How Science May Stop Gang Killings

September 9, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Latin King gang member showing his gang tattoos, and hand sign.
Photo credit: Javier Ramirez/CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientific findings have determined that gang killings move in a systemic pattern, and this research will better equip communities to prevent gang massacres.

Groundbreaking research from Michigan State University's criminology and public health departments has shown that gang slayings spread like diseases, from one vulnerable area to the next. These findings have the potential to help communities anticipate and ultimately prevent gang-related violence.

According to the latest report by the National Gang Center, there are around 30,000 gangs in the US, which is a 15 percent increase in gang activity since 2006 and the highest annual estimate since 1996. As gang membership and violence are on a steady increase, the preventative measures need to keep up with the times.

The researchers, led by April Zeoli, associate professor of criminal justice, analyzed police data from Newark, New Jersey to gauge whether certain types of homicide cluster in specific areas and how the crimes spread. The researchers looked at gang-related murders as well as homicide motives such as revenge, domestic violence, drugs, and robbery, which weren’t directly connected to gang participation. The study found that the different types of homicide did indeed show different patterns. For example, cases in which domestic violence and robberies led to homicides showed no sign of clustering or spreading out.

Gang-related killings, on the other hand, spread in a systemic pattern. Looking at data from July 2002 to December 2005, the researchers identified four adjacent clusters of gang-related homicides that started in central Newark and moved roughly clockwise.

Interestingly, revenge and drug-motivated homicides unrelated to gang activity didn’t spread out like the gang-homicides, but they did cluster in the same general areas.

Correlations like these will make it easier for researchers to determine which types of underlying issues may provoke gangs to attack. Communities can use this data along with the patterns that show how gang activity spreads geographically in order to best predict future gang killings. By relating the overlapping data, Zeoli suggests that, “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.”

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, concluded that, “By tracking how homicide types diffuse through communities and determining which places have ongoing or emerging homicide problems by type, we can better inform the deployment of prevention and intervention efforts.”


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