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MSU Researchers: Murder spreads like disease

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A group of Michigan State University researchers say violence spreads through communities in much the same way diseases do.

The researchers looked at homicide data from Newark, New Jersey over a 26-year period, from 1982-2008.

Researcher and study author April Zeoli says the work stemmed from the perception that violence is “contagious.”

“And we thought that if that is the case, homicide should move through communities in ways that we can detect, in ways that we can see,” said Zeoli, an assistant professor of criminal justice at MSU.

Zeoli says their data suggests that to be the case: an infectious disease model could be used to map when and where murders occur. In other words, killings tend to spread out and cluster through time and space in much the same way any illness would.

“For a disease to spread, there need to be three things: a source of infection, a mode of transmission, and a population that is susceptible,” Zeoli said.

Zeoli says the research team wants to look at those factors next. She says they plan to dig more deeply into the Newark data, to see what other social and demographic factors affect the spread of killings—and whether those factors can be used to develop predictive models that pinpoint future “trouble spots.”

That, in turn, could be used by law enforcement and public health officials to prevent and manage crime.

“If we are able to track and predict the movement of homicides through communities, then we may be able to halt its movement, or at least slow it down,” Zeoli said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.