How Place and Space Shape Crime
“Neighborhood Watch” takes on a new meaning in the work of three Kent State University researchers who are investigating what makes an urban area a crime hotspot.
To examine the problem, they will combine high-tech, geographic information system (GIS) mapping techniques and spatial videos and face-to-face interviews with people who know the neighborhoods in selected urban areas of Northeast Ohio. They will interview, among others, ex-offenders, community leaders, and police, whose perspectives are likely to differ. Interview subjects will at times ride along with the researchers on Google-car-style video mapping tours, supplementing the GIS data being gathered with their own street-wise views.
When the layers of data are compiled and mapped, the researchers expect to be able to analyze an area’s crime potential at the micro-level, answering questions such as, “Why this block? This corner? This alleyway?”
The results could be surprising, said Lauren Porter, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology, one of the three scholars collaborating on the study.
“We know that there are hotspots of crime, but very little is known about makes them a hotspot,” she said. “I think (the study) will lead to interesting insights into how place and space shape crime.”
Drawing on neighborhood knowledgeHotspot policing is not new, said Eric S. Jefferis, Ph.D., associate professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the College of Public Health. Jefferis is the lead investigator on the $472,000 Department of Justice grant funding the study. By capturing and coding information gathered from the narrative interviews and the GIS videos taken in repeated visits over two-and –a-half years, the researchers will be able to create predictive models based on their findings. That type of modeling could be used to improve a city’s crime analysis capability. Police could use the information to assess where the next hotspot is likely to be and where new resources could make the biggest impact.
“Rather than just chase the next call, they can be proactive and intervene,” said Jefferis, who is also the research partner of the Northern Ohio Violent Crime Consortium, which covers the eight largest cities in northern Ohio.
One of the novel features of the study will be asking ex-offenders for their assessment of suspected problem sites.
“People want to know what causes a criminal environment and nobody asks the criminal,” Jefferis said. By combining ex-offenders’ reactions to videos taken of neighborhoods, or having ex-offenders ride along as the video is taken, the researchers will collect another layer of information to compare with what others in the community say.
The police have vast institutional knowledge of an area; they know its violence history, the escape routes that criminals have used, and where police surveillance cameras are located. Ex-offenders often live in the area and recognize environmental cues, such as gang tags on buildings, that may be unfamiliar to others. Immigrants and community leaders have still other perspectives, and their comments will add to the mosaic of information collected.
“A lot of institutional knowledge is wrapped up in service workers – the police, public health, social workers,” said Andrew J. Curtis, Ph.D., associate professor of geography and the third researcher on the grant. “It never gets tapped.” Their interviews, with the others, will add to a “richer understanding of the neighborhood.”
Sometimes, areas that are assumed to be potential problem spots, such as foreclosed and vacant houses, are viewed benignly by those who live in a neighborhood, the researchers noted. It’s unclear, said Porter, which comes first – disorder in a neighborhood, or crime.
“What’s considered urban blight by one person might not seem like blight to another,” she said. Querying ex-offenders will offer new insights, too. “Very little is known about how offenders pick targets and why they select certain areas to conduct criminal activity, such as drug dealing.”
Multiple viewpointsThe study will mix methods, gathering quantitative data with GIS and qualitative data in asking people about their knowledge of the community. That mix derives from the varied background of the researchers. Jefferis, who studies community violence from a social and behavioral science perspective, has been holding meetings for faculty interested in justice and public health, in the interest of creating synergy. That is how he met Porter, who joined the KSU faculty in 2012 after earning her Ph.D. in sociology from the State University of New York at Albany. She has conducted interviews in Albany and Northeast Ohio with ex-offenders to better understand how incarceration influences their health. She also studies how incarceration affects political engagement, the attitudes of family members and the well-being of the family’s children.
Jefferis met Curtis when Curtis interviewed for a job at Kent State two years ago (prior to that he was a faculty member at the University of Southern California). Curtis, who is now director of the GIS, Health and Hazards Laboratory at Kent State, uses geospatial technologies and GIS analysis at the neighborhood level to address health disparities and natural disasters.
His work supported search and rescue operations after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and his research team continues to assess neighborhoods in the post-Katrina environment. Curtis’s team also worked in Haiti in 2012, developing fine-scale mapping strategies to locate water risks after the earthquake response led to a cholera epidemic. His team recently conducted post-tornado damage assessments in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Joplin, Mo., and Moore, Okla.
Curtis also has investigated blighted and condemned housing in Youngstown, Ohio, mapping and coding data about areas over time to spot trends that can inform public policy. His data in Youngstown were combined with information from a separate audio system that the Youngstown police had set up to track gunshot sounds, producing maps showing gunshot incidence and blight, block by block.
The information he developed documented what the environment was like around schools, for example. It could give policy-makers valuable insights into how a neighborhood changes after intervention or after a blighted property has been removed.
The geo-spatial system he uses can be adapted to many types of environments and research needs. Curtis’s geography graduate students have used it to study public health issues in areas as far away as Bangladesh, Belize, Kenya and Zambia.
To capture the videos, they use a small, unobtrusive camera with a wide-angle lens that provides sharp and detailed videos, similar to a Google “street” view, encoded with a GPS signal. The camera is in a waterproof housing; it was developed for filming extreme sports. It can be mounted on a car or held by a researcher walking through a neighborhood. The information is then transferred to a map and updated over time with repeat views.
In the crime hotspot study, the researchers plan to repeat visits to the selected neighborhoods more than once a week for two years. The software used in analyzing the data is free, making it easy to disseminate. One can view a videotaped street scene, hear recorded commentary about it, zero in on a particular building, and see on the map where it is located on the street and the frequency of crime in the area.
Testing the broken windows theoryThe goal of the study is to develop knowledge about how and why crime hotspots develop. Abandoned houses are often seen as collectors of blight that provide a “tipping point” to make an area a crime hotspot, said Jefferis. This is the “broken windows” theory that smaller instances of neglect lead to greater instances of crime. The study will examine whether that widely accepted assumption is valid.
The research will reveal what Curtis calls “spatial nuance” in determining the boundaries between areas that are perceived as good or bad for crime, or places of stress for a community. It will show what the residents of an area deal with on a daily basis.
The study also will examine how a community internalizes and anticipates what happens within its borders.
“Crime isn’t just about crime – it’s about fear of crime,” said Jefferis.
About the researchersEric S. Jefferis, associate professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the College of Public Health, is a social scientist with extensive research experience in the area of violence prevention. He has served as
Lauren Porter received a Ph.D. in sociology from the State University of New York at Albany in 2012. She joined the Sociology Department at Kent State later that year as an assistant professor. Her research largely revolves around issues of punishment, with a particular interest in the collateral consequences of incarceration. She is interested also in the overlap between criminology and social demography, including how population dynamics contribute to incarceration trends.
Andrew Curtis, director of the GIS, Health and Hazards Laboratory at Kent State and associate professor of geography, is a former director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center for Remote Sensing and GIS for Public Health. His work uses geospatial technologies and geographic information system (GIS) analysis to support neighborhood-scale intervention strategies designed to reduce health disparities.