense when other guys robbed him. “Living out here [in a car], I can’t just go shoot niggas up, you feel me?” Anthony explained. “Everybody knows where I’m at. I ain’t got no walls around me.”

When Anthony and I met, he had a bench warrant out for his arrest, because he hadn’t paid $173 in court fees for a case that ended that year. He had spent nine of the previous twelve months in jail awaiting the decision. Soon after, two neighbors who knew that Anthony had this bench warrant called the police and got him arrested, because they said he had stolen three pairs of shoes from them.

“Where would I even put three pairs of sneaks?” Anthony asked, pointing to the backseat of the Jeep.

“He probably sold them,” Mike said, “for food and weed.”

When Anthony got sick with what looked to be pneumonia, Chuck started letting him sleep on a blanket on the floor next to his bed in the basement, sneaking him in through the back door after his grandfather was asleep. Chuck’s mother, Miss Linda, let Anthony stay even after Chuck got locked up later that year, though Anthony’s tax, she said, would have to go up. In angry moments Anthony complained bitterly that he would never be able to leave Miss Linda’s for his own place, because she continually stole the money he was trying to save from his pockets when he was asleep.

* * *

The legal issues that Chuck and his friends on 6th Street struggled with seemed immense to me—too numerous and complex to keep straight without copious notes. Between the ages of twenty- two and twenty- seven, Mike spent about three and a half years in jail or prison. Out of the 139 weeks that he was not incarcerated, he spent 87 weeks on probation or parole for five overlapping sentences. He spent 35 weeks with a warrant out for his arrest, and had a total of ten warrants issued on him. He also had at least fifty-one court appearances over this five-year period, forty-seven of which I attended.

Initially I assumed that Chuck, Mike, and their friends represented an outlying group of delinquents: the bad apples of the neighborhood. After all, some of them occasionally sold marijuana and crack cocaine to local customers, and sometimes they even got into violent gun battles. I grew to understand that many young men from 6th Street were at least intermittently earning money by selling drugs, and the criminal justice entanglements of Chuck and his friends were on a par with what many other unemployed young men in the neighborhood were experiencing. By the time Chuck entered his senior year of high school in 2002, young women outnumbered young men in his classes by more than 2:1. Going through his freshman yearbook years later, when he turned twenty- two, he identifi ed roughly half the boys in his ninth- grade class as currently sitting in jails or prisons.


In 2007 Chuck and I went door to door and conducted a household survey of the 6th Street neighborhood. We interviewed 308 men between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Of these young men, 144 reported that they had a warrant issued for their arrest because of either delinquencies with court fines and fees or failure to appear for a court date within the previous three years. For that same period, 119 men reported that they had been issued warrants for technical violations of their probation or parole (for example, drinking or breaking curfew).

According to contacts at the Philadelphia Warrant Unit, there were about eighty thousand open warrants in the city in the winter of 2010. A small portion of these warrants were for new criminal cases—so- called body warrants. Most were bench warrants for missing court or for unpaid court fees, or technical warrants issued for violations of probation or parole.

Until the 1970s, the city’s efforts to round up people with outstanding warrants consisted of two men who sat at a desk in the evening and made calls to the people on the warrant list, encouraging them to either come in and get a new court date or get on a payment plan for their unpaid court fees. During the day, these same men transported prisoners.

In the 1970s, a special Warrant Unit was created in the Philadelphia courts to actively pursue people with open warrants. Its new captain prided himself on improving and updating the unit’s tracking system, and getting the case files onto a computer. By the 1990s, every detective division in the Philadelphia Police Department had its own Warrant Unit. Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and the US Marshals all run their own separate Warrant Units out of the Philadelphia force as well.

As the number of police officers and special units focused on rounding up people with warrants increased, the technology to locate and identify people with warrants improved. Computers were installed in police cars, and records of citizens’ legal histories and pending legal actions became synchronized—first across the city’s police force and then among police departments across the country. It became possible to run a person’s name for any kind of warrant, from any jurisdiction in the country, almost instantly.

The number of arrests an officer or a unit makes had been a key indication of performance since at least the 1960s. When technology improved, taking people in on warrants became a ready way for police to show they were actively fighting crime. Those officers or units who cleared more warrants or arrested more people were informally rewarded; those who cleared or arrested fewer people were encouraged to catch up.

In interviews, Philadelphia police officers explained that when they are looking for a particular man, they access social security records, court records, hospital admission records, electric and gas bills, and employment records. They visit a suspect’s usual haunts (for ex ample, his home, his workplace, and his street corner) at the times he is likely to be there, and will threaten his family or friends with arrest if they don’t cooperate, particularly when they themselves have their own lower-level warrants, are on probation, or have a pending court case. In addition to these methods, the Warrant Units operating out of the Philadelphia Police Department use a sophisticated computer- mapping program that tracks people who have warrants, are on probation or parole, or have been released on bail. Officers round up these potential informants and threaten them with jail time if they don’t provide information about the person the police are looking for. A local FBI officer got inspired to develop the computer program after watching a documentary about the Stasi—the East German secret police. With another program, officers follow wanted people in real time by tracking their cell phones.

* * *

On 6th Street, the fear of capture and confinement weighs not only on young men with warrants out for their arrest but also on those going through a court case or attempting to complete probation or parole sentences. The supervisory restrictions of probation and parole bar these men from going out at night, driving a car, crossing state lines, drinking alcohol, seeing their friends, and visiting certain areas in the city. Coupled with an intense policing climate, these restrictions mean that encounters with the authorities are highly likely, and may result in a violation of the terms of release and a swift return to jail or prison.

The threat of confinement similarly follows men on house arrest or living in halfway houses. Those out on bail understand that any new arrest allows a judge to revoke the terms of their release and return them to confinement, even if the charges are later dropped. And many young men, with and without legal entanglements, worry about new charges. At any moment, they may be stopped by police and their tenuous claim to freedom revoked.

When Mike, Chuck, and their friends assembled outside in the midmornings, the first topics of the day were frequently who had been taken into custody the night before, and who had outrun the cops and gotten away. They discussed how the police identified and located the person, what the charges were likely to be, what physical harm had been done to the man as he was caught and arrested, what property the police had taken, and what had been wrecked or lost during the chase. Police, jail, and court language permeated general conversation. Chuck and Mike referred to their girlfriends as Co-Ds (codefendants) and spoke of catching a case (to be arrested and charged with a crime) when accused of some wrong by their friends and family. Call list, the term for the phone numbers of family and friends one is allowed to call from prison or jail, became the term for close friends. The first week I spent on 6th Street, I saw two boys, five and seven years old, play a game of chase in which one boy assumed the role of the cop who must run after the other. When the “cop” caught up to the other child, he pushed him down and cuffed him with imaginary handcuff s. He then patted down the other child and felt in his pockets, asking if he had warrants or was carrying a gun or any drugs. The child then took a quarter out of the other child’s pocket, laughing and yelling, “I’m seizing that!” In the following months, I saw children give up running and simply stick their hands behind their back, as if in handcuffs; push their body up against a car without being asked; or lie flat on the ground and put their hands over their head. The children yelled,“I’m going to lock you up! I’m going to lock you up, and you ain’t never coming home!” I once saw a six-year-old pull another child’s pants down to do a “cavity search.”

By the time Chuck and Mike were in their early teens, they had learned to fear the police and to flee when they approached.

Excerpted from the book ON THE RUN: THE FUGITIVE LIFE IN AN AMERICAN CITY by Alice Goffman. Published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


  • Alice Goffman, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of "On the Run."

This segment aired on May 22, 2014.


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