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Curbing Murders Not Rocket Science, University of Chicago Prof Finds

By Sam Cholke | April 23, 2013 7:26am | Updated on April 23, 2013 10:46am
 Harold Pollack is co-director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, where experts have worked with the Chicago Police Department to study homicides in the city.
Harold Pollack is co-director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, where experts have worked with the Chicago Police Department to study homicides in the city.
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DNAInfo/Sam Cholke

HYDE PARK — A University of Chicago professor has distilled the city’s high homicide rate into a simple and elegant equation.

“Two guys, plus one disagreement, plus one gun, equals a dead body, that’s the equation,” said Harold Pollack, the co-director of the university’s Crime Lab, which is trying to bring greater rigor to the study of violence in Chicago.

Pollack focuses his work on the last two variables that are more easily addressed by public policy than the temperamental nature of the young men often involved in homicides.

“Is there a weapon of mass destruction greater than the average teenage boy? I don’t think so,” said Pollack, who extensively researched more than 200 consecutive homicides. “A lot of homicides in Chicago are impulsive acts — you combine a teenager with a gun and you up the chances something bad will happen.”

He said Chicago and the United States have similar violent crime rates as most Western European countries, but crime is more often deadly here because of the prevalence of guns.

“If you want to get mugged? London is a great place to go,” Pollack said, adding that an incident in London is far less likely to escalate to murder. “It’s hard to kill people with knives.”

He said he was in favor of the recently failed gun legislation in Congress to expand background checks on the purchase of firearms. More than 85 percent of homicides in Chicago last year involved a gun, Pollack said.

“Most researchers agree that the background check is the single most important thing that can be done to curb gun violence,” Pollack said, adding that 20 percent of the guns recovered by the Chicago Police Department last year that the Crime Lab was able to track were bought legally in Cook County.

The other angle Pollack is examining is the arguments that can escalate to violence.

The Crime Lab set up an experiment at 18 Chicago high schools last year with nearly 2,400 students to test whether disagreements could be diffused.

Half the students were involved in a combination of combat sports and group sessions with counselors from Becoming a Man, which was praised by President Barack Obama on a Feb. 15 visit to one of the groups at Hyde Park Academy. The other half of the students were allowed to go about their normal lives, but the researchers tracked grades and arrest records.

“Kids loved the combat sports,” Pollack said. “Aggression is OK, physicality is OK, but it has to be controlled in a disciplined way.”

He said arrests for the students involved in sports and group sessions declined sharply — 10 out of every 100 students involved were arrested for a violent crime during the experiment, significantly lower than the 18 out of every 100 students in the control group.

“Kids got fewer D’s and F’s,” Pollack said, adding that there was very little effect on students already performing well academically. “If you’re a B student and you want to get to be an A student, this intervention doesn’t do much for you.”

He said he was hopeful the students involved in the experiment would be more likely to graduate from high school. At a cost of $1,100 per student, he said it was a “wildly cost-effective” intervention to curb violence.

“This is not a polio vaccine, it is not a cure-all, these kids still have an enormous number of issues, but this will help,” Pollack said. “We need to have a portfolio of interventions.”

Pollack and his colleagues have the attention of the Chicago Police Department and Supt. Garry McCarthy. Crime Lab experts have met with McCarthy and have worked with police to systematically study homicides in the city.

Pollack said he thinks McCarthy is receptive to his research, which demonstrates how much of the violence in Chicago is out of the control of police.