Standing in front of his classroom at Georgia State University, Volkan Topalli deployed a new device to illustrate how a simple incident can lead to an act of violence: the scar across his forearm.
“When I teach the students about third-party victims, now I point to myself,” he said.
That Saturday in May 2021 brought the usual markers of spring: warm weather, fresh air, children playing. School was out, social distancing restrictions were being lifted, and Topalli’s two young children were darting in and out of the new family home in Atlanta. Topalli’s wife asked him to go pick up some potting soil from the local Home Depot. In the parking lot, young people wearing colorful bathing suits carried beach towels and inflatables. By the time he was standing in the check-out line, shoppers were debating whether they were hearing fireworks or gunfire. He knew they were gunshots.
“Young people should be out, but I know it doesn’t take much for something to happen,” Topalli said he remembered thinking. “I’m not sure if that was my criminologist brain or my parent brain, but I just knew it was a perfect storm.”
During a pause in the gunfire, Topalli and other shoppers walked out into the parking lot and saw a dispute between two groups of young adults. He heard a bullet whizz past his ear. Then one hit his forearm, shattering his ulna bone. He had 911 on the line but dropped his cell phone, struggled to pick it up and get back into the store, where he crouched in the vestibule. The gunfire ended, but the echo of the 911 operator persistently requesting the exact address of the Home Depot was ringing in his ear.
First responders arrived within 10 minutes. An Atlanta Police officer on the scene started to ask him questions, but abruptly stopped in recognition: “Dr. T, is that you?”
It was one of his former students.
Topalli moved to Atlanta in 2000, after completing a National Science Foundation fellowship studying urban violence in St. Louis. Growing up in Boston, he watched on television as violent American scenes played out during the Civil Rights Movement. He was further motivated to study criminology because of increasing violent crime in the 1980s and 90s, particularly in Black and brown communities. Most politicians and community leaders thought the solution was increased policing. And as legislation like the 1994 crime bill passed, mass incarceration rose dramatically. Meanwhile, public health researchers were silenced by the 1995 Dickey Amendment, which made it extremely difficult to research gun violence as a public health issue.
“The most sustainable thing we have — and have invested in — is the police. We have a very inefficient formula for dealing with violence in the United States and we have been doing it for a long time,” he said recently. “It is time for us to do something different.”
Topalli’s purpose was elevated by what he calls a “clear distinction” being made in criminology research at the time, between the study of criminal behavior, and efforts to prevent or ameliorate it.
“I realized I had been studying urban violence and poverty for 25 years, maybe it’s time for me to start applying some of those lessons towards prevention,” said Topalli.
Since Topalli entered the field 30 years ago, more public funding has been funneled into gun violence research, the field has expanded, and Topalli has noticed that his students, always fairly diverse, now see themselves as activists. Many of them have either witnessed the effects of violence firsthand or are motivated to study it because of structural inequalities, like mass incarceration. They’re taking more of an advocacy approach, working alongside other fields to find solutions that build up communities.
His research has throughout the years combined data analysis and ethnography methods to understand not only how often community violence occurs, but the attitudes of those who perpetrate it, and who is most vulnerable.
That warm day in the Home Depot parking lot, Topalli’s life collided with his decades of study, and the experience only reinforced his focus on the root causes of gun violence in urban communities: poverty, under-resourced families, racism, and lack of financial opportunities. The sources of retaliatory violence are even clearer, entangled with human emotions that are informed by trauma, like witnessing violence or living with grief.
“I had written papers 10 to 15 years ago that talked about these events taking place, and I finally got to see myself in some of these papers I had written.”
As Topalli sat in the ambulance across from a teenager who was also shot, he knew his wounds weren’t fatal. He was able to remain calm, and make small talk with the young man. As the ambulance maneuvered its way in and out of traffic en route to Grady Memorial Hospital, Topalli knew he was there for reasons that had begun far before that Saturday shooting.
“When someone is shot, all we think about is the kid who fired the weapon, we never think about all the things that led up to that kid having that gun, how they were born, the way that they lived, and how they were looked at by other people,” Topalli said. “But I think it is critical that we trace back in history for the answer.”
A month after the Home Depot shooting, three suspects were arrested, and it became clear that an argument at a pool party had spilled into the parking garage and its adjacent parking lot. The three teenagers — all between the ages of 17 and 19 at the time — reminded Topalli of the hundreds of people who he’d interviewed throughout his career: young Black boys and men with conflicting attitudes about community and identity.
“I’ve interviewed individuals who are at risk for committing violence all the time, and if you ask them about their plans for next year or week, they don’t have any plans,” said Topalli. “The reason that they don’t have any plans is that they expect an early death.”
Following the shooting, he struggled with the shallow news media coverage of a renowned professor — white and male — being caught in the crosshairs of a shootout. If this could happen to him, the narrative seemed to suggest, it could happen to anyone.
But Topalli had spent years collecting and examining data on who was most likely to be a victim of gun violence, and he knew it wasn’t “anyone.” Black Americans are 10 times more likely to die by gun violence than white Americans. Homicide is also the leading cause of death for Black males under the age of 44. In Atlanta, Black residents make up 85 percent of homicides but only 50 percent of the city’s total population.
Topalli described the fear propelled by such news coverage as “irrational,” fodder for movements like the Buckhead cityhood movement or Cop City, instead of initiatives that could more adequately address instances of violence. Cop City is a proposed public safety training center for law enforcement that would cost more than $90 million to be built on an 85-acre campus, while Buckhead is an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood that wants to secede from the city.
“I was having a conversation with someone, and I heard them say that Buckead was becoming a war zone, and it was laughable,” he said. “There is a large public misunderstanding of what causes violence. And that is an issue because, if we don’t have a realistic understanding of the violence problem, then creating good solutions is never going to follow.”
Studying Gun Violence Is Hard. But Intervention Programs Need Research to Survive.
It is his work as a criminologist that informs Topalli’s empathy, but also fuels his frustration at a system that perpetuates the violence that it also condemns. Throughout his career, he’s struggled with how little funding is distributed toward public services and the critiques on the efficacy of those public services, like violence interruption.
But his shooting created an opportunity. During his surgery preparation, he and Dr. Mara Schenker decided to write an op-ed for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that called for a comprehensive public health approach to addressing gun violence, one that includes public health officials, sociologists, medical professionals, social workers, and law enforcement. In the piece, they also criticized city leaders for their reliance on law enforcement to address crime.
Following the shooting, Topalli began participating in data collection and analysis of a hospital-based violence interruption program, IVYY, or Interrupting Violence in Youth and Young Adults, a multidisciplinary effort to combat the underlying causes of gun violence. The program, developed by trauma surgeon Dr. Randi Smith, is structured to end the “cycle of violence” by addressing the root causes that lead to it, Smith said, and engaging violence interrupters to meet with patients and their families in the hospital, and continue to do so after they no longer need medical attention.
Topalli has asked to speak to the young men involved in his shooting, whom he refers to as “really just young kids,” along with their families in the hope that he can hear their perspectives and understand their stories beyond their arrest record. As a researcher, he understood the causes of violence, and how the availability of guns accelerates many of them. That enabled him to separate his trauma of the incident from his fear.
Speaking of the teens indicted in his shooting, he said: “I get why they ended up where they are. They are a very good example of the failure of society to address these issues when these individuals are younger.”
When Topalli looks down at his surgical scar, he is reminded of early in his career, when he described violence as a disease, and retaliation as the mechanism of its spread. In response, he said, many citizens, policymakers, and law enforcement officers said to “let them kill each other off” so that resources wouldn’t be wasted. But researchers know that violence doesn’t happen in silos. “Outside of the devaluation of human life, the problem with that idea is that there’s always a leakage in the system,” he said. “And now I am a part of that leak.”