People who do homicide research, develop and maintain homicide datasets, or design intervention strategies for lethal violence are literally involved with life-and-death issues. Nevertheless, work in lethal violence had been scattered among numerous disciplines, with little coordination and often little or no communication among them. The Homicide Research Working Group, an interdisciplinary and international association of researchers and policy makers, was formed in 1991 in response to this situation.
The Homicide Research Working Group is not a typical professional organization. HRWG members represent many countries and are about evenly split between academics and practitioners. Their disciplines include criminology, medicine, nursing, public policy, social work, criminal justice, public health, psychology, sociology, law, geography, epidemiology, demography, and a variety of others.
HRWG members are interested in working together to discover the best ways to measure and reduce rates of lethal violence. If there is a scholarly disagreement about a methodological issue, HRWG members want to work together to solve the problem. To provide support for this kind of problem-solving, the HRWG organizes workshop sessions at professional meetings, maintains the journal, Homicide Studies, and an active listserv. In addition, we hold an intensive three- or four-day meeting once a year.
The group has developed a number of social mechanisms to discourage didactic lectures and to encourage active group participation and problem solving on breaking issues at the annual meetings. There are no simultaneous sessions. Participants do not present a paper and then leave, but are asked to attend for the entire meeting, where they sit facing each other around a circle or open square. Everyone receives a summary of each presentation beforehand; presenters review only the main points in no more than half the allotted time, with the other half reserved for group discussion. Each session has a “moderator,” whose job it is to stimulate a lively discussion (or maintain general decorum when stimulation is unnecessary), and a “recorder,” whose job it is to record the discussion for publication in the Proceedings. (1)
To ensure that current findings and breaking issues find a place on the meeting’s program, it remains flexible until the month prior to the meeting and information can be presented in a variety of formats – formal presentations, works in progress, demonstrations, tutorials, and practitioner discussions. Sessions are of varying length, depending on how long it takes to deal with the issue at hand. One result of these still-evolving customs is that participant discussions build and develop over several days, with later discussions referring back to earlier presentations, and are often the most valuable part of the annual meeting. In addition, a hospitality room is kept open during hours that the formal sessions are not scheduled, which provides a place for people to meet to further discuss presentations or to work on research projects.
Although the HRWG is interdisciplinary, and not affiliated with any particular professional organization, it was sheltered at birth by the American Society of Criminology (ASC). At the 1991 ASC annual meeting, Richard Block organized two key sessions. In the first, a plenary session on “The Wolfgang Tradition in Homicide Research and the Agenda for the Future,” scholars confronted the current status of homicide research and made recommendations for the future. (2) But the second session was destined to have the greater impact. Called “Workshop on Theory and Method of Current Homicide Research: The Need for a Comparative Working Group,” it was the first ASC session to be designed as a workshop dedicated to discussing “coordination of research, problems encountered, solutions, theoretical developments and common or contradictory findings.” In preparation for what would become the HRWG’s charter meeting, Becky and Dick Block contacted people currently doing homicide research and compiled a mailing list of these researchers for distribution at the session, collected “homicide research and data questionnaires” from people involved in current projects, and asked eight people to each present a brief summary of one of the primary issues facing homicide research. (3)
A standing-room-only crowd of over 70 people attended this charter session. Participants entered enthusiastically into the discussion, and snapped up copies of the mailing list and the sets of completed questionnaires that were distributed, but seemed to most appreciate the initial round of self-introductions, during which networking was fast and furious. They voted unanimously to form an informally-organized Homicide Research Working Group, to continue their dialogue at an inaugural intensive meeting the following June, to accept the kind invitation of Victoria Schneider of the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan to sponsor the meeting in Ann Arbor, and to continue to have workgroup sessions at the ASC and at the annual meetings of other organizations.
The 29 people attending the Ann Arbor meeting in June 1992 not only shared ideas and discussed the intricacies of homicide datasets, but gave the Homicide Research Working Group a more formal structure. They developed a formal list of HRWG goals, which have been confirmed by successive meetings of the group, made several key decisions about its nature and structure: the title of the group would be “homicide” not “violence,” (4) there would be no criteria for membership except agreeing with the HRWG goals; the group and the meetings would be as accessible as possible; it would be independent of any disciplinary association; and it would be governed by a steering committee.
The sponsorship and site of the annual meeting are more than symbolic, however. Meeting and tutorial sessions and field trips give HRWG members a sense of place and take advantage of the site’s resources, Thus, we have toured the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, discussed violence prevention with local leaders, observed a demonstration of the ATF’s firearm tracing database, toured the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office and Trauma Center, had a hands-on demonstration of an outdoor forensic scene (a.k.a. a “pig dig”), watched a demonstration of the use of ground penetrating radar, toured the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) and ALERRT, where they train law enforcement how to respond to active shooters.
The possibility of creating a journal of Homicide Studies was first mentioned at the charter meeting in 1991, but though most members liked the idea, no one was ready to do the work to develop it. At the 1994 HRWG session at the ASC, however, Dwayne Smith suggested that we begin a journal dedicated to the founding goals of HRWG. The creation of Homicide Studies and its publication by Sage was largely the result of his effort and perseverance.
- From the first meeting in 1992 and until 1998, the National Institute of Justice published the Proceedingsof the annual meeting. Pam Lattimore, a charter member of the Homicide Research Working Group, was instrumental in compiling and/or publishing the Proceedings. The 1999 and 2000 Proceedings were published by the FBI.
- These papers were published in a special issue of the Journal of Crime and Justice, Volume XIV, Number 2, 1991.
- For the record, the issues outlined in the 1991 charter meeting were “Measurement of Drug-Related Homicides” by Henry Brownstein, “Confronting the Definition of Motive” by Christine Rasche, “Measuring Street Gang-Related Homicide” by David Curry, “Linking Police Data and Public Health” by Daniel Perales, “Creating Structures for Agency Feedback and Cooperation” by Derral Cheatwood, “Managing Homicide Datasets – The Revised Canada Homicide Survey” by Christine Wright, “Problems in Defining Marital-like Relationships” by Margo Wilson, and “The Homicide Work Group and the Criminal Justice Archive” by Victoria Schneider.
- Since homicide can only be studied if we study all the events leading up to it, nonlethal violence escalating to lethal violence is necessarily part of the group’s focus. However, some things called “violence” may not be life-threatening, or part of a potentially lethal causal pattern.