The Imbalances of Violence

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.

6 Comments on “The Imbalances of Violence”

  1. “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.”

    Rene, I would be interested to know to what degree we would blame the owner of a pit bull, if their own dog later attacks them. There are many recent examples of this in the news, especially as it pertains to children. How much responsibility would an individual owner bear for adopting an aggressive breed of dog?


    • Let’s work it backward. First, we need evidence that pitbulls are more aggressive than normal. There is evidence (here: ; here: ; and here: ) that the breed of the dog is not necessarily predictive of their aggressiveness. Factors such as socialization, how they’re treated by their owner, and how they’re treated by other people come into play, along with genetics. So the individual owner carries a responsibility proportional to their contribution to the dog’s behavior. Or, if there was reasonable evidence that the dog was more aggressive than normal and the owner still chose to obtain the dog. Or, if there was reasonable evidence that the dog was more aggressive than normal and the owner did not make reasonable attempts at correcting the behavior.

      So, in the end, it’s all a matter of the individual cases. It’s very much the same with the victimization theories. If someone goes to a neighborhood plagued with armed robberies of people on the street where their valuables have been taken, and the great majority of these robberies occurred at night, and there has been wide news coverage of these events… And the person still goes there at night and flashes money or other valuable items, then there is some degree of blame that could be reasonable to assign to them.

      It’s tricky, though. Because there is also ample warning to people not to commit crimes, that committing crimes is frowned upon, and that they will be punished. But they still do it, which assigns a lot more blame to them in the scenario I just described. I guess that’s why lawyers, judges, and ethicists get paid the big bucks.


  2. Rene, I don’t wish to make this a debate about the pit bull phenotype itself, but does the conclusion change if we look at what’s available in PubMed? A review of the Pubmed database provides the following evidence-based studies that suggest that a majority of dog bite hospitalizations are attributed to pit bull phenotypes, often after analyses of decades worth of data.

    Effectiveness of breed-specific legislation in decreasing the incidence of dog-bite injury hospitalisations in people in the Canadian province of Manitoba

    Ocular Trauma From Dog Bites: Characterization, Associations, and Treatment Patterns at a Regional Level I Trauma Center Over 11 Years

    Morbidity of pediatric dog bites: A case series at a level one pediatric trauma center

    Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998

    Fatal dog attacks, 1989-1994

    Dog bite-related fatalities: a 15 year review of Kentucky Medical Examiner cases

    Fatal dog attacks in Canada, 1990 – 2007

    Mortality, Mauling, and Maiming by Vicious Dogs

    Dog Bites in Urban Children

    Dog Bites of the Head and Neck

    Effectiveness of breed-specific legislation in decreasing the incidence of dog bite injury

    Periorbital trauma from pit bull terrier attacks

    Characteristics of 1616 Consecutive Dog Bite Injuries at a Single Institution

    Pit Bull attack causing limb threatening vascular trauma -A case series

    Relationship Between Scarring and Dog Aggression in Pit Bull-Type Dogs Involved in Organized Dogfighting

    Dog bites in a US county: age, body part, and breed in pediatric dog bites


    • Oh, I believe that evidence, but it is not telling the whole story. It’s like the study on planes returning from bombing raids during World War II. Most of the planes that returned were shot in the wings and the fuselage. So those parts were reinforced over reinforcing the engine. There was a big bias there: the planes being shot in the engine were not returning, and thus not being counted.

      So, yeah, I’m sure that the bites from pitbulls are severe and cause more death and disability over other dog types, but the questions are many. What proportion of all bites are attributed to pitbulls? What proportion of pitbull bites that are severe came from dogs with bad temperament, that were mistreated, where the owner didn’t take reasonable steps to prevent this? And so on and so forth.

      In my opinion, no, the conclusion doesn’t change… It’s still “it depends.”


  3. Any dog that mauls a person, kills a child, or destroys pets and livestock has “bad temperament.” The proportion of bites attributed to pit bulls is answered in the aforementioned studies. Without exception, epidemiologists, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, trauma surgeons, etc have found that the frequency pit bull maulings exceed those of all other breeds. The majority of bites came from household pet dogs, who attacked members of their own families.


    • So… We’re stating facts? What are we doing here? What would you like me to tell you?
      I’ve written that it depends. If it’s true that pitbulls are more aggressive than normal, but the person didn’t know, then we cannot put all the blame on the person. If they knew, and did everything possible to avoid the bite, I’d put some blame but not a lot. If they knew and did nothing and then got bit, I’d place even more of the blame.
      What more would you like me to write? This is not a black-and-white, right-and-wrong situation. Few things are, and I’m not the kind of person who deals in absolutes.
      But, just for kicks, I’m going to disagree with your assertion that any dog doing any of those things has a bad temperament. After all, they were bred for that kind of thing. It’s like saying, “Bad scorpion! Bad!” when the scorpion stings the frog.


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