Recent local incidents have sparked much needed discussions on crime and criminal activity in Ward 7. Conversation has focused on its sources and a need for a community level response to this ward wide epidemic.


The Idea of Crime and Violence As Epidemic


Defined as a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time, an epidemic (outbreak, plague, scourge, or infestation) is a term that is typically used to describe any problem that has grown out of control. When facing health epidemics, medical officials must conduct field investigations in order to guide an effective response to address the outbreak. According to Zack Moore, MD, MPH of the North Carolina Division of Public Health, field investigations are conducted in order to:

  • Identify the source (and eliminate it)
  • Develop strategies to prevent future outbreaks
  • Evaluate existing prevention strategies
  • Address public concern (North Carolina Division of Public Health)

Viewed as an epidemic, any response to crime must take into account the local conditions of the community which is impacted. More often than not, solutions have been sought in the criminal justice system, but is traditional policing actually reducing crime and violence?

What if we looked closely at those things that continue to drive crime and violence—things like poverty, inequality, drug and alcohol dependency, and mental health—in order to devise strategies to prevent crime and violence? What if we rigorously and independently evaluated the existing strategies used to address crime and violence in order to determine their effectiveness?

The World Health Organization’s Guidance on Violence Prevention promotes violence prevention and believes that the impact of violence can be reduced in the same way that public health efforts have prevented and reduced other health epidemics. “The factors that contribute to violence and crime—whether they are factors of attitude and behavior or related to larger social, economic, political and cultural conditions—can be changed.”

To be effective, any public health approach to crime and violence requires a degree of strategy, support from government, elected officials, funders and the community.  


Research Shows Violence is Concentrated Among Groups & Group Members


Stephen Lurie, Alexis Acevedo, and Kyle Ott with the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the city of New York, have a different idea. Stephen Lurie wrote in There’s No Such Thing as a Dangerous Neighborhood that the three have “presented evidence of what many in the violence prevention field have known for a long time, but has yet to become the public common sense. In our forthcoming study of serious violence in over 20 cities, we found that less than 1 percent of a city’s population—the share involved in what we call ‘street groups’ (gangs, sets, and crews)—is generally connected to over 50 percent of the city’s shootings and homicides.” Lurie continued, “In city after city, the very small number of people involved in these groups consistently perpetrated and were victimized by the most serious violence.”

Perhaps the most important thing Lurie wrote is this: “Crucially, focusing on groups offers an explanation for homicides and shootings in ways that other theories have not. . . While violence is concentrated in very particular places, it’s not the places themselves that are committing homicides.

Rather, to understand violence, our research points again to the context, norms, and dynamics of street groups. Street groups involved in violence are generally composed of young men of color living in communities with long histories of structural discrimination and alienation from state institutions, particularly law enforcement. These areas have generally suffered from both over-enforcement and under-protection.”


What To Do?

The good news is that the violence as epidemic perspective is not wholly antithetical to the violence exists among a tiny group of people idea. In fact, what is common among both is what community members and policy makers intuitively suggest, which is addressing concentrated poverty, trauma, marginalization, poor educational outcomes, and the like. While Lurie and his colleagues suggest targeting interventions to groups, there’s no reason why interventions could not be broad and targeted at the same time.

What we know is that enforcement alone will not solve the problem. Everyone must be a part of designing and working towards solutions which divert people away from criminal activity by supporting the vulnerable and providing better life opportunities.

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