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Osagie K. Obasogie, JD, PhD

Home Institution: University of California, Berkeley, School of Law with joint appointment in the Joint Medical Program and School of Public Health

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Current Positions:

My Driving Question

How does law shape health outcomes, and how can we use law to improve public health?

Scholar Project 

Since the killing of George Floyd and the social upheavals that followed, there has been increasing awareness that police and policing can adversely impact health outcomes. Both the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association have adopted policies acknowledging that police use of force is a public health crisis, given the grave consequences of such brutality–particularly for Black and Brown people. But more work is needed to understand not only the harm that policing does, but also how professionals in science and medicine sometimes participate in policing strategies that hurt communities.

Dr. Obasogie is working on two book projects that explore this. The first project draws inspiration from a case in Northern California where a DNA database search almost led to the wrongful conviction of an innocent man. The science behind DNA databases used in criminal investigations is a black box that is assumed to be a foolproof way to identify people who commit crimes. The truth is a bit more complicated, and the scientists who collaborate with law enforcement on these matters often are not as forthcoming about these limitations as one might expect. This case is a dramatic example of how a lack of transparency by science professionals can lead to the unjust incarceration–and perhaps even execution–of innocent people. Through the twists and turns of this remarkable story, the book makes the case for better ethical standards in the field and democratic oversight of these practices.

The second project looks at the issue of ‘excited delirium’ and how it is used in matters pertaining to policing. Since the 1980s, excited delirium has increasingly been offered as a medical explanation for why some people might die unexpectedly while in police custody. Excited delirium is thought to be an illness that can lead people to become extremely confused, highly agitated, and aggressive–so much so that the stress from this condition is believed to lead those who suffer from it to simply die, on their own, with no one at fault. It has not only been used by police officers to justify using force on seemingly dangerous and uncontrollable bodies, but has also been routinely deployed by coroners, medical examiners, and forensic pathologists to suggest that the physical toll of this psychiatric problem–not force used by police–causes these untimely deaths. In short, this medical diagnosis is playing a significant role in legal determinations concerning in-custody deaths to give the aura of medical legitimacy to the idea that these are blameless tragedies caused by decedents’ own psychiatric illnesses.

There’s just one problem: excited delirium does not seem to exist. There is little scientific evidence to support the idea, and some medical associations have denounced it. So, why is this diagnosis still used by police officers, physicians, and other medical professionals to explain how and why some people die in police custody? This book will tell the story of the emergence of this medical diagnosis, the impact it has had on policing, and how it has undermined justice and accountability in communities across America.

Biography 

Osagie K. Obasogie is the Haas Distinguished Chair and Professor of Law at the University of Califorina, Berkeley School of Law with a joint appointment in the Joint Medical Program and School of Public Health. He is also Co-Director of the Berkley Center for Law and Technology. Dr. Obasogie’s interests include understanding how law and public policy can be used to reduce health disparities and prevent adverse health outcomes across a variety of domains, from policing to reproductive and genetic technologies. 

His current work examines the role of science, medicine, and medical professionals in hindering the ability to hold police officers accountable when they use excessive force; analyzes the legacy of the American eugenics movement and its contemporary impact on law, science, medicine, and technology; studies how legal doctrine produces police violence; and exposes the often overlooked limitations of DNA databases when they are used in criminal investigations.

His publications include articles in journals such as the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Virginia Law Review, Southern California Law Review, Cornell Law Review, California Law Review, and Law & Society Review and commentaries in outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and New Scientist. Dr. Obasogie’s first book, Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind, was awarded the Herbert Jacob Book Prize by the Law and Society Association. His second book, Beyond Bioethics: Toward a New Biopolitics, co-edited with Marcy Darnovsky, explores the past, present, and future of bioethics. 

Dr. Obasogie received his BA in Sociology and Political Science from Yale University, his JD from Columbia Law School where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, and his PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley where he was a fellow with the National Science Foundation. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. 

Education and Training
  • PhD, Sociology, University of California, Berkeley
  • JD, Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, Columbia Law School
  • BA, Sociology (Intensive) and Political Science, with distinction in the major, Yale University
Selected Honors
  • Elected Member, National Academy of Medicine
  • Guggenheim Fellowship, 2022
  • Distinguished Faculty Mentor Award, UC Berkeley, 2019
  • Distinguished Book Award (Honorable Mention), Sociology of Law section of American Sociological Association, 2016
  • Herbert Jacob Book Prize, Law & Society Association, 2015
  • 18th Annual Independent Publisher Book Awards, Bronze Medal, 2014
  • UC Hastings Foundation Award for Faculty Scholarship, 2012
  • Emerging Scholar Award, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 2012
  • John Hope Franklin Award, Law & Society Association, 2011
Selected Publications

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is some debate about whether people always experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.