Cops, Criminals, and Corpulence: Weighty Matters in Criminology

Posted on April 18, 2012 by


Image: CrimeCents

“The social costs of obesity may be overstated if obesity reduces the likelihood of arrest because the obese are less criminally active.” I read a lot of academic work in criminology, and few peer-reviewed sentences cause me to laugh out loud. That line from an article by Kalist and Siahaan generated a belly laugh.

Their work is an examination of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, and they do, indeed, find that the overweight are less likely to be arrested.  If that generates food for thought, then consider this next morsel: does the relatively leaner status of arrestees demand that cops be similarly fit?

We could make a real meal out of the research on this topic. You can find studies that link the problems of shift work and law enforcement to increased “metabolic syndrome.” Or you can find research looking at obesity and white blood cells in cops. Or even blood pressure in first responders.

But before you munch on those appetizing questions, let’s stop and consider for a moment. Is it really sensible to worry about the relative obesity in criminal and law enforcement populations? Is Kalist and Siahaan’s claim about the social cost of obesity and crime something to take seriously? I think not. Not all correlations have causal relationships, and not even all causal relationships are worth pursuing.

Granted, crime theory does a poor job of explaining crime writ large, but that’s not an excuse to start a data mining feeding frenzy. Fancy numbers will never be able to compensate for a lack of clear thinking, and these claims suggesting that obesity leads to prosocial (read: noncriminal) behavior are just too indulgent.

If we care about obesity in criminal justice, we should probably limit ourselves to these areas of inquiry:

1) To what extent does job stress affect criminal justice professionals leading to poor health outcomes like obesity?

2) To what extent are training and physical fitness requirements for law enforcement officers linked directly to necessary job skills as opposed to functioning as effective hiring discrimination?

3) What is the responsibility of correctional facilities in preventing and treating obesity among inmates?

If you can think of other legitimate research questions about crime and obesity, feel free to share them in the comments. As for me, I’m just pondering what to pair with liver and fava beans. I believe someone suggested a nice Chianti?