By Gwyneth K. Shaw
Berkeley Law is on one end of the UC Berkeley Campus, the university’s School of Public Health on the other. Just a mile separates them physically, but the distance between law and medicine is often yawning.
Professor Osagie K. Obasogie, the newest member of the Berkeley Law faculty, is aiming to change that. As the Haas Distinguished Chair and only faculty member jointly appointed at both schools — he joined the Joint Medical Program and School of Public Health in 2016 — Obasogie is looking forward to building bridges between students and faculty in both places.
He’s especially enthused about bringing critical conversations around medicine, science, and technology to the law school.
“I think it’s particularly important in this moment, when we are still battling a pandemic and there is also greater awareness of how police use of force can threaten public health,” he says. “Law can be an important tool to combat these challenges. But in order for this to happen, we have to think creatively and try to create synergies between law, medicine, and public health.
“I’m excited to help bring these conversations to the forefront.”
Obasogie joins Professors Jennifer Chacón and Jonathan Glater as this year’s new additions to the Berkeley Law faculty, among nearly two dozen hires since 2017.
“I am delighted that Osagie Obasogie is joining the Law School faculty,” Dean Erwin Chemerinsky says. “He is an outstanding teacher and scholar, including in the field of health and the law. He will provide us needed expertise in this area, as well as helping us to build a close relationship with the School of Public Health.”
Obasogie earned his law degree at Columbia and his Ph.D. in sociology at Berkeley. He taught at the UC Hastings College of Law before he was recruited to the School of Public Health as part of its Joint Medical Program with UCSF.
As a sociologist of law and medicine, Obasogie’s research combines doctrinal scholarship with empirical methods and novel theoretical approaches to understand the ways race is central to how the institutions of law and medicine operate.
“Both law and medicine have historically shared a perspective that they are neutral and objective endeavors that exist outside of politics and ideology, particularly when it comes to understanding the causes and consequences of racial inequalities,” he says. “Much of my research examines how law and medicine are not apolitical, but rather deeply constituted by our long history of racial injustice.
“Once we have a better understanding of how race and racism have shaped law and medicine, we can begin to have conversations about how to fix the inequities perpetuated by these institutions.”
Obasogie is the author of Blinded By Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind and co-editor of Beyond Bioethics: Toward a New Biopolitics. In recent years, as the long string of police violence has drawn new and more critical scrutiny, his scholarship has turned toward examining police use of force, and how medical professionals sometimes use their position and expertise to obstruct efforts to hold officers accountable when they cross the line.
One article, published in the Cornell Law Review with co-author Zachary Newman, analyzed the use-of-force policies of the 75 largest American cities. The authors found that the rubrics reinforced, rather than clarified, the ambiguity embedded in the Fourth Amendment about what might constitute “reasonable” force. This ambiguity often leads federal courts that review claims concerning excessive use of force to defer to police understandings of what type of force is “reasonable” — leaving victims without much recourse.
Another paper, forthcoming in the Virginia Law Review, considers an example of how science and medicine can be deployed to absolve police of responsibility when they use excessive force. Obasogie looks at the idea of “excited delirium,” a vague and controversial term often used by medical examiners and coroners to explain why community members die in police custody.
Excited delirium is thought to be a psychiatric problem that can lead people to become so agitated that they die spontaneously, and it’s often used to suggest that the condition — and not the police use of force — causes in-custody deaths. Obasogie finds little in the scientific literature to support that claim.
In fact, he finds that when excited delirium is used to explain in-custody deaths that there is often strong evidence that a police officer used inappropriate force. Yet the “condition” has been invoked in a number of police violence cases, including last year’s murder of George Floyd.
“This work highlights how law and medicine can come together to obscure police violence to make in-custody deaths seem like unpredictable and blameless tragedies rather than a foreseeable part of the routine use of force by police,” Obasogie says. “This allows police violence to persist with little accountability, which is why it’s important to think across domains to understand how medicine is part of the problem and needs to be part of the solution.”
The article reflects Obasogie’s commitment to interdisciplinary legal scholarship. It places doctrinal critiques and empirical methods in conversation with historical and theoretical frameworks that help contextualize this complicated issue. Using any one of those approaches, he says, doesn’t quite get to the heart of the question at hand.
“But when all of these approaches are brought together, we can better understand how a term like ‘excited delirium’ is deployed by legal and medical professionals — often at the expense of communities of color,” he says.
That expansive toolbox will be also an asset to Obasogie’s role as part of Berkeley Law’s interdisciplinary Ph.D.-granting Jurisprudence and Social Policy (JSP) program. The program has a long tradition of bringing social scientists from many fields together to train new generations of legal scholars.
“There’s nothing quite like JSP anywhere in the country,” Obasogie says. “Students and faculty are drawing upon diverse intellectual traditions and methodological approaches in the social sciences to produce robust legal scholarship that engages many important issues of our time.”
With Berkeley Law’s indelible commitment to its public mission, and a faculty and student body long known for scholarship and advocacy on big, difficult issues around racial and criminal justice, the school is a thrilling place to be, he says.
“I am so excited to join such an excellent faculty — one that not only is engaged in high-level scholarship but also deeply committed to making the world a better place,” he says. “Becoming a part of this extraordinary community of students, faculty, and staff is a tremendous opportunity, and I’m really blessed to have the chance to collaborate with my new colleagues.”