Gang “homicides spread like infectious disease”; other homicides do not

A new study adds to the social network analysis of gang activity by comparing clusters of gang homicides to other kinds of homicides:

Using police data from Newark, New Jersey, Zeoli and fellow MSU researchers Sue Grady, Jesenia Pizarro and Chris Melde were the first to show, in 2012, that homicide spreads like infectious disease. Similar to the flu, homicide needs a susceptible population, an infectious agent and a vector to spread. (The infectious agent could be the code of the street – i.e., guarding one’s respect at all cost, including by resorting to violence – while the vector could be word of mouth or other publicity, Zeoli said.)With the new study, the interdisciplinary team of researchers analyzed the Newark data to gauge whether specific types of homicide cluster and spread differently. In addition to gang-related murders, the researchers looked at homicide motives such as robbery, revenge, domestic violence and drugs. These other motive types were not directly connected to gang participation.

The study found that the various homicide types do, in fact, show different patterns. Homicides stemming from domestic violence and robberies, for example, show no signs of clustering or spreading out.

Gang-related killings were the only type of homicide that spread in a systematic pattern. Specifically, there were four contiguous clusters of gang-related homicides that started in central Newark and moved roughly clockwise from July 2002 through December 2005.

Such findings, adding to previous research showing a relatively small cluster of gang members in a big city can be responsible for a large number of homicides, should help lead to better prevention and policing efforts. All homicide is not alike as the root causes and people involved can differ.

Two other things are interesting about this coverage:

1. The medical analogy – an infectious disease that needs to be cured – is likely to be appealing to a broad number of people. This might work better than the rhetoric of needing to find the killers and lock them up.

2. The headline of the story is “Can sociology predict gang killings?” and one quote in the story might provide evidence for this: “Taken together, this provides one piece of the puzzle that may allow us to start forecasting where homicide is going to be the worst – and that may be preceded in large part by changes in gang networks.” However, forecasting where homicides are more likely to happen is not exactly the same as predicting gang killings.

Chicago crime stats: beware the “official” data in recent years

Chicago has a fascinating look at some interesting choices made about how to classify homicides in Chicago – with the goal of trying to reduce the murder count.

For the case of Tiara Groves is not an isolated one. Chicago conducted a 12-month examination of the Chicago Police Department’s crime statistics going back several years, poring through public and internal police records and interviewing crime victims, criminologists, and police sources of various ranks. We identified 10 people, including Groves, who were beaten, burned, suffocated, or shot to death in 2013 and whose cases were reclassified as death investigations, downgraded to more minor crimes, or even closed as noncriminal incidents—all for illogical or, at best, unclear reasons…

Many officers of different ranks and from different parts of the city recounted instances in which they were asked or pressured by their superiors to reclassify their incident reports or in which their reports were changed by some invisible hand. One detective refers to the “magic ink”: the power to make a case disappear. Says another: “The rank and file don’t agree with what’s going on. The powers that be are making the changes.”

Granted, a few dozen crimes constitute a tiny percentage of the more than 300,000 reported in Chicago last year. But sources describe a practice that has become widespread at the same time that top police brass have become fixated on demonstrating improvement in Chicago’s woeful crime statistics.

And has there ever been improvement. Aside from homicides, which soared in 2012, the drop in crime since Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy arrived in May 2011 is unprecedented—and, some of his detractors say, unbelievable. Crime hasn’t just fallen, it has freefallen: across the city and across all major categories.

Two quick thoughts:

1. “Official” statistics are often taken for granted and it is assumed that they measure what they say they measure. This is not necessarily the case. All statistics have to be operationalized, taken from a more conceptual form into something that can be measured. Murder seems fairly clear-cut but as the article notes, there is room for different people to classify things differently.

2. Fiddling with the statistics is not right but, at the same time, we should consider the circumstances within which this takes place. Why exactly does the murder count – the number itself – matter so much? Are we more concerned about the numbers or the people and communities involved? How happy should we be that the number of murders was once over 500 and now is closer to 400? Numerous parties mentioned in this article want to see progress: aldermen, the mayor, the police chief, the media, the general public. Is progress simply reducing the crime rate or rebuilding neighborhoods? In other words, we might consider whether the absence of major crimes is the best end goal here.

It’s not just bad that murders are up in Chicago; it is also that murders are still falling in other major cities

While murders in Chicago are up in 2012, murders continue to fall in other big cities:

Jack Levin, a sociology and criminology professor at Boston’s Northeastern University, says it’s troubling that Chicago’s murder count is rising while it falls in other major cities. In 2010, Los Angeles had 297 murders, the lowest since 1967. New York homicides have been declining since 1990, when a record 2,245 fell in the nation’s largest city.

The rest of the article then discusses what might be done in Chicago.

However, why not put this in a more comparative perspective? In other words, just how unique is Chicago compared to other places? As an urban sociologist, this is an interesting if more broad question: are the major US cities more similar or more different? Putting it differently, what is so unique about Chicago that leads to the occurrence of more murders? Chicagoans themselves, and probably also residents of other major cities, may think their city is ultimately unique and not replicable elsewhere. Yes, major cities differ on a variety of factors but they also share some common characteristics such as social complexity, pockets of wealth and poverty, the strong presence of gangs, large (and occasionally problematic) police forces, and politicians who want to reduce the crime rate to make the city safer, protect kids, burnish the city’s image, and help promote economic growth. Is there anything Chicago could learn from elsewhere in order to reduce the murder rate?


Sociologist: 70% of murders in two high-crime Chicago neighborhoods tied to social network of 1,600 people

Social networks can be part of more nefarious activities: sociologist Andrew Papachristos looked at two high-crime Chicago neighborhoods and found that a majority of the murders involved a small percentage of the population.

Papachristos looked at murders that occurred between 2005 and 2010 in West Garfield Park and North Lawndale, two low-income West Side neighborhoods. Over that period, Papachristos found that 191 people in those neighborhoods were killed.

Murder occasionally is random, but, more often, he found, the victims have links either to their killers or to others linked to the killers. Seventy percent of the killings he studied occurred within what Papachristos determined was a social network of only about 1,600 people — out of a population in those neighborhoods of about 80,000.

Each person in that network of 1,600 people had been arrested at some point with at least one other person in the same network.

For those inside the network, the risk of being murdered, Papachristos found, was about 30 out of 1,000. In contrast, the risk of getting killed for others in those neighborhoods was less than one in 1,000.

On one hand, this isn’t too surprising, especially considering the prevalence of gangs. At the same time, these numbers of striking: if a resident is in this small network, their risk of being murdered jumps 3000%.

I would be interested to know how closely the Chicago Police have mapped social networks like these. Do they use special social network software that helps them visualize the network and see nodes? Indeed, the article suggests the police are doing something like this:

Now, he wants to tap the same social networking analysis techniques that Papachristos, the Yale sociologist, developed to identify potential shooting victims, only McCarthy wants to use it to identify potential killers.

Police brass will cross-reference murder victims and killers with their known associates — the people projected as most likely to be involved in future shootings.

“Hot people,” McCarthy calls them.

Those deemed most likely to commit violence will be targeted first: parolees and people who have outstanding arrest warrants.

McCarthy said his staff estimates there are 26,000 “hot people” living in Chicago.

It would also be worthwhile to see how effective such strategies are. This isn’t the first time that organizations/agencies have tried to identify at-risk individuals. So how effective is it in the long run?

Perceptions of crime even as the top 15 most common causes of death no longer includes homicide

I’ve noted before (see here and here) that perceptions of crime do not match the actual falling numbers. Here is more good news on the crime front: homicide has dropped off the list of the United State’s top 15 causes of death.

For the first time in almost half a century, homicide has fallen off the list of the nation’s top 15 causes of death, bumped by a lung illness that often develops in elderly people who have choked on their food.

The 2010 list, released by the government Wednesday, reflects at least two major trends: Murders are down, and deaths from certain diseases are on the rise as the population ages, health authorities said…

This is the first time since 1965 that homicide failed to make the list, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…

Murders have been declining nationally since 2006, according to FBI statistics. Falling homicide rates have been celebrated in several major cities, including New York City, Detroit and Washington.

To play a contrarian for a moment, perhaps things still aren’t great: there are still a lot of murders happening (there were still just over 16,000 in 2010 and homicide is still #16 on the list); perhaps the drop homicide from this list is more of a function of other diseases claiming more lives; and perhaps we wouldn’t usually think of murder as being a top killer (it is far away from the figures for heart disease and malignant neoplasms).

At the same time, this is good news as the number of murders dropped. Yet, Americans might perceive that they are more at risk from violent attacks than some of the leading causes of death. While the media might report on the drop in violent crime, the overall story still seems to be that crime happens frequently and could happen to you.

h/t Instapundit

Assassination, Gaddafi, and Bin Laden

Instapundit recently posted about how there has been general support for the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Being involved in assassinations is a tricky area for the United States, particularly since we were implicated in some nefarious activity back in the 1950s through the 1970s (see the Church Committee report of 1975). Here how this has played out in recent days:

1. The recent attack on Gaddafi was intended to kill the Libyan leader. This is not the first time the US has attempted this with the earlier efforts coming in a bombing attack in 1986. This would seem to fit the classic definition of assassination: the killing of a foreign leader when his actions against the United States were not part of a larger war.

2. The recent killing of Bin Laden is being called an assassination by some but doesn’t seem to be in the same category. Bin Laden was not a political leader and I’m sure he had been named something like an “enemy combatant” by the United States. Because he was killed as part of a war effort (the “war on terror”) and he wasn’t a politician, this isn’t really an assassination. The problem comes in here when the media talks about assassinations as any attack on a prominent person. Not all such attacks are assassinations.

In both of these cases, people have made the argument that killing “the head” of the organization (al Qaeda or Libya) would be better than fighting a more traditional war. Perhaps so – but such actions might be against international law (see a quick discussion of the ambiguities here). And whether the killing of one person actually gets rid of larger, structural problems is another matter (witness the case of Iraq and the death of Saddam Hussein).

I recently thought of an example that illustrates some of the problems with assassinations or “targeted killings”: imagine that a foreign leader called for the killing of President Obama because of US actions around the world. I imagine that we would be fairly outraged: how dare another country threaten our voted-in leader. But is this much different than NATO leaders openly discussing killing Gaddafi?

Quick Review: The Devil in the White City

I’m not sure what took so long for me to read The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. I have had it on my shelf for years and it revolves around the 1893 Columbian exposition in Chicago, a topic that is greatly appealing to me. Here are some thoughts about this book that tells the story of both violence and urban history:

1. The setting of the Columbian Exposition is fascinating. The amount of planning and work that had to be carried out in order to transform Jackson Park, then a outlying and relatively unimproved area on the South Side of Chicago, was tremendous. There are certain moments in history that I wish I could have been a part of: attending this fair at its peak (late summer/early fall 1893) would have been fantastic.

2. I’m less certain that the mixing of these two stories, a murderer named Holmes plus the building and holding of this fair, was done well. Early on in the book, we know that Holmes is a murderer and the details trickle out throughout the rest of the text. This is a difficult task to accomplish: it is hard to be a murder story when we already know who did it. But Holmes’ particular story and end is still intriguing. I’m not sure exactly what the contrast between these two stories is supposed to be: the best of human accomplishment (the exposition) plus the darkest part of humanity (Holmes)? The murder illustrates the difficult settings in which the exposition had to be organized? Both events are meant to provide a portrayal of the City of Chicago, a rapidly changing and growing place at this time?

3. Daniel Burnham is a main character in this text as he moves from being a co-chairman of the exposition to the full director/czar. While we learn about his struggles in putting together the fair (and his triumph in having a successful fair), we don’t learn all that much about his architecture, planning, or what makes him tick. Burnham is a renowned figure in Chicago but I wish to have learned more about him.

4. There are a couple of interesting struggles in this book: between New York and Chicago and between the elites/professionals of Chicago and the working/lower classes. Regarding the cities, the book plays up the angle that this exposition was the opportunity for Chicago to show that it could compete with New York. In fact, New Yorkers did not think Chicago could pull it off. Chicago in this time was the upstart, the place with what seemed like unlimited potential. New York was seriously concerned about this and the growth of Chicago prompted New York a few years after this fair to annex more territory and develop its five boroughs system. What is lost in some of this is some of the big Chicago boosters in its early decades were Easterners themselves. In regard to social class, there is some mention here and there about labor struggles. But perhaps this could have been the other story instead of the murder plot line: as the elite of Chicago put together this marvelous fair to showcase their city, the city was roiling with an influx of laborers and labor unrest. The Haymarket event had taken place in 1886. And yet, this fair was intended to bring Chicago together in a way that had not occurred in previous decades. There is an interesting chapter toward the end about the aftermath of the exposition: the impression is that life went back to its bleak normalcy in the big city rather quickly.

5. Did this exposition really change America? I’m skeptical. The Ferris Wheel is an interesting invention, but ultimately a diversion. The buildings were impressive – but similar style and size can be found elsewhere. This exposition was certainly consequential for Chicago, cementing it is a world class city. The exposition also brought together an incredible variety of well-known people. But what is its lasting legacy?

On the whole, I enjoyed reading this book. The setting is interesting and the myriad of storylines is engaging. But it is hard to know what it all means. As a mix of history and story, this book is entertaining but lacks depth and significance.

Celebration, Florida, built by Disney, has first murder

Many suburbs rarely experience a murder. In fact, many suburban residents might give this as a reason for moving into these communities: the crime, particularly serious crimes, is limited. So when a murder is committed in a model community, particularly one built by Disney, it will receive attention.

Here is a quick summary of what happened in Celebration, Florida:

Residents of the town five miles south of Walt Disney World woke up Tuesday to the sight of yellow crime-scene tape wrapped around a condo near the Christmas-decorated downtown, where Bing Crosby croons from speakers hidden in the foliage. A 58-year-old neighbor who lived alone with his Chihuahua had been slain over the long Thanksgiving weekend, Osceola County sheriff’s deputies said.

What is interesting to note is how the rest of the story describes Celebration. Some of the commentary is what you would expect from any wealthy suburb: this was an isolated incident, this sort of stuff doesn’t happen in the community, and the residents shouldn’t worry. But here a few pieces of the description about the uniqueness of Celebration:

The killing sullies the type of perfection envisioned in 1989 when Peter Rummell, then-president of the Disney Development Corp., wrote to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner about building a new town on vacant, Disney-owned land in Osceola County.

The community would be a “wonderful residential town east of I-4 that has a human scale with sidewalks and bicycles and parks and the kind of architecture that is sophisticated and timeless. It will have fiber optics and smart houses, but the feel will in many cases be closer to Main Street than to Future World,” Rummell wrote in the letter.

Houses incorporated “New Urbanism” ideas such as placing the garage out of sight in the back and a front porch close to the sidewalk to encourage neighbor interaction. Restrictions on home color and architectural details also were in the community’s rulebook. Colonial, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts-style homes grace the streets; the downtown is a mix of postmodern buildings and stucco condos.

Residents arrived in 1996. Critics viewed it as something out of “The Truman Show,” or “The Stepford Wives.”

Fans saw other things. A return to small-town values. A walkable community. Safety.

So this is the media story: the murder that took place in the “perfect Disney town” (as the link on the Chicago Tribune’s front page suggests). A few thoughts of mine about this:

1. Celebration receives a lot of attention due to who created it and how it was created. Is there a point where this will become just another community?

2. No community is “perfect,” even one created by a company like Disney which sells its products based on this idea of joy and magic. The same AP story lists some of the problems from recent years including graffiti and a recent day when the local school was on lockdown.

3. Suburbs or small towns are not immune to crime, even of this magnitude.

4. It will be interesting to see how this story affects the marketing of the community.

5. This seems like an illustration for all suburbia: crimes like this can upset people’s feelings and attitudes toward places that they once considered perfect and safe.

Seeing murder as part of a series of social exchanges

Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic quotes a summary of a recent study in American Sociological Review. The study views murders as part of a larger system of social exchanges between gangs:

In a remarkable 2010 study published in the American Journal of Sociology, academic Andrew Papachristos took these findings to their logical conclusion and conceptualised each murder over a three-year period in Chicago as a social interaction between groups. Surprisingly, the pattern of homicides resembled an exchange of gifts. One gang ‘presents’ a murder to another, and that group must reciprocate the ‘gift’ or risk losing their social status in the criminal underworld. From this perspective, murder is perhaps the purest of social exchanges as the individual is left in no position to reciprocate on his own.

An interesting take that limits the role of individuals in the process.

Would this apply to other crimes as well?

Calculating the costs associated with a murder

Whenever I see a researcher or lawyer put a dollar figure on a certain act, I’m always curious how they calculate this figure. Here is another example: a sociologist at Iowa State argues the total monetary cost of a single murder is just over $17 million.

Matt DeLisi, an ISU associate professor of sociology and director of the criminal justice program, led a team of five Iowa State graduate students on the study of 654 convicted and incarcerated murderers. Expanding upon earlier monetization estimates, they calculated the costs of five crimes — murder, rape, armed robbery, aggravated assault and burglary — in terms of the victim costs, criminal justice system costs, lost productivity estimates for both the victim and the criminal, and estimates on the public’s resulting willingness to pay to prevent future violence.

The sociologist argues this calculation was undertaken with crime prevention in mind:

“This area of research has really been run with prevention researchers,” he said. “That’s because what they find is that even if a prevention program is very expensive — and most of them are actually shockingly inexpensive — they’re still more cost effective than allowing these careers to unfold.”

Of course, focusing on prevention can be difficult and it may not eliminate all the crimes. But faced with the high costs of dealing with crimes after they are committed, some may take a longer look at preventative measures.