The Spatial Patterning of County Homicide Rates: An Application of Exploratory Spatial Data Analysis

Steven F. Messner, Luc Anselin, Robert D. Baller, Darnell F. Hawkins, Glenn Deane, Stewart E. Tolnay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

265 Scopus citations


The possibility that homicides can spread from one geographic area to another has been entertained for some time by social scientists, yet systematic efforts to demonstrate the existence, or estimate the strength, of such a diffusion process are just beginning. This paper uses exploratory spatial data analysis (ESDA) to examine the distribution of homicides in 78 counties in, or around, the St. Louis metropolitan area for two time periods: a period of relatively stable homicide (1984-1988) and a period of generally increasing homicide (1988-1993). The findings reveal that homicides are distributed nonrandomly, suggestive of positive spatial autocorrelation. Moreover, changes over time in the distribution of homicides suggest the possible diffusion of lethal violence out of one county containing a medium-sized city (Macon County) into two nearby counties (Morgan and Sangamon Counties) located to the west. Although traditional correlates of homicide do not account for its nonrandom spatial distribution across counties, we find some evidence that more affluent areas, or those more rural or agricultural areas, serve as barriers against the diffusion of homicides. The patterns of spatial distribution revealed through ESDA provide an empirical foundation for the specification of multivariate models which can provide formal tests for diffusion processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)423-450
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Quantitative Criminology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1999


  • County homicide rates
  • Exploratory spatial data analysis
  • Homicide
  • Spatial patterning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law


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