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Crime & Justice

Why gangs are like both honeybees and lions

A memorial to members of the Big Hazard gang in Los Angeles.
A memorial to members of the Big Hazard gang in Los Angeles.
Lisa Newton

Humans are mysterious animals, even to ourselves. Which is why, it seems, scientists often resort to weird means to understand people's behavior. This trend is especially apparent in the area of crime, where there's currently a sort of scientific, data-based rennaissance underway.

First, there was news that Santa Cruz Police were using an earthquake forecasting algorithm to predict crime waves. Then there's the study that found people who believe in hell are less likely to commit crimes. 

Now, UCLA researchers have come up with a way of plotting street gang territories: a "mathematical model that has been used for more than 80 years to determine the hunting range of animals in the wild." Set in Boyle Heights, this study, published in Criminology, analyzed gang crimes for a three-year period. According to a press release, the equations applied to the data have been in use since the 1930's "to study the relationships between competing groups as diverse as bee colonies, troops of chimpanzees and prides of lions."

Basically, it seems, territorial humans interact with their living space much as other territorial animals do.

What they found is that we've generally miscalculated gang territories. Rather than street blocks and intersections, gang lines tend to fall in weird places: "the boundaries ran through the yards of homes and businesses and through alleyways. When the boundaries did land on streets, they were as likely to crisscross them as follow them."

They also found that most gang related crime happens on the fringes of a gang's territory, near these borders. 

"You would think that we're more complicated than other animals, so a model this simplistic shouldn't work," said co-author Martin B. Shor to UCLA's media department. "I was surprised that it fit as well as it did."

Researchers hope their findings will help police better distribute their resources.