Saturday, September 05, 2015

When homicide is treated as a disease

When homicide is reported in the news very little is offered in the way of motive or analysis. All we really hear is what happened after the fact and we are left with the impression that there is little that can be done to prevent it or even predict it. We are left with the impression that people are bad and that the best we can hope for is to stay out of the way. Get a good job, live in a good neighborhood and lay low. We just need to be tough on crime and eventually, the problem will go away.

According to this article on the Tech Insider website, there might be a better solution to dealing with violent crime than what we've been doing so far with deterrence. Tech Insider's article is a story of how scientists and police considered and implemented the idea of treating violent crime as a disease. In the city of Richmond California, researchers found that from an epidemiological perspective, violent crime tends to spread like a disease and that it should be treated as such.

Their results? In the city of Richmond, California, the homicide rate dropped 76% in 7 years. That is a tremendous improvement over past results and proves that when we think beyond the box and become willing to try something different, we can get better results.

We find that the story is actually several layers deep when we click on the links to see the supporting references. The police department used statistics, field reporting, outreach and analysis to determine who would be at risk to be a victim of or a perpetrator of violent crime - they used epidemiology to follow the path of this disease. Then they developed a plan for each situation where they thought someone was about to pop or be popped.

This concept reminds me of the movie, Minority Report. Though our modern day team in Richmond are not quite precogs, in this story we have something rather similar to the concept in the movie. Minority Report is one of my favorite Tom Cruise movies, featuring a very interesting conception of computer user interfaces, transportation ideas and display technologies. Through a combination of databases and "precogs" humans with the ability to sense what people are thinking, Tom Cruise is the director of a division with a mission to predict violent crime. Likewise, the team in Richmond is using science to follow the trail of homicide and head it off to prevent homicides from spreading, and it works.

Most significantly, the Richmond police found that by providing alternative outlets and responses to demands for retribution or respect, they were able to divert the potential energy for violent behavior to something more productive. The program is officially called, Richmond (CA) Comprehensive Homicide Initiative. Here is the one component of their program that stands out the most:
To address the rising number of homicides in the city, the Richmond Police Department began to rethink its strategy toward homicide and violent crime and in the early 1990s started to shift toward a problem-oriented policing philosophy.
In a nutshell, they assist people with solving the problem of homicide. They work with the community with just one goal in mind: reduce the number of homicides in their community. They are helping people to solve problems proactively rather than to be focused on finding the bad guys and putting them in jail before something bad happens. They are treating the disease with problem solving skills.

People break down, act out or commit crimes when they lack the skills to respond to the demands of their environment. The local government of Richmond is working with the people they serve to give them the skills they need to solve the problem of homicide together, to treat the disease of homicide together. I believe that if the skills required to do the right thing are there, the incentives will be there, too. Richmond is proof of that.

I note also that it's not just the community learning new problem solving skills with help from the government that serves them. The members of the police force in Richmond learned new skills that resulted in no fatal police shootings since 2007. That is a remarkable feat considering the current climate in most big American cities. It's an interesting parallel trend to the homicide rate in the same city. Happily, we find that the police department in that fair city has adopted "community policing", where instead of looking for someone to arrest, they are building relationships with the community of people they serve.

Law enforcement in Richmond, California is an example that I hold out as hope for humanity, that we can finally see that we are all one, and that the problems we face during our time on earth are here for us to solve, not to fight over. For as the Beatles once said (in so many words), "Life is very short, and there's no time for fussing and fighting my friend. We can work it out."
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