This past Friday at the Union League Club, the Northwestern Institute for Policy Research hosted “Crime in Chicago: What does the Research Tell Us?”, featuring three Northwestern professors: political scientist Wesley Skogan, sociologist Andrew Papachristos, and economist Jonathan Guryan. The ensuing audience discussion was moderated by Mary Pattillo, a sociologist at Northwestern best known for her 2007 book Black on the Block.
In her introductory remarks, Pattillo aimed to surmount standard media narratives surrounding violent crime in the city. “We hope to break beyond the news, and instead focus on the research,” she said. “And more than just talk, we hope that many of you all who have the power to act will hear this evidence and have it inform the kinds of work that you do that really impact the outcomes that we are studying.”
Here’s what the research shows.
On the concentration of violence
Skogan showed that violence in the city tends to be concentrated within a small set of small communities. For instance, the top 10 percent of the most violent census-block groups in the city–tiny geographical units with about 600 to 3,000 residents–account for 50 percent of all the homicides.
Later, Skogan pointed to a single 4 by 8 block area in Humboldt Park, which has been in the top 5 percent of shootings in the city for each of the past 27 years. “The one thing I would do is I would have a Marshall Plan for that… block in Humboldt Park. Why aren’t we all over that block?”, he said. “It’s even smaller than community areas. It’s the really concentrated areas within them that are the concentrated crime hotspots.”
On using network science to prevent crime
Papachristos, who recently moved to Northwestern from Yale, explained how his research analyzes the connections that exist between people who have been shot, or are at-risk for gun violence. He began his presentation with the story of Jonylah Watkins, a six-month-old child shot and killed in 2013 during an attempt on her father’s life. In the 36 months leading up to the shooting, the father was arrested 23 different times with 17 different people; of those those 17 people, 7 (about 40 percent) had been shot in that same period of time.
Papachristos used a similar approach on a citywide scale to draw a conclusion analogous to Skogan’s: crime tends to cluster, or “hang together,” within certain communities of people. For instance, in a study Papachristos conducted on the Cape Verdean community in Boston, he found that 85% of all gunshot injuries occured within a single social network, composed of only about 6% of all the people living in the community.
The conclusion? Focus our preventive efforts on those networks that most need the help. Papachristos was careful to note that network science doesn’t identify or diagnose the systemic failures that underlie shootings, but it can orient more immediate plans of action. “This sort of approach is really more around emergency rooms, the triage, how do we save lives and reduce trauma today,” he said. “How do we direct outreach workers, intervention workers, trauma specialists?”
On the possible benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy
Jonathan Guryan, an economist, began his presentation by explaining that, for a long time, the prevailing view of crime in the United States had simply been that people who committed crimes were in many instances irredeemably bad and should therefore be incarcerated. In contrast, Guryan drew a distinction between two types of thinking, automatic and reflective. Automatic thinking occurs when we sense that a quick response to a particular situation is required; reflective thinking is deliberative—it allows us to slow down and collect our thoughts slightly. Guryon argued that acts of crime are often tied to automatic thinking, the product of necessarily quick decision-making in dangerous neighborhoods.
One way to begin to solve the problem of crime, then, is to encourage more reflective thinking. In order to do this, Guryan said, it might help to engage young people in cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of treatment in which participants are encouraged to carefully consider their emotional responses to certain situations. Guryan, along with researchers from the University of Chicago, studied the local behavioral therapy program Becoming a Man (BAM) and found that it reduced violent crime arrests by 45 to 50 percent. The program was successful enough that Barack Obama, is said to have launched his My Brother’s Keeper program in part because of two BAM sessions he attended.