Faculty voice:

April Zeoli: Collaborating for Change

Sept. 3, 2014

April Zeoli is an assistant professor of criminal justice in the College of Social Science. She uses public health methods and models to increase the understanding of violence and homicide. Her main field of investigation is the prevention of intimate partner violence and homicide through public health policy. She also is an expert on gun control legislation for those accused of domestic violence.

I am a public health researcher in the School of Criminal Justice. It may seem like a bit of an odd placement, but it could not be more appropriate.

Many people know public health through the field’s highly visible work on anti-smoking campaigns and efforts to decrease heart disease. For others, public health may mean infectious disease control through better sanitation, hygiene and vaccinations. These things are only a part of the larger domain of public health.

The mission of public health is to protect and promote the health of communities through monitoring health, conducting research on health and factors that affect health and providing needed services. The goal of public health is for communities to be healthy.

Violence affects the health of communities. Beyond the injuries and death, violence affects communities through its negative impacts on mental health and the contributions of anxiety and stress to numerous health conditions. People exposed to violence may engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol abuse, to help them cope their reality.

Children exposed to violence may have difficulty concentrating in school, leading to poor performances that negatively impact their life trajectories and health. Direct and indirect experiences of violence have numerous deleterious impacts on people’s health, making violence prevention an important subfield of public health.

The commission of crime and violence are fundamental topics for criminology and criminal justice. While criminologists have studied crime and violence since the inception of the field, violence has only been recognized as a public health issue since the 1970s.

Yet researchers and practitioners have been successful in applying the public health approach, developed from working with disease and illness, to violence prevention. This approach focuses on prevention and involves the four-step process:

  1. Defining the problem through data collection
  2. Studying the problem to identify risk and protective factors
  3. Developing and evaluating interventions for the problem
  4. Implementing the interventions and testing their effectiveness.

Public health and criminology and criminal justice have much to offer each other in the study of violence and its prevention and intervention. That concept is exemplified in my work at the School of Criminal Justice.

When I started my doctoral studies in public health, I had no idea I would eventually find a place in criminal justice. My doctoral research focused on whether state laws prohibiting domestic violence offenders from accessing firearms impacted rates of intimate partner homicide. In other words, do laws designed to keep guns from batterers save lives?

The results of my study, published in the journal Injury Prevention, show that state laws prohibiting those under domestic violence restraining orders from accessing firearms are significantly associated with a decrease in intimate partner homicides committed with firearms and total intimate partner homicide. While restraining orders are often handled in civil court, it is the criminal justice system, including local law enforcement, that must enforce these laws.

During my job search, I came across an announcement from MSU’s School of Criminal Justice for a public health researcher who studied violence. I had already recognized the importance of the criminal justice system in my work, and was happy to see that the school recognized the importance of public health to their mission. I have now been a part of the faculty at the school for six years, and my understanding of and respect for criminology and criminal justice has grown immensely.

Working with my criminal justice colleagues Jesenia Pizarro and Chris Melde, and our geography colleague, Sue Grady, I have forged an innovative and interdisciplinary research agenda on homicide. The work revolves around the hypothesis that homicide may move through communities in a manner similar to an infectious disease.

We applied the basic principles of infectious disease spread to the problem of homicide. Homicide may lead to more homicides through retaliation; through increased willingness to use deadly force; and through the arming of a community with firearms. If this premise holds, the placement of homicide through communities in time and space will not be random; instead homicides will cluster and move in systematic ways.

The first study from this interdisciplinary research agenda was published in Justice Quarterly, and shows clear patterns of movement of homicide, lending support to the hypothesis that homicide moves like an infectious disease. If homicide spreads like an infectious disease, we may be able to use the principles of infectious disease prevention to reduce its reach.

This interdisciplinary research has been well received by both the fields of criminology and criminal justice and public health. We are now in a time in which both fields are interested in working together to solve the problem of violence that many families and communities face, and collaborations are becoming more common.

Each field brings important approaches, tools, theories and systems to the problem of violence that enhance and supplement those of the other. MSU’s School of Criminal Justice has been at the forefront of this movement, and I am honored to be part of it.

Read more about Zeoli's work: Homicide spreads like infectious disease

Photo by G.L. Kohuth