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The Ethics Of Studying Crime

The Ethics Of Studying Crime
As part of our monthly segments on ethics in science and technology, we'll look at the controversy over researchers studying crime up close and personal.

The next Ethics Center forum: "Do you have to be a criminal to study crime?" is Wednesday, April 7, 2010, at 5:30 p.m., at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.

Maureen Cavanaugh: In order to do accurate research into why crimes occur and who commits them, researchers have to talk with criminals. And sometimes, they have to talk with criminals while those criminals are committing crimes. So, how far does a scientist or researcher go before they have an ethical obligation to report the activities of their research subject? Does it depend on what kind of crime, or how blatant the offense? And what does law enforcement expect from researchers who know about crimes being committed?

Today, as part of our monthly series on science and ethics we'll look at the controversy over researchers studying crime up close and personal.


Erik Fritsvold, professor of sociology at University of San Diego, and co-author of "Dorm Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class."

Stuart Henry, professor of criminal justice and director of the school of public affairs at San Diego State University.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. In order to do accurate research into why crimes occur and who commits them, researchers have to talk to criminals, and sometimes they have to talk with criminals while the criminals are committing crimes. So how far does a scientist or researcher go before they have an ethical obligation to report the activities of their subjects? Does it depend on the kind of crime or how blatant the offense? And what does law enforcement expect from researchers? We'll look at the controversy over researchers studying crime up close and personal. I'd like to welcome my guests, Erik Fritsvold is professor of sociology at university of San Diego, and coauthor of dorm room dealers, drugs and the privileges of race and class. Erik, welcome to These Days.

ERIK FRITZVOLD: Thanks so much for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Stewart Henry is professor of criminal justice and director of the school of public affairs at San Diego state university. He's also a member of the center for ethics and science in technology, and Stewart, welcome to These Days.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Erik, I'd like to start first talking about the substance of your research project on dorm room dealers. Why did you decide to look at drug use and sales among college students.

ERIK FRITZVOLD: Well, I think I was in a relatively unique position of access in that I had, as the story goes, a long time friend who evolved into a relatively significant life of crime. And he was very affluent and very brash about his business. And when I was a student, studying criminal justice law in society, this presented an opportunity to frankly tell a story that is not told enough in criminology.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what is that story? The over all focus of this particular story and crime?

ERIK FRITZVOLD: The story is about 50 affluent, or uber affluent dealers who sold drugs, despite not needing the money. And they bungled their way through the drug economy for roughly six years, and frankly got to dodge the full ire of the war on drugs. So despite bungling their way through it, the very few people that got caught didn't spend a day in jail, and I thought that was an important story to tell.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: 50 of all, what kinds of drugs?

ERIK FRITZVOLD: Predominantly marijuana, but also significant amounts of ecstasy and cocaine. And surprisingly we also stumbled on a very robust market for prescription drugs, Adderall leading the way.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How much money are we talking about? What level of drug dealing was this and.

ERIK FRITZVOLD: And this was surprising. This was absolutely a surprising finding of of our 50 drug dealers total in the sample, the lowest third were just selling drugs to facilitate their own drug habit. But the upper third started to make significant profits and while not representative of our sample, the highest dealer in the study who got the moniker Diamond by virtue of being the highest dealer on you study was moving somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 of marijuana per week. So we're talking about $150,000 of marijuana per month. Which we entered the scene thinking this was gonna be a story about low level college partying and some deviant behavior, but this turned out to be a story about significant criminality.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So I'm wondering, as you followed this story for the dorm room dealers, as you followed them, and as you say, it started off, well, you know, low level drug dealing and so forth, and it developed into sort of this major drug dealing, what kind of ethical issues developed for you, Erik? Did you think, wow, should I still pursue this research? Should I be telling somebody about this? What thoughts went through your mind when you realized the scope of what you were now dealing with?

ERIK FRITZVOLD: Those were all questions we wrestled with, myself, my colleague and friend, Rafik Mohamed, as well as my mentors at UC Irvine. We wrestled with if we needed to disclose information to authorities, we wrestled where the implications of being on the scene, face-to-face in research. One thing we did have in our corer, was something called a certificate of confidentiality. So in order to get this research, I learned of a bureaucratic labyrinth that I have never seen, a certificate of confidentiality from the department of health and human services. And that provided the researcher and the research team some some.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's very interesting. I've never even heard of such a thing. So how many of these are granted do you understand?

ERIK FRITZVOLD: I don't know. But I suspect very few. I learned about them through the course of this project, and this project only. And I've only read about them rarely, having immersed myself in the criminalogical world for decades. So I think it's an under utilized tool, frankly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Erik Fritzvold. Professor of sociology at the University of San Diego. He's coauthor of Door Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class. And my other guest is Stewart Henry, professor of criminal justice and director of the school of public affairs at San Diego state university. We're talking about the subject of the next center for ethics and science and technology forum of it's do you have to be a criminal to study crime. And Stewart, I'd like to get your perspective on what ethical issues studies like Eric's pose.

STEWART HENRY: Well, floor several. But it particularly affects you as an individual. You certainly have a moral position to basically do no harm. The question is how far can you continue in a piece of research when the content of what you're observing has the potential to harm others in the future? That's a question that's addressed not only by the individual researcher but also by institutional review boards, IRVs, that are set up by universities to review proposed research activity. And the protections that are in place to prevent harm to a variety of people. Whether they're the victims or offenders or the research themselves. Or anyone engaged in the whole practice. The idea that you need this kind of research is, I think, the over riding question. Would we be poorer from a society's point of view of understanding how crime operates if we didn't engage in this direct observation kind of research? And I think the general view, whilst it's always been controversial, the general view is we would be poorer, we'd understand less. And the policies that we generate to allegedly protect society from harms would be less effective if they were based only to the data gathered from nonparticipant forms of research.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Erik, just so we're clear, let me ask you specifically, how involved were you in observing criminal activity as you gathered research for dorm room dealers.

ERIK FRITZVOLD: I guess the frank answer is quite involved. I mean, I personally witnessed probably thousands of drug transactions, all of which occurred peacefully. All of which were described by the primary informant of the study as quote unquote friendly like, which I think is a defining quote of the network. But I did witness thousands of individual criminal acts.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So it wasn't just your interviewing the subjects involved in this activity. It was your being on the keep and seeing how things happened.

ERIK FRITZVOLD: Absolutely it was.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And I'm wandering, how often does this kind of research go on, Stewart?

STEWART HENRY: Well, it goes on all the time. I mean, part of what criminologists and sociologists do is to study interactions between participants in social situations and institutions. And whether they're hidden or formal, this is a significant part of criminological research, in fact, some of the major studies that have been done historically have been those that the data has been gather indeed this kind of way. We know more about why burglars commit their crimes and why robbers commit their crimes by having researchers study them in action than we would if we just counted the numbers that are engaged in, and made assumptions about why they do it want.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us a little bit about the studies that you're referring to? What we've learned from researchers sort of getting in there and seeing what criminals are actually up to?

STEWART HENRY: Right. You can -- well, in studies of buying and selling stolen goods, for example, the age old assumption was that those who engaged in it did it to make money. But somewhat interesting parallels with perhaps the study on drugs that Erik has conducted. When we did the -- the informational research, and hanging out with folks who are engaged in this part time trading in stolen depends, we found that there's a whole lot of motives that were involved nothing to do with money. And in fact, some of these folks actually lost money or it cost them money to participate. They want engaged in it for all kinds of social reasons such as doing favors for friends. The thrill and the excitement of beating the system. Of being in control of their own lives whereas in the work setting, they weren't. And this gave them to be mini entrepreneurs. Making money wasn't the issue. There was one participant who said we do this more for love than money. Love of the engaged activity. That, if you just looked at the standard rational choice model of how you explain crime, the obvious reason fencing goes on is to make money. No, it isn't. For the majority of people who are engaged in it, it's the social status, the prestige, the honor from friends and network this is goes on in those economies that you would never know if you didn't have the engaged observer research.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, part of the ethical dilemma that is inherent in this kind of research is the element of deception. Now, describe it, because there's miles an hour one kind of deception going on in this type of research.

STEWART HENRY: Right, right. Part of the problem is that in order to do be able to do just observation you you have to address the question whether you go in there overtly stating what your purpose is, and getting the the consent of the participants, or that you go in there undercover and covertly engage in observing and documenting and writing about the people that you're interviewing without getting consent or them even knowing about it. Ethnographic research of this kind with criminal offenders or folks who are breaking the law, they reveal some of that information and usually take a role within the situation that they're observing. Well, that role, depending how obvious it is may be concealing the true purpose for them being there. So they're deceiving by simply going in and participating in a role within the setting. And then how much they reveal and to how many people they reveal that becomes part of the question of how much informed consent is being gained from the participants. And it's not easy to -- consider one study that was done on gay bars in England. The study was done with a person getting a job as a bar man who was actually the sociologist doing the study. He revealed it to the owners but everyone who comes into the bar who is part of being observed you're not gonna announce to them, oh, I'm doing a study on gay bars. It would distort the scene so dramatically that what you were observing went be what actually goes on. So you have to have a degree of deception to allow you to fit into the setting without destroying the integrity of the setting it get an understanding of what is really going on.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're discussing the ethical considerations that researchers have when they're studying crime up close and personal. My guests are Erik Fritsvold, he's professor of sociology at USD, and coauthor of dorm room dealers, drugs and the privileges of race and class. And Stewart Henry is with us, he's a member of the center for ethics and science and technology, a professor of criminal justice and director of the school of public affairs at San Diego state university. Let's take a call. Patrick is calling us from San Diego. Gorge, Patrick. Welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I think the conversation is fascinating. I support the research because I don't think law enforcement and public -- people who make public policy have the information or can get the information from some drug dealers themselves. I think there's plenty of drug dealers out there who have gone to prison and have written books about how easy it was to get involved in a life of crime, and dealing drugs, and the immense you want of profits that can be made of but no one takes their accounts seriously because they're drug dealers. So we need to have some kind of academic approach to influence public policy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Patrick, for the call. And I'm wonders Erik, what do you feel was the special access that you had to this? What was special about your interaction that perhaps wouldn't have happened ever the fact interviewing someone who was in prison about why they dealt drugs and so forth? What was so important about being on the scene.

ERIK FRITZVOLD: I think what was so important about being on the scene is that if our job as scientists is to truly inform public debate and if our job as scientists is to truly inform public policy, historically, criminology disproportionately has only told part of the story. In that we focus as Patrick suggested on incarcerated criminals. And maybe they're not the ones we should be studying. Maybe we should be studying the people getting away with it. If our job on the macro level is to inform public debate, criminologists in my opinion could do better reflecting the broader reality of crime. So when I think unique, I think historical accuracy might be a better term. In that we're just -- or the research team was trying to paint a picture of this broader reality of unincarcerated crime.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Erik, you said you got this certificate of confidentiality from the Department of Health and Human Service kind of shielding you in this research, but in general do researchers have any kind of shield laws like journalists have in not having -- not having to disclose necessarily to law enforcement their sources?

ERIK FRITZVOLD: I think the short answer is no.


ERIK FRITZVOLD: I read the relevant statutes for the certificate of confidentiality. It had gone before the no, court of appeals once and was upheld in 1973. But in general, the frank answer is no. And again, I think that's problematic if our goal is to is present the broader reality of crime to the community.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Kelly is calling from the East County. Good morning, Kelly. Welcome to these days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thanks for taking my call. This is a very interesting subject for me because it strikes me very personally. One thing I was wondering about, was, I understand there's a historical study from six years study, but I wonder if they know how far back this goes. I personally knew when I was a young teenager in the '70s, early '70s, of a campus ring on Brown University where two college students were involving high school students in trafficking cocaine, large amounts of cocaine and marijuana, and actually these two Brown University college students are now doctors at mayo clinic. And they basically did not need the money, they came from well to do backgrounds. But they want -- for the very reason that's been spoken about, they wanted the note right, and we actually got into, like, all the fabulous things, rock and can roll bands, we got to party with them and all that because of this, you know, cocaine and marijuana dealing. And the producers of those rock and roll bands would hire these guys particularly to actually service the bands. So I was wondering if you knew how historically, how far back it went.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Thank you for that, Kelly. Do you have any idea how long this has been going on, these dorm room dealers?

ERIK FRITZVOLD: Well, when you look at drug use data and self-reported drug use data from the University of Michigan monitoring the future study and other, clearly the college age group with a lack of traditional responsibilities and a flexible lifestyle has historically for decades had a history of drug use, especially soft drug use, but drug use in general. My research, our research, seems to suggest this wasn't the first affluent drug dealing network centered on a college campus. We absolutely know about another one unearthed during separation southern fall here at San Diego state yesterday. So I think these types of drug networks, I suspect that they've existed largely off the radar of both the public and law enforcement and policy makers for some time despite the uber punitive rhetoric of the war on drugs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, start, I wonder, I asked Erik about the shield laws. If indeed a researcher was doing some investigation, speaking with criminals perhaps being on the scene while criminal activity was under way, and law enforcement came, knocked on their door and said, you know, doctor, professor, we want to know what you know. What position would that researcher be in?

STEWART HENRY: Well, what they'd claim is I need to do this for the benefits of of science and humanity. What would happen -- in fact there's a case currently going on out of the University of Minnesota, and it's a sociology doctoral student who was doing research into animal rights activists, what happened in that situation is exactly as you describe it, with the result that they wanted to get access to the notes and documentation that had been gathered on the activist group. The result was this person -- researcher refused to divulge any information and went to jail as a result. And that can happen. You can actually do jail time just as -- in the case of some journalists too, by not revealing the sources or the information that's available. So you put yourself in an ethically difficult situation depending on the severity of the, I think stream of criminal nature of some of the act firsts that you're researching.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That was going to be my next question. Because I would imagine that while the public in general might give broad latitude to someone who was investigating, let's say a plant that was producing tainted meat products or something like that, the idea of actually studying pedophiles or something that's looked at as an absolutely despicable crime, despicable individuals who engage in this sort of thing, that must pose particularly tenuous situation for the scientist and researcher involved.

STEWART HENRY: Yes, it does. I mean, there's no question about it. That if you know of harms that are offensive to you, at what point do you stop being a whole human being? And at what point do you say for the interests of science, I can conduct this research, when you know that there's gonna be harms coming as a result of it? I think you've gotta be -- you've gotta actually carry the view that you are part of humanity. And if you know in advance that there are serious potential harms that can come of the research, you have an ethical decision to make. The first is, do you do anything to stop it? The second is, do you withdraw from that research scene yourself? I've advised students in teaching qualitative research methods that there are certain areas that they might feel, and it doesn't have to be extreme criminal. It can just be that they find offensive personally morally and ethically, that if they feel that way about the setting, they shouldn't be doing the research. And then to think through what'll happen if they get forced into a situation where they've got a judge, where people are being harmed as a result of it, I don't think we can draw out individual human roles and say lock now into I am a researcher, therefore I am absolved. I think it is a major question but I don't think we can give up that humanity for the sake of research.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'd like to ask you both, do you -- are there or do you think there should be some guidelines that are accepted within the scientific research community in how to go about researching criminal behavior? And Erik, what do you think.

ERIK FRITZVOLD: There are some existing guidelines. While they're not binding in any way, the American sociological association has a code of ethics that provides us as researchers some guidelines on this issue. But I agree with Stewart quite strongly that ultimately this is gonna boil down to a perform, moral ethical comfort revel type discussion, and I can to myself personally it was important to me that this wasn't a predatory crime. While it caused some degree of harm, it wasn't predatory. So that relaxed some of these ethical considerations for me.

STEWART HENRY: Let me just say, there are techniques available for researchers if these kinds of problems are gonna arise whereby they can still get chose to the kind of data they would have gathered by participating. One such is to, albeit, convicted offenders, to take convicted offenders and follow them back to the scenes of where they were thinking through and thinking about engaging in the crime to the point of participating. That's been done with burglars, with robbers in action, to kind out hoe they actually think. So there are all kinds of ways that you can get at that information. But there still comes the ethical question on the end of that, if you're doing that in live settings, how do you deal with that? I think you can -- it's easier sometimes to look at the crimes that generate more deviant titillation and think that's okay, that there's nothing being really seriously challenged or threatened here. When you go into the more serious harms, how many people may have wanted the research from the insider perspective on Bernie Madoff before he produced the kinds of harms that resulted from his actions? And how many researchers would have been on the left side of research saying it's okay to do deviance, but not reveal your sources and not reveal the problem? Would have in that situation of reversed power with the ability to harm gone in there and said hang on, we gotta stop this.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Let's take another call. Manuel is calling us from Jacamba, good morning, Manuel, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, good morning, I wanted to take it from the point that the gentleman just said. As a researcher, the ethics that you utilize when you grapple with them, to what extent they define your determination to proceed the kind of research you're doing? And I'm thinking specifically about the -- in Afghanistan serving the military or undisclosed, and nothing -- for not telling the local people that they are -- for the U.S. military. Where does the researcher draw a line so those ethics tell you that that is something that I adopt to conduct?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that call. And I know this is not exactly what we're talking about, but it's a related subject. There's a plan under way, I know in the psychological and sociological community about what kind of advice sociologists on scene in Afghanistan are giving the U.S. military about how to gratiate themselves with the locals, so to speak. So I wonder if either of you would want to comment on the ethics of that kind of work.


STEWART HENRY: Well, the ethics of embeddedness. How often are you coopted into the system that you're working to study, and how far are you gonna reveal it? It goes back to the base question, to what extent are you gonna engage in a law enforcement activity or support the law enforcement control of the behaviors you're studying? And really it's split anthropology. Right now there are major meetings going on all over the country discussing how anthropologists can be both in the military and observing the military practice.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Exactly. Give us your take on that, Erik.

ERIK FRITZVOLD: It was important to me in the context of my own research, which isn't parallel in many, many ways, they was totally overt with my subjects about not only my intentions but the purpose of the research. So these deception issues and these cooperating with law enforcement issues were ones that I was very uncomfortable with. But it was important it me that I was entirely up front with my subjects and it was important it me to protect their identity, to paint things ambiguously precisely so it couldn't be used against this vulnerable subject.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, I wonder would you have been personally hurt in some way if indeed the subjects you were studying had been busted? If their ring had been shut down and if they'd been arrested?

ERIK FRITZVOLD: Interesting question, and I don't want to give away the end of the book, but at one point, the primary informant of the study, by friend and long time criminal, whose moniker is Bryce, which is Latin for an entrepreneur, was looking at six and a half years in federal prison, and the crescendo of the book details how despite looking at significant law enforcement consequences essentially got a lock. And right now, if he's ever arrested again, he will be arrested as a first time offender 'cause it's not on his record that he was ever arrested for a drug crime, let alone convicted. So again I think it talks about this narrative to the war on drugs. And maybe not targets the war on drugs but maybe antitargets.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the war on drugs. What if any conclusions does this lead us to, the research in your book in.

ERIK FRITZVOLD: I think it paints a vivid and powerful contrast in that we currently have a quarter of our incarcerated population locked up for drugs. 570,000 people that we pay on average $64,000 per year per inmate. So we have a very harsh and punitive history with drug crime. But for some reason, these 50 affluent drug dealers seem to be immune to that harshness in that overwhelmingly there were for yew arrests and when there were arrests, they were able to dodge the full ire of the war on drugs. I think that's one important commentary on the war on drugs, and also it reaffirms what criminologists have known for a long time, despite having a war on drugs since 1972, illegal drug are rampantly available in all circles.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Norm is calling us from imperial beach.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, I have a strong statement to say. First of all in the discipline of sociology, you don't make judgments. And secondly, if you decide to reveal your sources because of some moralistic imperative, then you're nothing but a common spy. That's all you've turned into.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. I would like to get your reaction, Stewart.

STEWART HENRY: Yes, well, I disagree with the caller. I think that you have to make ethical judgments and you can't categorize yourself into being immune from being a think had. And if we had a world full of people doing the kind of research that would absolve us from that, I think that would be harm producing in and of itself for the whole range of people involved. We've seen historically a shift, let's be fair about this, there's been a shift from the 60s and '70s, where there was very little IRB oversight, or it didn't exist in this kind of research. We've seen early experiments like milligram's research, which produced incredible insights into how ordinary people can exercise harm over others knowingly with science giving that information. So we -- but in recent years through the '80s, it's become increasingly difficult to do that. In fact, the guidelines that are put out by the professional association for research, they have really shifted to a position where they oppose covert research. They oppose the undercover research that is described as deceptive. Yes, it is those very sorts of studies that in the past have produced some incredible insights. So I think you need to do it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Erik Fritsvold, your book, dorm room dealers, drugs, and the privileges of race and class. And Stewart Henry, professor of criminal justice and director of the school of public affairs at San Diego state university. Thank you both for speaking with us today. I appreciate it.


ERIK FRITZVOLD: Thank you very much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If you'd like to post a comment, go on-line, Days. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.