The Perp Walk: Shame Matters

By

Leonard Zwelling

There’s a lot of this going around right now. That’s a good thing. It’s important.

People being people, they are bound to do bad things. It is not for me to say whether anyone accused of, found guilty of, or admitting to committing a crime is a bad person. Just that they did a bad thing.

So what’s the point of punishment?

Is it revenge? I guess a little, but that’s a pretty bad reason to send someone to jail or hit them with a huge and bankrupting fine.

Is it to punish them for doing a bad thing? Yes, it is. For stealing all that money you are going to sit in a cell for a while. That’s a good reason to punish. Make the person think about what he or she has done and make it likely that he or she won’t do it again.

But what about the societal benefit of the criminal justice system?

Well, one thing it does is get the perpetrator off the street. That’s good. But there is one other aspect of crime and punishment, law and order, that is required. The punishment ought to act as a deterrent to others who might consider doing the wrong thing themselves.

One good way to do that is the perp walk. This is where the police or law enforcement agents march the arrested perpetrator out of their home or place of business and into a court of law for arraignment while the perp tries in vain to cover his or her face with a newspaper or overcoat with their hands cuffed. The mob has the perp walk down to an art form.

We have just seen the modern equivalent of the academic perp walk in New York City when Jose Baselga was fired from his lofty and well-compensated position at Memorial Sloan Kettering for various violations of conflict of interest rules. I wonder how much drug company stock was sold by MSKCC faculty the following week, don’t you? I’ll bet everyone checked his or her disclosure forms and the footnotes of every paper submitted to a medical journal in the past five years.

I bring this up in the context of a recent email exchange I had in which I was informed that there were some number of people at MD Anderson fired for violations of the local conflict of interest rules, but that their identities and reasons for dismissal were kept under wraps. What the hell good does that do? Little.

The perp walk of shame is an important contributor to the deterrence component of law enforcement of all kinds. If people have violated the MD Anderson policy on conflict of interest (like the immediate past president, for example), this should be made known to one and all and their punishment well publicized. It’s no deterrent if no one knows. And given the propensity of the last administration at Anderson to march people out of the building, I can’t imagine why they displayed such temerity here unless it was because of the duplicitousness in which these cases were handled compared to that of Dr. DePinho.

The perp walk is important. If people at Anderson have knowingly violated the conflict of interest policy in the Handbook then they should have a fair hearing and if found guilty ought to be publicly dismissed. If you want to stop this nonsense, do so.

The integrity and credibility of academic scientific findings depends upon the public’s belief that the conclusions were arrived at in an unbiased fashion with the only interest of the investigator being the truth of the science. When money enters the picture, everything changes and a faculty member’s objectivity may be the first thing to go. There is no managing conflict of interest. Either it’s there or it’s not. If the rules governing faculty behavior are violated, there are processes to deal with them, but public knowledge is part of the process. Not only is the science better, trust is restored.

Leonard Zwelling