How to Reduce Crime: Treat It Like an Infectious Disease

Once we recognize violence as a contagious process, we can treat it accordingly

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TIME Magazine Cover, June 10, 2013
Photograph by Mark Seliger for TIME

When Rahm Emanuel assumed office as Mayor of Chicago, he inherited very tough challenges — heavier than the politics-as-usual passing of the baton from one administration to the next. He inherited a legacy of violence that had been generations in the making. That legacy can make the violence seem intractable, but it isn’t.

(MORE: Read this week’s TIME Magazine cover story “Chicago Bull,” available to subscribers here)

I grew up in Chicago, but I spent much of my professional career working to control epidemics in Africa and Asia for the World Health Organization and others. When I returned home in 1995, I saw violence in Chicago spreading in the exact same patterns as diseases like tuberculosis and HIV. At the time, people used the term “violence epidemic” as a metaphor, but I and others saw parallels that could be scientifically documented. Maps and graphs that chart the spread of violence look almost identical to those that chart infectious diseases with maps showing clusters and graphs showing waves upon wave.  Properties of transmission, though just as invisible as microbial counterparts, can be witnessed spreading from one individual to another, one community to the next.

It has taken years of investigation to validate these observations. For example, brain research tells us that brain cortical patterns are involved in copying behavior, and that damage to the limbic system can occur by victimization. These are some of the ways in which the contagion occurs. Some of these effects can make someone lose their temper quickly and respond to a situation aggressively. They turn yesterday’s victim or witness into tomorrow’s aggressor.

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The good news is once we recognize violence as a contagious process, we can treat it accordingly, using the same methods that successfully contain other epidemic processes – interrupting transmission, and behavior and normative change.  Cure Violence and its partners have been putting this public health approach to violence into practice in Chicago, Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans and more than 15 cities and 8 countries by putting specially selected workers into communities to interrupt violence and encourage behavior change through outreach. Research conducted by the U.S. Justice Department, Centers for Disease Control, Johns Hopkins University and others have credited this approach with dramatically reducing shootings and killings in neighborhoods where violence had been epidemic. The Institutes of Medicine —the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences — and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have recognized the importance of using this public health model to prevent the spread of violence.

Mayor Emanuel comes from a family of doctors. He understands health very well and he values the role that the public health sector — working alongside law enforcement — can play in reducing shootings and killings, not just to help individuals but to reduce violence across an entire community. He also wants results. And we’re beginning to see them.

Woodlawn is one of the communities hit hardest by violence last year.  It is also one of the communities where Mayor Emanuel invested in a comprehensive anti-violence strategy that includes law enforcement and public health. We have already seen a 100 percent reduction in homicides there this year. Based on data from the Chicago Police Department from January to April 2013, there has been a 40 percent reduction in shootings and killings across the 14 communities where both law enforcement and public health strategies are being used. Every shooting that does not happen helps to create a new legacy for Chicago and for every community that is plagued by violence. Perceptions are hard to change. But we can save lives. And because we can, we must.

Gary Slutkin is a physician and founder and executive director of Cure Violence. The views expressed are solely his own.

Click here to read editor-at-large David Von Drehle’s full magazine story on Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel available exclusively for TIME subscribers.

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This is a new recognition of the long-standing work of the forensic psychiatrist and psychoanalyst James Gilligan.  His book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes describes how he came to the same conclusions many years ago.  It is also reminiscent of the theoretical work of the French-Canadian René Girard in Violence and the Sacred.  It is very encouraging to see these evidence-based applications being revisited.


Violence is not a crime nor is it a bad thing, When violent crime comes to you and yours, only violence will save you. Destroy those who will brutally attack innocent people and Violent crime will go away. The problem of religions using brutal violence to press their agendas is a time honored tradition dating back to Abraham.



You should apply the same 'Scientific' approach to dealing with the sectarian aggression wave running amok through the Muslim sphere of theology, from Mali to Afghanistan, from Syria to the Philippines. Something is very sick if a culture that once bridged the gap between the classic Greco-Roman civilization and the Renaissance of human values turned into a sniper/bomber killing competition environment. The communities involved should mobilize the civil courage to identify the virus, isolate the carriers and inoculate the young - before the disease takes roots in the mentality of another generation of terrorists.

MarcHandler1 1 Like

For years, we have been locked in a tired debate about crime. Liberals claim that to end crime we must address the "root cause," poverty. Conservatives say we just need tougher punishment for criminals. Liberal and conservative leaders have had decades to prove their case, and have failed. -- Now comes a new approach.  No one is trying to prove their ideology nor trying to win points for the red states or the blue states. Instead they are taking an unbiased results-oriented approach, using science and logic. It is simultaneously community based and global -- and it is actually solving the problem. This is exactly what we need in America and much more of it. 


@MarcHandler1 How is this not a tired rehash of the "root causes" school?  


@tinatrent1 @MarcHandler1   Thanks for your reply. I don't think you would ask this question if you actually checked out what these people are doing. It is fundamentally different than anything liberals or conservatives have done in the past. These people are not trying to end  poverty in the hopes that it will trickle down to ending crime. They're not starting free lunch programs. They do not look at crime as the result of poverty. They approach violent crime as a specific learned behavior, like smoking or exercising. They have a very detailed program of direct intervention and long term behavioral change that relies on measurable results.  And it's working.

BTW There's nothing wrong with liberal food programs and neighborhood sports programs. They're good, but they don't solve the larger problem. There's nothing wrong with conservatives locking up a dangerous criminal and making sure he doesn't get back into the community. That's good, but it also doesn't solve the problem.    

These people at Cure Violence are looking at how mankind has actually ended plagues and epidemics, and they're using that approach to end violence. I think it's admirable and deserves support. And it is a model for how we might put aside our ideological vitriol and actually solve our problems. Here's a link in which they describe their program


I am wondering if the prson who wrote this is a liberal socialist like most politicians from Chicago? The headlines refers to Crime being like an infectious disease,  but in the body of the article, the word Violence seems to transposed for Crime as if they have the same meaning. He goes on to say that a victim today  can become an agressor tomorrow. Where I come from that is called adaptation for survival's sake.

My experience has been hard won and often times earned with the heat of battle. I was bullied to the point that I was on the edge of sanity and skipped a full year of school to avoid the inevitable confrontations with my antagonist (about 15  older boys).  I had many things happen to me that summer that virtually saved my life. Boy Scouts was one, Karete Lessons was #2, but the real thing that saved me was a trusted adult took the time to teach me to not be afraid of the bullies. He said that If I run, i will be runing the rest of my life. He was 100% correct. He advised me to pick up a stick, Rock, kick, bite, or anything I could do to bloody the atackers and they would think twice in coming back for seconds. In My case he was correct, but that being said, I lived in Chicago in the early 80s  and had to deal with street gangs once again these were different than my antagonist as a 12 year old. These Latin Gangs meant to kill anyone who they singled out.

When you say that Violence should be treated as a disease, if you mean to identify it, and then destroy it, I fully agree. The cities of the US are battle zones and practibly uninhabital by regular citizens especailly in places like Chicago and New York where an armed citizen is more likely to be shot by a policeman that by a criminal.

In my opinion we need a crime fighter like J.Edgar Hoover who uses machineguns to destroy the Cancer that is growing in our cities. The Mexican drug cartels are here in direct competiotion with all of the rest of the scum from around the world and our borders are still open to welcome them. today we see a confirmation that the Taliban is migrating through the south of the border from south America. Is this really news or has the feds been asleep at the wheel for that long?

Violence is NOT a bad thing when it is needed to stop greater violence. This is a very liberal misconception that give rise to the victim mentality.


rutnerh 1 Like

Aggression like road rage like epidemic diseases may be treatable and partly preventable as seen in lower crime rates in Chicago. But crimes motivated by financial needs or wants like robberies, holdups etc by have- nots, unemployed or unemployables by choice will always be with us as long as there is a widening income gap between the rich and the poor.

tinatrent1 1 Like

@rutnerh Bunk.  The economy has no effect on the resources available to the permanently dependent underclass, from where most crime arises, and the economic imperative theory of "robbery, etc." was long ago entirely discredited.

The only robberies you can lay at the banksters' feet are the ones they committed by raiding the treasury with the two other members of their street gang, Fannie and Freddie.  Quite substantial ones they were, though, and I suspect we have common ground in the desire to see those folks in chain gangs.