Home Institution: University of California, Berkeley, School of Law with joint appointment in the Joint Medical Program and School of Public Health
My Driving Question
How does law shape health outcomes, and how can we use law to improve public health?
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.
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
- 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
Blinded By Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind, Stanford University Press, 2013
Beyond Bioethics: Toward a New Biopolitics, with Marcy Darnovsky, University of California Press, 2018
Excited Delirium and Police Use of Force, Virginia Law Review, 2021
- See articles & papers on PubMed