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Is Murder a Preventable Infectious Phenomenon?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 13, 2012

Murder may spread like an infectious illness, new research suggests, yet some areas that would appear to be at high risk for the contagion seem to be immune.

April Zeoli, a public health researcher at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, decided to examine murder through a lens of public health. She and colleagues Jesenia M. Pizarro, Sue C. Grady and Christopher Melde studied details of every homicide on record in Newark, N.J. from January 1982 to September 2007. There were 2,366 murders in Newark during that 26-year-period, presenting homicide rates that ranged from 3.5 to 5 times higher than that of the general U.S. population.

"We looked at homicide as an infection disease,” Zeoli said in an interview with NPR. "To spread, an infectious disease needs three things: a source of infection, a mode of transmission, and we need a susceptible population.”

In their paper, published in Justice Quarterly, the researchers found the incidence of homicide spreads much in the same pattern as an infectious disease, spiking in a region, and spreading to nearby areas. It declined in central Newark, but spread into the southern and western parts of the city. The epidemic of killing did not spread to northern and eastern areas of the city. "We actually had some areas within Newark that were resistant to homicide, despite being surrounded by areas with high homicide rates,” Zeoli told NPR. "So we need to investigate why those little islands exist.”

Can insights from Positive Deviance help here? PD is based on the idea that in every group or community there are people who achieve better results than colleagues with the same resources. Look at a crime map by NeighborhoodScout.

In an interview with Tia Ghose of Live Science, Zeoli said the northern and eastern regions of the city are more ethnically diverse than the city as a whole. She said the study potentially suggests that diversity itself may be a factor in reducing homicide, and that murder maybe less prevalent in the northeastern parts of the city where a Latino immigrant community is more than ordinarily socially cohesive. If researchers can discover what makes an area resistant to homicide, she said, policy makers could apply those insights to help prevent murder from spreading.

Causes of crime have been massively studied, with varying results that tend to be emotionally and politically charged. Impoverished areas are generally the most susceptible to all crime, including murder, as this and other studies show. A story in the Newark Star Ledger reports the city has an unemployment rate twice the national average, and that two out of five of Newark’s children live below the poverty line—that means less than $22,000 as year for a family of four. High school graduations rates in 2011 were 32.2 percent or 61.3 percent, depending on the method used for the calculation.

Two Columbia University researchers, Brendan O’Flaherty and Rajiv Sethi, studied murders in Newark from 2000 to 2006, when the city’s homicide rate doubled even though the national rate remained constant. In their 2009 paper, "Peaceable Kingdoms and War Zones: Preemption, Ballistics and Murder in Newark," they write that a shrinking police force, declining arrest rate, and state prison changes that facilitated networking among gang members contributed to the rise. And while the incidents of reported gunfire remained about the same, the shooting became more lethal, suggesting improved aim, better weapons, and more victims hit with multiple shots. While complex motives drive homicide, one the researchers identified in dangerous areas was people committing murder because they fear being killed themselves. They also predicted a decline in the rate as some contributing factors improved, which has happened. Murders in the city declined from 107 in 2006 to 91 in 2011, according to the Ledger.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  disease  research 

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Alexz Ross says...
Posted Tuesday, January 06, 2015
I hate killing people :(
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