“Today’s perpetrator is tomorrow’s victim,” is what Police Commissioner Ken Davis said during a radio interview a few days ago. He was talking about a homicide victim who died on the streets of Baltimore City. The victim was Tabitha Holtman, a 25-year old woman who was killed by gunfire recently. This is how that shooting was described by the media:
“Police said Tabitha Holtman, 25, was found lying in the middle of the 1600 block of Church St. with multiple gunshot wounds to her back, and was pronounced dead on the scene at about 11:45 p.m. A 17-year-old boy also was grazed by a bullet in the incident. He was treated at an area hospital. Police said the victims were walking in the block when they heard gunshots from behind them and ran.”
The Commissioner described her death this way:
“She epitomizes 2015’s murder victims. She was in fact herself a non-fatal shooting victim, been arrested many many times, been charged with handgun violations… She was a drug dealer. She was shot a couple years ago non-fatally. She’s been charged with carrying a firearm… Those are all the signs that you are yourself either going to kill someone one day or be on the receiving end of violence. So we’ve got to do a better job.”
In other words, it was partly her fault.
Of course, I should know better than to blame the victim. After all, the facts of the case so far don’t lead to a conclusion whereby she pulled out a gun first and/or fired the first shot. Yet, as the Commissioner points out, she was involved in a lifestyle that wasn’t exactly the safest. I almost want to catch up to her in the afterlife and ask her if she expected some other result to her life after being involved in “the game.”
So, yes, in this case — as in many — the victim had some influence into the outcome, unfortunately.
So what are the things that govern the risk of being a victim? It depends on who you ask. One theory is that of “victim precipitation.” Under this theory, the victim did something that led to their victimization. For example, if Tabitha had pulled a gun on someone and the other person pulled out their gun, and then Tabitha took the first shot, then her actions precipitated her death. Under the same theory, if Tabitha mouthed off to someone and that someone only knows how to solve their issues by using a gun, then, again, Tabitha precipitated her homicide.
(By the way, I am taking my cues on how to explain these theories from this article, which explains these four theories better than I can.)
Another theory is the “lifestyle-exposure” theory of victimization. Under this theory, the things you do in your life as part of how you live your life are what led to you being a victim. This is the one that more closely fits with what Commissioner Davis said about Tabitha. She had been into drug dealing. She had possession of guns in the past. Her lifestyle mixed her in with the wrong crowd, and so, she ended up dead. You can see how this theory kind of leads into the precipitation theory a little bit. They’re somewhat intertwined.
A third theory is the “deviant place” theory of victimization. Under this theory, it’s all about the environment. You can be a law-abiding citizen with a clean record and a history of solving your problems through effective negotiation. Heck, you might ever run the other way in a fight. But, if you live in an environment where things come together just the right way, you’re going to be a victim. If Tabitha decided to clean up her life and be a model citizen, but she was still in a part of town with high crime indices, it was only a matter of time until someone shot her in the back several times.
The fourth theory is the “routine activity” theory of victimization. This one has some hints of both ecological and lifestyle-exposure theory to them. In this theory, there are controls against crime, such as police presence or home security systems. There are also motivated offenders who are looking for the first sign of a breakdown in the controls to do their deeds. Notice that the victim has little input into whether or not they will be victimized. The victim just goes about their routine. If Tabitha was just casually walking down a safe neighborhood right at the time that a criminal was walking by and the lights went out, and the criminal had a gun, and killing Tabitha was profitable in some way, and the police were all away, then Tabitha gets killed.
Yes, there are other theories of victimization, and I’m looking into them, but these four seem to be the ones with the biggest evidence behind them. They fit neatly into what researchers have seen when they study crime. And, yes, it feels a little icky to blame the victim, especially in cases of rape. (That’s one crime that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.) But we must be honest and admit that there are many cases in which the victim did something — knowingly or unknowingly — that influenced their risk of being a victim.
During the height of the “drug wars” back in my birthplace of Juarez, Mexico, the number of daily murders was astounding. I remember hearing that upwards of 50 people were killed in one day when rival drug cartels were fighting a war of attrition for the big entry point into the United States drug market. At that time, a public health surveillance team from Mexico City made statements that over 95% of those who were being killed had some sort of criminal record, or they were killed during the act of a crime… Talk about asking for it.
And what about a place like Baltimore? Do these theories hold there, or do we have to look at it differently because of all the different social and political forces coming to a head? For example, is Tabitha dead because she could not get a job and went into the drug trade because the school system failed her, and because Baltimore has such a high homicide rate?
Likewise, if you were going to intervene from a public health perspective, how would your intervention change if you were using one model over the other? Inquiring minds want to know.
But, for now, just know that you know a little bit more about the direction that my thesis research is taking. I tip my hat to you if you figure out exactly where I’m going with all this.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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