Conflict Intervention as Crime Prevention

Report Author

Justin R. Corbett

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Table of Contents

Mechanism of Impact

Criticality Interference

Criticality interference368 is the sequencing of interventions at pivotal threshold-proximal stages in conflict lifecycles to avert pending hyper-escalation and reduce the probability of triggering criminal tipping points or escalatory criminal response feedback loops.369 As criticality represents that state wherein the momentum of an escalating conflict serves as an engine unto its own furtherance, interference can be seen as a targeted disengagement of a conflict’s cruise control timed in such a way as to avoid a pending brick wall.

As experts in conflict dynamics and de- escalation, service providers are skilled at maneuvering along the precarious, vertical edges of rapidly escalating conflicts and in constructively engaging their associated socio- emotional heat. Still, sequencing interventions at threshold-proximal states is a decidedly difficult aspect of de-criticalizing conflict. For direct impact, providers need to either be readily known and easily accessible, or partner with those who already have access to threshold-proximal conflicts.370 Unfortunately, those approaching critical states are less likely to voluntarily engage assistive outlets.371

Through its partnership training violence interrupters on Staten Island, NYCID has ensured collaborators can skillfully intervene during threshold-proximal states. NYPI’s ongoing training of NYPD officers represents a crucial, citywide distribution of formal criticality interference capacity. Finally, conflict skills training generally can help ensure the availability of de-escalatory assistance in threshold-proximal moments and prove heroically consequential, as demonstrated by the no fewer than 12 NYC homicides avoided in 2015 by civilian interventions during conflicts that had gone supercritical.372


368. The language of conflict criticality borrows from terminology commonly used within physics, specifically the study of nuclear reactions. Here, conflict criticality represents the state where further contributions by either participant become unnecessary to maintain the perceived non-diminishing continuance of the conflict (i.e. it becomes self-perpetuating/-sustaining). Subcritical stages are those segments of the conflict lifecycle where further contributions are necessary to sustain the conflict, the absence of which result in the ultimate resolution or other discontinuance of the conflict. Supercritical stages are those where the conflict not only self-sustains, but seems to take on a life of its own, escalating the tension and/or harm beyond the rational interests of either participant. Threshold-proximal stages, then, are those stages immediately preceding (subcritical) or following (supercritical) the achievement of conflict criticality.

369. Conflict criticality increases the probability producing conflict-related criminal activity by (1) elevating the perceived harm of each additional behavioral stimuli, which (2) limits participants’ availability to non- criminal responses perceived as situationally relevant, and thereby (3) facilitates participants’ capacity to rationalize – through thoroughly considered or reactively impulsive justifications – ratcheted reciprocal responses. Criminal tipping points are instances where the totality or temporary tenor of an interpersonal conflict cognitively validates for at least one participant the utilization of what an objective observer would consider a criminal response. Escalatory criminal feedback loops present as a series of reciprocal exchanges involving activity that would objectively be labeled criminal in nature. If properly identified and engaged, conflict-assistive interventions reduce the probability of criminal activity by (1) dismantling the motivations to engage in harmful conflict behaviors, and (2) increasing participants’ repertoire of constructive responses, which collectively (3) complicate the rationalization and subsequent utilization of the offending ratcheted reciprocal responses.

370. The obvious example, here, is partnership with law enforcement officers who are routinely made aware of conflicts nearing and exceeding the criticality threshold. Officer involvement in seemingly less escalated conflicts may, however, still benefit from subsequent interventions deploying the criticality interference mechanism, as engagement of law enforcement can itself be a trigger. Therefore, these service providers’ interventions are appropriate post-engagement to address background escalation occurring beyond view of the justice system.

371. In threshold-proximal critical stages, participants’ diminished sense of agency over the conflict’s trajectory does not, unfortunately, result in an enhanced receptivity to de-escalatory interventions. In fact, a survey of New York individuals experiencing various stages of conflict revealed those at conflict-critical stages were two times more resistant to the idea of constructive third-party interventions than those in sub-critical stages. As such, those in greatest need for near-term interventions may also require additional encouragement to participate in such interventions.

372. See the discussion in supra notes 176 to 178.