04/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chance of Death by Street Violence Depends on Where You Live: Can Better Data and Information Unlock the Deadly Pattern?

Earlier this year, local gangs set an apartment fire to punish their rivals, killing a seven-year-old girl named Itzel and her pregnant mother by mistake instead. Though sad and sensational, the story was trumped by subsequent tales of terror as Chicagoans - many just children - continue to fall victim to street violence. This school year so far, roughly 30 public school children have died violently. This does not include private school children, children who have dropped out of school, or children too young to attend school. (View a new map of locations of these deaths with our "deck-stacked-against-you" indicator that shows Chicago tracts with the highest concentration of African Americans, Latinos, burdened mortgage holders, high school dropouts, and lowest household incomes at Does where you live impact quality and length of life, and quality and cause of death? It certainly does.

The ongoing headlines sound like scenes from Gran Torino. Clint Eastwood plays the cranky but intriguing old-timer who helps his immigrant teenage neighbor say no to gang-bangers dead-set on recruiting him. They fire automatic weapons through the boy's window, burn a cigarette into his face, and rape and beat his sister to get their point across. This is just fiction, of course, but it mimics real-life circumstances in some of our toughest neighborhoods. Chicago, our "world class" city, has cracks and crevices that function just as similarly. For many here and throughout the nation, intimidation and death by street violence is no movie. And the storyline is not new; it's a constant re-run.

Flashback to 1992. In that year, 61 children were victims of Chicago homicides. Remember another seven-year-old, Dantrell Davis? He was killed in gang crossfire while walking to Jenner Elementary School. Dantrell lived in the Cabrini Green housing project. His death triggered ongoing local and national attention. In response, the Chicago Tribune chronicled youth homicides as part of a series entitled "Killing Our Children." These stories are in fact very similar to what we are reading in today's local papers.

There are many confounding and complicated factors that threaten the safety of children, including gang warfare, rampant poverty, troubled housing projects, and general health problems. Dantrell himself was a prime example of a child facing danger on a regular basis. He, too, was in an apartment fire; he survived but it scarred more than 50 percent of his body and face. Five months later, his father died of complications from asthma. One month after that, Dantrell was shot dead in the temple by a single bullet from a 10th floor sniper. His mother was holding his hand at the time.

Much has happened since the death of Dantrell Davis. His mother requested and was granted by local gangs their first-ever truce, which lasted over three years. The street where Dantrell took his last breath was renamed in his honor. The Tribune received a Pulitzer Prize for its editorial coverage of youth homicides. And over the past two decades especially, foundations, civic groups, and government have invested millions and millions of dollars in a wide range of community revitalization strategies in some of Chicago's most distressed neighborhoods. Cabrini Green itself has been mostly torn down as part of this redevelopment plan to make way for better living conditions and mixed income housing.

But while much has changed, too much has stayed the same. Despite concerted investment and many noticeable community gains, Chicago street violence continues. The exact figures rise and fall from year to year. During relatively mild periods, violent activity - not just homicides, but gang activity, assaults, burglary, vandalism and other criminal acts - declines enough for officials to claim success and breathe a sigh of relief. In more turbulent times, it spikes up again at alarming rates. But every year, without fail, hundreds of Chicago lives are lost to violence. Many who die or are injured are children. There has been no clear-cut formula for systematically predicting and curtailing the violent activity that plagues Chicago and other cities. Can that change?

Some would say that these high crime areas of Chicago function as war zones, generally defined as a dangerous place where normal, civil society breaks down, and simple, everyday activities, such as the freedom to walk your child safely to school, are risky.

In response to the 1992 shooting of Dantrell Davis, for example, former Housing Authority chairman Vincent Lane called for the National Guard to be deployed at Cabrini Green, signaling a war zone out of control. Mayor Daley instead ordered a massive police sweep and metal detectors, although public statements he made at the time suggest he drew the same war zone conclusion. "We have seen a complete breakdown of society," he told Time Magazine.

Just this past summer, 17 years after the death of Dantrell Davis, which is roughly the same amount of time needed to transform a newborn into an adult and send him to college, 123 people were shot and killed in Chicago. That's nearly double the number of soldiers killed in Iraq over the same time period.

Clearly, something new needs to be done. But what?

There is not one single problem or one single solution concerning street violence; it will take all of us to contribute positively to a safer and more civil society.

As the president of the National Center for Public Research (NCforPR), it is probably not surprising that I turn the discussion to better data and information as one of many needed strategies.

NCforPR plans to develop very robust block-level police and other data to predict and prevent violent societal patterns of activity in Chicago through cluster and regression analysis. The project also includes a qualitative component to gain input from local teens and others in communities that suffer disproportionately from violence. We are extremely fortunate to be partnering with Commissioner Dana Starks, who heads up Chicago's Commission on Human Relations, and his very capable staff. The Commissioner is a thirty-year police veteran who knows our city well and is committed to improving it. Not every city has such a commission; Chicago is unique in that regard. (You can visit their website to learn more.)

Our quantitative methodology begins with a very simple premise: that the vitality, health and safety of any urban community is a block-by-block phenomenon. When we think of concepts such as "home" and "community" and the ability of a child and his mother to walk safely to school, we typically think of the very block where we live, and whether or not it is a safe and nurturing environment. Our study of violence prevention - assuming we find funding and gain police buy-in - will be concentrated at the block level for this and several other reasons.

Our theory of violent and destructive criminal behaviors that happen in a broad community context (street violence, hate crimes, gang activities, random homicides, and so on) is that they often erupt from many dynamic, complicated and confounding factors that clash all at once. The confluence of erupting factors can be somewhat external to the individual or individuals committing the crimes.

We are not at all saying that the individuals engaging in criminal behavior should be exonerated because of their environment. What we are saying is that, in some cases, we might be able to identify in advance approaching collective patterns of behavior - tipping points - that are statistically more likely to result in destructive behaviors and outcomes that negatively impact communities.

For example, back in 1992, Anthony Garrett, 33, told police that he shot Dantrell Davis by mistake. Garrett said that he was simply trying to take out a few rival gang members when the first-grader got in the way. The gang-bangers that killed Itzel earlier this year had a similar excuse: it was an accident. They simply got the address wrong. Simple mistake!

A warzone is a state of chaos: you take your chances walking down the street or even locking yourself up in your apartment because anything can happen, either as intended or by accident. In real estate, and in public safety, too, we have three defining words: location, location, location. The more the deck is stacked against you in terms of your location, the greater the likelihood of a negative outcome.

While gang bangers are responsible for their own individual actions, they, too, are a product of their location. They are influenced by and react to the external interplay of many factors taking place at once: drugs, poverty, boarded up buildings, poor education, peer pressure, lack of options - the list is a long one.

We do not expect to find direct causal relationships in this study (a causes x, or a+b+c causes x). However, if we can isolate and reduce some of the factors or combination of factors that support or contribute to undesired outcomes - such as a sniper "accidentally" shooting a seven-year-old - we might be able to prevent some percentage of those outcomes (when a+b+c are present, x is more likely with statistical significance, and when a+b+c+d are present, x is twice as likely with statistical significance, and so on). Using spatial tools, we will be able to measure the distance between the multiple activities that take place at each geographic block center to all other blocks in the city. What we are conducting is essentially a Geographic Information Systems analysis, with the addition of an extra dimension: time. Instead of just looking for relationships among the crimes and other factors such as foreclosed buildings, socio-economic status and so on, we are looking at how crimes at a particular time and place influence crime at a subsequent time and in a perhaps different place. If we can predict these crimes, maybe we can prevent them from happening. This could save lives.

There are challenges in isolating cause and effect and holding constant potential statistical confounders, such as income, race, culture, self-selection into specific types of communities, and predisposition to certain kinds of behavior. Although we do need to control for them, our goal is to move beyond stereotypical variables such as race and class that correlate with increased criminal activity but do not themselves cause or create tipping points that steal life and destroy communities.

The election of our first African American president signals a new era of civil rights, of hope, and of new possibilities. It signals new language, strategy and focus. But the deaths of so many children in certain types of neighborhoods - in certain locations - means that, for many, the struggle continues. Race, place, class and equal opportunity are more complicated today than ever before. Depending on where you live, many of the original civil rights battles and court victories - such as quality education or the freedom to walk your child safety to school without being shot in the head - have yet to be truly won. In some cases, the deck is stacked against you from the beginning.

If we are going to solve some old problems we have to answer some old questions. Why is it that millions and decades of community development dollars have failed to transform targeted communities in certain locations? Will federal stimulus money flowing into neighborhoods where foreclosures have run rampant be any different in terms of intended impact? Can community revitalization really happen without a better understanding of how to unlock our deadliest patterns block-by-block?

I haven't always been a researcher. Long ago, while still in my early twenties, I led a project to revitalize a vacant lot on Chicago's South Side in the center of the local business district where a man was chased down and beaten to death. The lot sloped off below grade into the alley and was strewn with tires and trash. Crime was out of control. We turned the lot into a community garden that included a "fantasy mural" painted on an adjoining building wall by former gang bangers as part of a rehabilitation program. At the time, community gardens were not well known or popular. There was such fear of street violence, vandalism and gangs, and hostility to the criminal element, that the project plans initially drew opposition. As a concession, we agreed to a wrought iron fence and heavy-duty lock to keep out troublemakers. The concern was that the garden would invite more violence and the temptation to dig up and steal all the pretty flowers and shrubs planted with the help of the Chicago Botanic Garden and a great deal of local money and effort. As it turned out, neighborhood folks did hop the fence when we weren't looking, but their worst crimes were planting vegetables - we didn't have any - and getting an upfront view of the flowers. So eventually the garden was open to the public during daylight hours and became a more direct community resource. It won an award from Mayor Daley and the Chicago City Council. It was featured in 32 distinct media venues, including House Beautiful. One of the young men who worked on the mural exchanged his wedding vows there.

Did our "no guns, more roses" strategy make a difference? In the short term, yes; at least it seemed so. Longer term? Maybe. Did it permanently restore law, order, and civility? No. Over the years, the area continued to be plagued by violence. This past February 20th, for example, three teens - ages 13, 15, and 17 - were shot and killed not very far from that very location. Two of them were brothers.

As someone who has spent time in the trenches, I can tell you first hand that community stabilization efforts - whether we're talking about foreclosures, violence or anything else - need to be informed by better block-level data concerning markets, community conditions, socio-economics, crime, a range of other variables and the web that ties them all together.

Here is another example. Later in my career, as the executive director of a community development corporation and alongside board members and an active alderman, I led the development and co-ownership of a $75 million shopping center anchored by a full-service grocery store. As we talked about earlier, "location, location, location" has an impact on both the potential to develop real estate into higher uses and public safety. In short, it's extremely difficult to corral investors - and shoppers, for that matter - against the backdrop of street violence. In the process of working on this deal I met with a stream of developers and market actors. I remember one saying bluntly: you can't have a full-service grocery store because everyone's too poor, and you can't have a bookstore because poor people don't read books. End of story.

In reality, the community was economically and racially diverse. There were some poor people but not everyone was poor; many were quite well off. And even poor people eat and buy food as part of the human condition. How could we quantify local consumers who not only read books but would buy them, too, if they had the chance? In a distressed market, commercial development is already extremely difficult, if not impossible. Highly quality and geographically appropriate data and information are needed to direct resources, but not always available.

Good data isn't the only challenge. In a commercial market the highest level of retail sets the tone for the rest of the business district. Retail attracts retail, and like attacks like. We call this the Snowball Effect. If you have a mix of nail salons, currency exchanges, pawnshops, dollar stores, empty storefronts, and broken windows, it's hard to attract a major anchor such as a grocery store and much easier to attract more of the same. This is also true in the housing market. Unfortunately, the recent wave of foreclosures has shown us the worst face of how this trending works. Boarded up buildings attract more boarded up buildings, disinvestment, graffiti, and so on. Somehow you have to break and reverse the cycle.

"Like attracts like" also applies to law and order. Crime and undesirable social behavior is a magnet for the same; it is not a magnet for safety, civility, peace, goodwill, or community confidence. It does not draw investors or investment. It is not a motivator to keep your lawn tidy, to plant flowers in springtime, to say hello to passersby, or to paint your picket fence - again - the third time it's been tagged.

As we worked on the shopping center, we also organized local residents and business owners to participate in what we called "power walks." Participants made homemade signs such as "no guns, no drugs" and "stop the killing." They marched defiantly but peacefully though the areas that were experiencing the most mayhem. This helped, but it was by no means a permanent solution.

Similar push-backs are going on today as elected officials, the police department and a host of community leaders continue to grapple for solutions to street violence. Safety marches and rallies are being held by community residents, school leaders and even children. New intervention programs are being planned and implemented. Recent efforts touted by Mayor Daley and others have included pressing for gun legislation and increasing police patrols in the most troubled locations.

But how do we know which community programs and strategies will have the greatest impact? How can we help our men and women in blue predict and prevent activity that hinders civility, peace, and prosperity?

Death by street violence is a local condition. Better block-by-block data and information isn't the only answer, but surely it would help.