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Murderers, victims share social ties

Updated: April 15, 2011 3:55PM

Violence often seems random and unpredictable. That’s part of what makes it so frightening, the idea that around any corner lurks a crazed murderer ready to attack. But the vast majority of homicides in Chicago are anything but random. Homicide victims and offenders tend to be criminally active and more than two-thirds know each other.

The idea that murderers are some unknown bogeymen is just simply false.

But homicide is even less random than that. In Chicago (and elsewhere) murders are “connected.” Most murder victims and offenders live in a distinct social world in which most people are just a few handshakes away from each other — even if they don’t know it. Think of it this way: if two homicide victims are on Facebook, it is highly likely that they would appear on each others’ “friend suggestion” page.

Social Network Analysis — the pscience behind revolutionary social media like Facebook and Twitter — can help us understand this connected nature of homicide. More importantly, the very same scientific tools used to unravel the ways in which diseases spread, the ways elections are won, and even the way magically recommends books can be used to devise new and effective ways to reduce homicide.

Take, for example, the homicide epidemic that continues to wreak havoc on Chicago’s West Side. Over the last five years, 191 people have been murdered in the 11th Police District. This means just about 3 out of every 1,000 residents on the West Side are likely to be a homicide victim — a rate more than three times higher than the other areas of the city.

Social Network Analysis tell us that this risk is vastly overstated because it suggests that all residents are equally likely to be killed. The reality is quite different: About 70 percent of the homicides over the last five years occurred in a network consisting of only 1,500 people, all of them with criminal records. Each person in this network had, at some point, been arrested with at least one other person in the network.

The vast majority of murders on Chicago’s West Side happen in a small world of connected individuals. For people in this network, the odds of being a homicide victim skyrockets to 30 out of every 1,000 people.

Let’s sharpen the point: the risk of stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan is less than 10 out of a 1,000, which means it’s safer to walk around a real war zone than it is for the young men in this network to walk around West Garfield Park. Meanwhile, the risk for the other 80,000 residents of West Garfield Park who are not in this network drops to less than 1 per 1,000: far better, though still not as safe as residents of, say, Jefferson Park or Edgewater.

Homicide is not a lightning strike and homicide victims need not be nameless or faceless statistics. Service providers, street workers and law enforcement don’t need to chase ghosts. Those in the network are easily identifiable people facing an astronomical risk of violent death. This is a vastly more precise method of predicting who will get shot or killed than our usual predictors: “at risk” youth, high school dropouts, drug use, criminal histories and the like.

New violence prevention efforts — like the Chicago Violence Reduction Strategy (VRS) — take this approach quite seriously, using it to guide intervention strategies and focus law enforcement, service provision and community outreach. For example, the VRS strategy used social network analysis to identify the structure of various street gangs and select individuals for its intervention who were potential homicide victims or offenders. Similar strategies in other cities have been credited with considerable reductions in homicide.

Preliminary indicators of the VRS program are extremely promising. And in a day and age when we realize the great harms associated with mass incarceration and when resources are scarce, a social network approach can more precisely identify those at the greatest risk of getting killed and direct resources and services accordingly.


Andrew V. Papachristos is the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar at Harvard University and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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