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Study: More than race or poverty, social networks predict victims of fatal shootings in Chicago

Updated: December 16, 2013 6:29AM

Race and poverty are not as important as a person’s social network in predicting whether he or she will become a victim of a fatal shooting in Chicago, Yale University sociologists found in a study released Thursday.

People in the same network are more likely to engage in similar risky behaviors like carrying a gun or committing crimes, which increase their chances of becoming murder victims, according to the study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

“Generally, you can’t catch a bullet from just anyone,” said one of the authors, Andrew Papachristos, a Chicago native. “Your relationship with the people involved matters. It’s not unlike needle sharing or unprotected sex in the spread of HIV.”

Papachristos and co-author Christopher Wildeman examined killings from 2006 to 2011 in a 6-square-mile area with some of the city’s highest murder rates.

Six percent of the population was involved in 70 percent of the murders. Those in the 6 percent group had a 900 percent increased chance of becoming a murder victim, according to the study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The Chicago Police Department is already using social network analysis to forecast where murders might happen and try to prevent them.

This summer, the department identified 400 people most likely to shoot someone — or be shot. Each police district then receives a “heat list” of people to target.

In July, for instance, Austin District Cmdr. Barbara West went to the doors of the 25 people on her heat list. She dropped off a letter warning the targets to stop their criminal behavior or they would receive the most serious punishment possible. She also talked to the targets — or if they were not home, to relatives.

Chicago Police Department spokesman Adam Collins said the “custom notification program” that West launched in the Austin District on the West Side was recently expanded to the Gresham District on the South Side.

“We are using variations of Dr. Papachristos’ research to ensure we reach out to individuals at the greatest risk for violence,” Collins said, calling the research “groundbreaking.”

In addition to warning people on the heat list to stop committing crimes, the department can also connect them with social services and job placement opportunities to help lead them out of a life of crime, Collins said.

The networking research also “informs our violence reduction call-in strategy, in which CPD and our partners hold gang members as a group accountable for gun violence,” Collins said.

Police departments in California and Connecticut are working on similar social network strategies to reduce crime, Papachristos said.


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