People follow patterns. If you were projecting a future for New York City in the early 1980s, you would have rightfully anticipated a Kurt Russell movie where the city is walled off from the rest of the country because the crime problem was rampant. Homicide moves through a city in a process similar to infectious disease, according to a new study that may give police a new tool in tracking and ultimately preventing murders.

Using Newark, N.J., as a pilot case, a team of Michigan State University criminal justice academics led by April Zeoli applied public health tracking methods to the city's 2,366 homicides between 1982 and 2008 and found the killings were not randomly located but instead followed a pattern, evolving from the city's center and moving southward and westward over time.

They infer that, like a flu bug that spreads to susceptible groups, homicide clusters in Newark spread among areas consisting largely of poor and minority residents. Over time, the concentration of homicides effectively disappeared from one area and settled in another.

"By using the principles of infectious disease control, we may be able to predict the spread of homicide and reduce the incidence of this crime," said Zeoli, public health researcher in MSU's School of Criminal Justice.

Michigan State University's April Zeoli says homicide spreads through a community like infectious disease - although infectious disease is egalitarian and exculpatory and crime is not. Credit: Michigan State University

They used analytic software from the field of medical geography to track long-term homicide trends, a method that can be done in real time which would allow police to identify emerging hotspots. The researchers also identified areas of Newark that had no homicide clusters during the 26-year time frame of the study, despite being surrounded by deadly violence.

"If we could discover why some of those communities are resistant," Zeoli said, "we could work on increasing the resistance of our communities that are more susceptible to homicide."