Al Capone's Network, the Criminal Gender Gap and Police Shootings

Iconic Chicago crime boss Al Capone is more often the subject of film, fiction and true crime stories than social science research. But for Assistant Professor Chris Smith, the gangster known as “Scarface” provides a window into criminal and other social networks.

“I’m answering classic sociological questions about how groups form, how groups change, how is inequality perpetuated, but I’m using a really interesting case. It’s kind of a fun way to do sociology,” she said.

Smith has been interested in criminology and Al Capone’s Chicago since graduate school, when she helped her mentor map Capone’s Prohibition-era criminal network using old arrest records. She sees the network as a jumping off point to study more fundamental sociological questions about criminal networks and inequality in crime that apply as much to today as they do during Prohibition.

A lot of her research on Capone's network has focused on multiplexity, the small but important overlap in personal, professional, and criminal relationships between the people involved. She found that these relationships are the glue that holds the criminal networks together because of how these people depend on one another. She hopes this will shed light on how criminal networks form and how they function.

Inequality in crimeThe Chicago gangster walking with a number of men

However, her biggest puzzle is the gender gap in crime. Before Prohibition, women made up 18 percent of organized crime, versus only 4 percent during Prohibition, when women started gaining more rights. This gender gap persists today as well. Only 27 percent of all arrests in the U.S. are women and they make up just 9 percent of the country’s total prison population. “We don’t have a good explanation for it,” said Smith. “I find it completely fascinating, and it’s a question that I wake up in the morning and I’m excited to explain. I get excited just thinking about it.” 

Smith explores other aspects of inequality in crime as well. Crime is both an outcome and a cause of inequality—victims of crime are statistically worse off, and those born into disadvantaged lives are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. There is also inequality within criminal networks, as some members have bigger criminal opportunities than others, and criminal participation can vary between economic classes, neighborhoods, and ethnic or racial groups.

Investigating police shootings

Smith’s other big project is creating a database about police shootings in the U.S. She and her team have been compiling and cataloging more than 11,500 newspaper articles about police shootings nationwide during 2015. She wants to compare three scenarios in “threatening interactions” between the police and citizens—when an officer shoots fatally, when an officer shoots non-fatally, and when the officer doesn’t shoot to determine what factors might go into the officer’s decision-making. Though the data is still being recorded, Smith's team so far has found that about 18 percent of all threatening interactions end in a civilian fatality. While the number of white civilians killed or injured is larger, threatening interactions with black civilians turn violent at a much higher rate.

“It’s both really timely and it’s something people are really talking about in this political moment,” said graduate student Matthew Thompson, who has worked with Smith on the project for the last two years. “There’s so many avenues with the dataset that we’re building that should be very fruitful for us.”

First-gen faculty

A first-generation college student, Smith earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She took an indirect path back to the academic world, teaching English for two years in Ukraine with the Peace Corps. She also taught English in Thailand and the Czech Republic before being attending graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

She joined UC Davis in 2015, fresh out of her doctoral program, opting to stay in the academic world because it offered her more autonomy to pursue her research interests. UC Davis’ research focus and high-ranking sociology department made her decision to accept an assistant professor position easy. “The questions that UC Davis asked me about my research [in the interview] were the most exciting and I was like, ‘I need to be in sociology,’” she said.

She teaches “Criminology” (SOC 150), “The Criminal Justice System” (SOC 151), an undergraduate seminar on gender and crime (SOC 195), and a graduate seminar on social network analysis (SOC 295).

Her classes focus on using group work to develop ideas for individual data-based projects that students present at the end of the quarter. Thompson, who has been a teaching assistant for Smith’s criminology course, says it gets better every quarter. “Students keep saying that [presentation day] is one of the best days they’ve had in the classroom, so that’s really fun,” he said.

Smith spends her free time with her wife, a sociology professor at UC Merced. They enjoy camping, going on road trips, and visiting family and friends from around the country, but life can be hectic for the academic couple. “In summer, we want to do all these things,” she said, “but we still have papers that we’re working on and so it’s like, ‘Yeah, road trip! Let’s go find a Panera where we can go write for two hours before we drive to our next destination!’”

Despite the stress, Smith loves her job. “I get to do work that I find to be really meaningful,” she said. “There’s pressure, but at the end of the day, I’m reading about Al Capone and the women involved around him.”

— Noah Pflueger-Peters (B.A., English, ’17)