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What criminals can teach us about fighting crime

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Loosely bordered by Northside Drive to the east, a line of railroad tracks to the north, Atlanta's city limits to the west, and I-20 to the south, the Westside is home to less than 15 percent of the city's population -- and nearly 25 percent of its violent crime. There are no major supermarkets and few fast-food chains along Donald Hollowell Parkway, one of the area's main drags. Neither Wal-Mart nor McDonald's is willing to risk the storm of drug dealing and retaliation slayings. Kids sometimes line the streets late at night to hurl concrete blocks at passing cars. Last summer, they overturned a tanker, then climbed into the cab to beat the driver. In junked-up bunkhouses that charge $5 an afternoon, heroin and crack pass from dealers to users, while tuberculosis makes the rounds from prostitutes to johns. A white towel draped over a bicycle's handlebar is not meant for wiping sweat from the rider's brow -- it signals to pedestrians that he's holding dope. Schools such as Usher Elementary and Kennedy Middle struggle to get off the state's "needs improvement" list. The neighborhood's drug dealers start young, sometimes in the single digits.

It's the type of place that breeds criminals. And that's what draws Topalli there.

"There's a lack of opportunity," he says of the Westside, where he's ridden with drug dealers and spent the night in crack houses. "There's a lack of jobs. There's poverty. There are lots of easy things to point to and say, 'This causes crime.'"

Topalli is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University and a member of the school's Partnership for Urban Health Research. But unlike most criminologists, he does little of his work in prisons. To get closer to understanding the criminal mind, he seeks out offenders whose crimes are fresh. Once, when he asked a carjacker how long it had been since he jacked his last ride, the guy said 45 minutes.

Topalli goes where outsiders won't go. He doesn't carry a gun and doesn't show fear. He banks on being able to talk himself out of a bad situation. He's so up on his street slang that Hollywood screenwriters sometimes call. They want to know if their dialogue sounds legit.

Topalli finds the criminals he interviews through "recruiters" who used to work the streets themselves and happen to know the guys who still do. His quest is to discover how violent offenders become the way they are. He's also looking for ways to stop them.

"Pinpointing the exact reasons why people don't participate in crime is a lot more difficult than pinpointing the reasons why they do," Topalli says, sitting in his 12th floor office in GSU's Urban Life building and waiting on a recruiter who never shows. "'Why didn't this kid enter crime?' To me, that's a more interesting question. And you really can only get at the answer to that question by talking to both groups of people. So you've got to talk to the offenders. That's where you start that discovery process."

Over the past seven years, Topalli has interviewed more than 250 active criminals in Atlanta and St. Louis and has written nearly a dozen studies funded by organizations such as the Guggenheim Foundation and National Science Foundation. His articles have appeared in the periodicals Criminology, The British Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Behavior.

He says the first thing an outsider must do to understand the criminal mind is become familiar with the code criminals live by, the code of the street. It's simple: What matters on the street is earning respect. Everything else is secondary.

Topalli points out that getting respect often means sending a message to those who disrespect you. In many cases, the insult can be slight, and the vengeance blistering. And with vengeance comes retaliation. That's part of the reason why violence is so hard to stop. Seemingly small altercations spiral out of control. They start between two people, but soon involve many.

In his line of work, Topalli must absorb some pretty disturbing information. He can't get squeamish, and he can't judge. He must objectively view what most people perceive to be straight-up evil. The trade-off is that he's offered a rare glimpse into the criminal mind. And what he finds can be surprising.

Topalli remembers the time when he asked a career robber what he did with the $5,000 he stole from a drug dealer. The guy said he put the money in a mutual fund for his kid. Topalli told him he was full of crap, that he didn't even know what a mutual fund was. So the guy started listing different mutual funds: Vanguard, S&P 500. "It really shut my mouth up," Topalli says.

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