There’s a theory in criminology called the “Routine Activities Theory.” The theory posits that there are three factors that figure into whether or not violence happens in a particular place and time, and how much violence happens. The three factors are targets, guardians and villains (aka “motivated offenders”).
I’ll explain the factors a little more in a little bit, but I wanted to clarify something. Many of the criminology theories place some burden of responsibility for a crime on the victim. This is different than blaming the victim. For example, if a man is murdered in a back alley at 3am in the morning, we can say that there was some responsibility on the victim when we ask why they were in that back alley at 3am in the morning. It goes without saying that the biggest part of the responsibility and all of the blame goes to the person committing the murder. The “Lifestyle Precipitation” theory is big on looking into how people live their lives as big factors in their victimization.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the three factors. Targets are those people who are the would-be recipients of any kind of violence. They become targets for different reasons. For example, you could be a target because of something you did, like flash a stash of cash or drive a late-model car with a nice sound system. You could become a target because of something you have no control over, like the color of your skin or some sort of mental or physical disability.
Guardians are the people or authorities who stand in the way of a crime being committed. Traditionally, we see guardians in police or soldiers, but guardians can also be other people and other groups. A guardian could be the grandmother who sits on her porch and keeps a close eye on everything that happens in the neighborhood, or the children out playing on the street who could identify a villain in a lineup or call the police if something happens. In a school, it would be the teachers and staff who are the guardians. And peers can also be guardians when they exert pressure on a villain or would-be villain to not go after a target.
Then we have the villains. These are the people who commit crimes. Why or how someone becomes a villain is very complex. They could have been exposed to violence and then become violent themselves. They could be bored teenagers who need to challenge authority as part of their process of growing into young adults. Or they could be people who are hungry and need to steal food. Again, complex.
Whenever there is an imbalance in these three factors, we get crime or we get peace. If there are more guardians than villains, the villains are discouraged from acting. If there are more targets than either villains or guardians, we get some degree of crime, especially if the level of guardians drops or the level of villains increases. If we get more villains than guardians, we get more crime. And then there are those times when the guardians join the category of villains.
With all of that in mind, one could very well apply this theory to the what is happening in Baltimore with regards to the record number of homicides and shootings. At some point in March or April of 2015, the imbalance came and triggered the current epidemic of homicides. One clear imbalance occurred when the Freddie Gray Riots turned a segment of the population — one living in already disadvantaged communities and under marginalized conditions — against the authorities. In essence, they became villains while they violently protested, and then targets when the police struggled to go into those communities and continue to police.
The number of guardians represented by police officers has also declined. From The Baltimore Sun:
“The Baltimore Police Department has just under 2,100 full-duty officers. Pugh said the city should have 3,000. She called the shortfall “devastating.”
Officials have worked to shorten the recruiting process, but Pugh said getting new cops onto the street remains difficult.”
Why that recruiting process has been difficult is up for debate.
There is also the matter of the current opiate epidemic. Consider this from The Economist:
“According to an estimate by the health department, around 50,000 Baltimoreans are addicted to opioids. Some consider that an exaggeration; a visit to the streets around Baltimore’s Lexington Market suggests it might not be. “See him on the bike! He’s so high he can’t ride straight,” says Mr Barksdale, from behind the wheel, picking out the stoners with an expert eye. There appear to be dozens of them; two dealers are plainly visible, dishing out the content of orange pillboxes. It is probably Percocet, an opioid pain-reliever, with a street value of $30 for a 30mg hit. One of the dealers is operating within a few feet of a police van—perhaps, Mr Barksdale speculates, because he too is stoned.”
Those 50,000 people are just Baltimore residents. There are bound to be more opioid drug users in the surrounding counties who travel into Baltimore to buy product. That translates to a lot of cash exchanging hands in Baltimore, and, thus, there are a lot of targets. And the dealers who fight each other for a piece of the market become villains and targets.
So what to do?
Programs that work on violence reduction would likely be successful in their efforts if they worked on bringing balance to the triad described above. But, like everything else in life, interventions need to be done carefully and with wisdom so that they don’t cause any additional imbalances. For example, a surge in police activity brings in more guardians to the city or an area of the city. But where some people see guardians, others might see villains. And care must be taken so that those fears don’t become true and the police don’t abuse their power.
A program that increases the opportunities for people to work is great if it puts the villains into meaningful jobs that pull them away from crime and into an honest living. But a similar program that only increases targets (e.g. people walking around with money) without allowing the same opportunities for those who are burdened with the label of “ex-con” or “ex-offender” brings an imbalance.
It goes without saying that all of this is easier said than done. Identifying who is a target/guardian/victim is very hard. (Look at the recently indicted Baltimore police officers.) Figuring out exactly where to invest resources is also difficult. You could end up investing in making more targets, or reducing the number of guardians, or both. So it helps to think things through… Which is also easier said than done when there is so much violence and death around.
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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