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Retaliatory Violent Disputes

Guide No. 74 (2019)

by John Klofas, Irshad Altheimer & Nicholas Petitti

PDF Guide

The Problem of Retaliatory Violent Disputes 

This guide begins by describing the problem of retaliatory violent disputes and reviewing factors that increase the risks of such disputes. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local retaliatory violent disputes problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem from evaluative research and police practice. Although the guide draws heavily on the authors’ research and practice findings from the BJA/CNA Strategic Innovations in Policing-funded initiative in Rochester, New York—one of the few police initiatives explicitly focused on retaliatory violent disputes—the information in this guide is also supported by the broader body of research and practice on retaliatory violent disputes.

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide addresses the particular problem of retaliatory violent disputes which includes retaliatory gang violence, retaliatory family feuds, and retaliatory interpersonal violence. Particular attention is given to those disputes that result in homicide, serious weapon violence, and serious damage to property. Although some of what is discussed here applies to disputes between romantic partners and their surrogates, this guide does not directly address retaliatory domestic violence. Retaliatory violent disputes are but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to violence. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide and requiring separate analyses include the following, some of which are covered in other Problem-Specific Guides:

For the most up-to-date listing of current guides, see www.popcenter.org.

General Description of the Problem  

A dispute is a disagreement, an argument, or a quarrel. But these synonyms illustrate the two core problems in identifying and intervening in disputes: First, under what circumstances should retaliatory violence be recognized as part of a dispute that requires police for attention? And second, what characteristics of a retaliatory violent dispute and its participants should raise concern over the potential for additional violence?

Nearly every situation that involves the police, particularly acts of violence, could be considered a dispute. Police are called on to deal with conflicts between neighbors and friends, between shopkeepers and customers, between long-term rivals, and among sworn enemies. Many of these disputes do not result in violence. Not all violent acts are elements of a violent retaliatory dispute. Even if they were, police would never have the resources and manpower to treat all known disputes as if they pose an equal threat of further violence. Thus, a chief task in addressing dispute-related violence is to determine the types of cases for which dispute intervention may be productive at reducing the threat of further violence. The first step in that is to establish a clear workable definition. We offer the following definition:

A violent retaliatory dispute is:

  • an interaction involving conflict
  • over a period of time
  • between two or more individuals and/or people associated with them
  • marked by two or more events involving confrontation or intimidation
  • in which at least some of those events involve violent acts or credible threats of violence.

The core element of this definition is the presence of at least two acts of violence or credible threats of violence over some time. At least two events create a pattern. Single events can be handled routinely, but a pattern of events should prompt a special police intervention. 

Retaliatory violent disputes are not a new phenomenon. The legendary dispute between the Hatfields and McCoys started in 1878 with the alleged theft of a pig. Retaliation ensued after the trial for the theft did not result in a criminal conviction. The ensuing dispute lasted over 10 years and resulted in several deaths. Authorities made several unsuccessful attempts to end the dispute. It did not officially end until eight disputants on the Hatfield side were convicted of murder and received life sentences.1 

In the United States, arguments are well-known as the most frequent cause of homicide.2 In Rochester, New York, for example, as many as 75 percent of homicides in any given year are the direct result of a violent dispute.3 Many of these disputes stem from minor altercations that subsequently erupt into violence.4 Not only are these disputes often over seemingly minor issues, they can accelerate rapidly to violence. The escalation of a dispute into violence occurs in stages;5 however, those stages are just as likely to play out over months as they are to play out over seconds.6 Police require time to learn of the dispute and conceive and execute intervention tactics, so disputes that immediately turn fatal not only offer few opportunities for intervention, but may also lay the foundation for retaliation involving a victim’s friends or associates. Violent disputes that play out over a long time, involving multiple events and acts of retaliation, offer police opportunities to identify the dispute and then execute an appropriate response. 

A disproportionate number of violent retaliatory disputes occur in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods.7 These neighborhoods are characterized by high crime rates, skepticism about the efficacy of the criminal justice system, and low levels of cooperation with law enforcement.8 Under these circumstances, many residents in these communities become more fearful of crime9 and are more likely to carry guns for self-protection.10 These residents come to view violence as a legitimate form of self-help.11

A “code of the street” in these neighborhoods further contributes to retaliatory violence.12 The code of the street is a set of subcultural social norms that encourages violence to maintain social position and resolve conflicts. The code requires that disrespect be met with exaggerated violence that is often disproportionate to the seriousness of the initial dispute. Disproportionate responses to perceived affronts increase the likelihood of further retaliation, thereby contributing to the cycle of violence in these communities. 

A significant proportion of the retaliatory violence that occurs in socially disadvantaged areas is between disputants engaged in some type of criminal enterprise.13 This fact makes it difficult to settle disputes using conventional venues and resources. Drug dealers cannot turn to police when their drugs are stolen, so they have to rely on street justice.14 Direct retaliatory violence helps the retaliator maintain his or her reputation, recover lost property, and exact personal vengeance.15 This fact presents two challenges for police. First, addressing dispute-related violence may require providing services to individuals who are simultaneously crime victims and offenders. Second, police may have to experiment with unproven approaches to responding to violence among this subpopulation. 

Retaliatory violent disputes have several distinctive qualities that have implications for intervention:

  • The existence of a long-standing and escalating dispute between individuals or groups of people
  • Disputants who have criminal records and are on probation or parole, or have active warrants when the violent incident occurs
  • A precipitating event (such as when gunshots are fired) involving a police response
  • Some time between the initial dispute and the violent incident, during which the department can intervene
  • Identifiable events and places for retaliation, such as at a house party or a known hang-out
  • Key dates such as anniversaries of prior disputes that can escalate the risk of violence. 

In some instances, if police had known about the initial dispute and identified it as a likely candidate for retaliation, they would have had time to intervene with place-, victim- or offender- based interventions, even if the specific nature of the dispute was unknown. 

A Case of Retaliatory Violence in Rochester, New York

Disputes that escalate to violence over time, rather than immediately, accounted for nearly 20 percent of all 2010 homicides in Rochester, New York. In 2010, the motive in 21 of 41 Rochester homicides (51percent) was an argument of some type. Of those 21 murders, 8 involved a violent retaliatory act (6 involving a firearm) preceded by a dispute at least two hours prior. Additionally, at least 60 percent of shootings that occurred in Rochester were precipitated by actions related to an identifiable dispute. 

One Rochester homicide case from 2010 highlights the characteristics of retaliatory and associated opportunities for police intervention:

In the summer of 2010, Bobby Henderson* was murdered by Richard Druther. Earlier in the night, Druther and friends were having a party for Druther’s girlfriend. Druther’s cousins left this party and drove to the west side of the city to taunt a group of people with whom they had an ongoing dispute.The dispute between the two parties had begun a week earlier at a local night club and had already resulted in at least two incidents of violence. 

Druther’s cousins found Bobby Henderson and his crew hanging out on the bleachers of a football field. As the car drove by, Druther’s cousin shouted words of disrespect out of the car window. In response to the taunting, Henderson’s crew pulled out several firearms and began shooting at Druther’s cousins’ car, hitting it once. The car pulled away and returned to the party. Later in the evening, Henderson’s crew showed up at the party and began to fight with people there. During the fight, Druther pulled out a handgun and mortally shot Henderson, who was fighting one of Druther’s cousins. Violence affiliated with this dispute continued even after Druther’s conviction for the murder of Henderson. Shortly after Druthers’s conviction, one of his family members’ house was shot up. Additionally, random encounters between disputants on both sides have led to further violence and property destruction. Several of Druther’s family members have been targeted by Henderson’s associates. Violence associated with this dispute also occurred around the first and second anniversaries of Henderson’s death. 

* Names of people and locations changed to protect anonymity. Source: Rochester Police Department Dispute Bulletin 

Harm Caused by Retaliatory Violence

Retaliatory violent disputes can cause great harm to communities. Although there are no national statistics on retaliatory violence, criminological research suggests that nearly half of interpersonal assaults among youth are motivated by revenge.16 Research in Rochester revealed that 60 percent of the shootings that occurred between 2010 and 2012 were associated with a previously identifiable dispute and that a few violent disputes can substantially increase overall violence counts.17 For instance, one retaliatory dispute in Rochester accounted for 7 percent of the gun assaults and 5 percent of the homicides that occurred in the city in 2015. This suggests that developing protocols to interrupt retaliatory violence early on can lead to considerable reductions in violence. Retaliatory violence can also affect perceptions of violence and fear of crime. The dispute-related violence in shared public spaces, such as parks and transportation centers, increases fear of violence and leads people to avoid those places.18 Violence victims suffer pain, fear, posttraumatic distress, and other mental symptoms.19 Violence victims may also be more likely to develop attitudes that are supportive of retaliatory violence, which is associated with higher levels of aggression and higher frequency of fighting over time.20

Examples of the Impact of Retaliatory Violence on Community Perceptions in Rochester, New York

Two examples of dispute-related-violence “spill over” in Rochester highlight the impact that retaliatory violence can have on a city.The Lilac Festival is Rochester’s preeminent festival.The festival includes art, music, food, and flora; it draws more than 500,000 attendees from the Rochester region. In 2013, 16 people were arrested after a brawl between youth groups broke out at the festival. Upon investigation, police determined that the brawls at the Lilac festival were the result of an ongoing dispute between rival groups. The actors had made threats on social media and agreed to meet at the Lilac Festival to settle the score. Media coverage of the brawl included interviews of festival-goers who vowed never to return the festival. The brawls and subsequent media coverage contributed to the notion that Rochester is unsafe.This has led to increased pressure on city officials to keep visitors safe. 

Another example of how dispute-related violence can harm the community involves the opening of the Regional Transit Service Transit Center in downtown Rochester. Shortly after the opening, several youths were stabbed and several large brawls occurred. Investigation revealed that many of the incidents involved ongoing disputes among youths, some of which began at school. On other occasions, youths from rival groups were using the Transit Center as a staging area to settle existing “beefs.” In response to the violence, local authorities enhanced security around the Transit Center, and the Rochester School District agreed to reroute some buses to decrease the likelihood that youths from rival neighborhoods would arrive at the Transit Center at the same time. These changes contributed to a substantial reduction in violence, but the violence that occurred contributed to the notion that Rochester is not safe for visitors and that public transportation should be avoided.

Factors Contributing to Violent Retaliatory Disputes

The problem analysis triangle is a useful framework for understanding retaliatory violence. Disputants, bystanders, and the setting each play an important role in determining the frequency and nature of such violence. An understanding of the unique role that each plays in shaping retaliatory violence can help you develop effective solutions to respond to the problem.

For disputants, engaging in retaliatory violence plays several important functions. First, retaliation allows disputants to exact retribution for a perceived wrong. Second, engaging in such violence helps them command respect among their peers and in the broader community.21 Additionally, engaging in violence can protect disputants from being viewed as weak or easy prey; thereby decreasing their risk of victimization.22 Engaging in retaliatory violence helps gang members establish prestige within the group.23 Conversely, disputants may avoid carrying out retaliatory violence if they fear the  consequences retaliation may bring or if the act of retaliation might bring harm to friends or family.24

Disputants’ likelihood of committing acts of retaliatory violence is shaped by the presence of bystanders.25 Bystanders are present in about two-thirds of violent victimizations,26 and play an important role in either instigating or preventing retaliatory violence. Bystanders may instigate retaliation by encouraging disputants to act aggressively and respond to a perceived affront with violence. This is especially important when disputants come to believe that failing to respond violently may damage their image or street credibility. In this sense, retaliation becomes an important and necessary aspect of managing one’s reputation. On the other hand, bystanders can reduce the risk of violence by intervening in disputes and discouraging retaliation. They can help disputants redefine the perceived affront, thereby making violence unnecessary or undesirable.27 Efforts to discourage violence might be carried out by associates of the disputants, established community members who have credibility among disputants28 or designated groups of so-called street interrupters who  actively engage disputants and mediate disputes.29 Importantly, police have a special capacity to provide the necessary guardianship to prevent disputants from engaging in violence, or carrying out dispute-related retaliation in problem areas.30

The setting provides the context where the violence is carried out.† In places with high levels of crime, violence often becomes an institutional feature of street life.31 The threat of violence influences attitudes and behavior. Inhabitants of violent settings may adopt the code of the street, arm themselves, and band together for protection. Some locations—such as drug corners, house parties, transit centers, or schools—become staging areas where violence is carried out. These locations facilitate the social interaction between disputants and establish normative structures that support violence.32 Informal social control is weak in these settings and the police presence is often inadequate. Particular features of such locations include the congregation of large groups of people, many of whom are criminal offenders; presence of many bystanders who constitute the audience for the dispute; and the absence of surveillance (natural or electronic).

† See Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 6, Understanding Risky Facilities, for further discussion of why some places are especially prone to crime and disorder.

Illicit drug markets are an important setting that influences the frequency and nature of retaliatory violence. There are systematic features of drug markets that increase the likelihood that drug disputes will result in violence.33 Drug sellers often find it necessary to use violence when competing for territory, in retaliation for transgressions by partners or competitors, or in response to conflict with customers.34 Drug-market activity in particular neighborhoods influences perceptions about the use of violence and facilitates dispute-related violence.35 Importantly, not all drug conflicts result in violence. In some circumstances drug dealers choose toleration, avoidance, and negotiation rather than retaliation.36 This suggests that steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood that drug dealers with a grievance see violent retaliation as a viable option.

The nature of the retaliation that occurs is largely based on two factors: (1) whether retaliation occurs immediately after an affront and (2) whether the retaliation involves face-to-face contact with the transgressor.37 These two factors influence when the retaliation occurs, the time between incidents,
and who (or what) is targeted. In circumstances where the retaliator is in close physical proximity with the transgressor, and possesses the upper hand, immediate retaliation may occur. In circumstances where the retaliator is at a disadvantage, the retaliation may be delayed until he or she can engage the transgressor under more advantageous circumstances. 

Although aggrieved individuals usually plan their retaliation, incidents of retaliatory violence are not entirely premeditated. Retaliators’ actions are bounded by anger, uncertainty and time pressure38 which combine to increase the likelihood that aggrieved parties will retaliate in a manner disproportionate to the affront, redirect their retaliation to the transgressor’s associates, or even target people not connected to the dispute. Ironically, carrying out retaliation in this manner increases the likelihood that the retaliator will become a target for further retaliation, thus contributing to the cycle of violence.

Transgressor and Retaliator Characteristics

There is no single set of demographic characteristics that account for participants in retaliatory violence. In urban areas, a disproportionate amount of serious violent retaliatory disputes appears to be between minority males from socially disadvantaged neighborhoods, many of whom are involved in gang activities and/or the illicit drug trade.39 Although young minority males tend to be heavily involved, disputes involving females and older members of the community also occur, such as those associated with romantic disputes or family disputes in which elders are drawn into the conflict. There is also evidence that an honor culture supportive of solving disputes with the use of violence is  present in some segments of the rural American South.40

Times and Locations

Retaliatory dispute incidents mirror other types of street violence in terms of time, day, and location of occurrence. These incidents are more likely to occur on weekend evenings. The nature of the dispute shapes the extent to which retaliatory violence is linked to particular hotspots or troubled areas.
Retaliatory violence between established gangs or between neighbors might be contained to specific geographic boundaries or spill over to other locations. Once a retaliatory dispute is active, dispute-related incidents can happen virtually any place where disputants happen or plan to meet, including parks, transit centers, recreation centers, concerts, house parties, sporting venues, schools, and festivals. Furthermore, although most retaliatory disputes are short, lasting less than a month, some retaliatory violence can continue for several months, often reactivating after dormant periods. In that sense, retaliatory disputes represent a “hot relationship” between actors that is not bound by space or time. The violence can only be contained after the disputants’ anger subsides or actors are prevented from engaging in subsequent retaliation.

Motivations for Disputes

You should work to understand motivations for retaliatory violence in your jurisdiction. Working closely with intelligence officers, crime analysts, and research partners can help facilitate this process. Several useful methods include performing incident reviews of identified retaliatory disputes, interviewing and conducting focus groups with officers and investigators, and creating and analyzing investigative documents to track and monitor retaliatory violence.

There are several basic types of disputes commonly associated with retaliatory violence. Each type implies a different basic motivation for the dispute. Table 1 shows the distribution, number of incidents and duration of different types of violent retaliatory disputes in Rochester, New York, from 2010 to 2012. Though the figures shown might differ from your jurisdiction, they provide a snapshot of what retaliatory violence looks like in an urban area.

Table 1. Dispute-type Frequency, Average Number of Retaliatory Incidents and Average Dispute Duration: Rochester, New York, 2010-12

Dispute Type

Percentage of Total Disputes  (N = 93)*

Average No. of

Total Incidents

Average No. of

Violent Incidents

Average No. of

Property Incidents


Length of Dispute (Days)

All Disputes






Gang Involved






Gang v. Gang






Theft of Drugs/Property












Neighbor Dispute






Witness Intimidation






Family Retaliation












• The total percentage for dispute risk-factors is higher than 100% because several of the disputes examined here were characterized by more than one risk factor.

Gang-involved disputes

Gangs clearly play a significant role in dispute-related violence but there are also important differences in that role.‡ Gang- involved disputes are those in which at least one of the disputants is a known gang member or associate. Gang members are more likely to engage in violence41 and have a greater risk of violent victimization.42 This is partially due to gang membership, but also due to the criminal lifestyle of individual gang members.43 This lifestyle increases the risk of interpersonal disputes with both gang members and nonmembers alike. Many of the interpersonal disputes involving gang members are not caused by gang business, but are over issues such as drugs or property. Further, gang membership provides retaliators with added resources with which to exact retribution. Over all retaliatory disputes identified in Rochester, New York, about one-third involved at least one active gang member. Table 2 shows the nature of gang involvement in violent retaliatory disputes in Rochester, and the frequency of each type of gang involvement. 

‡ In some communities, groups known as cliques or crews are more common than strongly organized gangs and thereby less committed to engaging in group violence to settle disputes.

Gang-versus-gang disputes

In gang-versus-gang disputes both sides of the dispute are members of established gangs and the dispute is over matters affecting the whole gang, not just individual members. These disputes are characterized by multiple members on each side of the dispute carrying out collective violence for retaliation, and to establish and maintain gang hierarchy.44 These disputes contribute to the contagion of violence, as rival gangs will respond to retaliation with further violence.45

Theft of drugs/personal property disputes

These disputes occur as a result of the theft of or conflict over drugs or other property.§ While the possession of drugs and property make criminally involved actors attractive robbery targets, avenging the theft of that property is the underlying motivation for retaliatory violence. 

§ For more on disputes over drugs, see Jacques (2010). See Topalli, Wright and Forango (2002) for a discussion of robbery of drug dealers and retaliation.

Romantic disputes

Romantic disputes involve conflict between current or former domestic or romantic partners. Romantic partners are at risk of retaliatory violence when the retaliator wishes to get revenge for a previous perceived transgression, such as inappropriate behavior or infidelity.46 

Neighbor disputes

Neighbor disputes can readily become retaliatory because the parties see one another regularly and their proximity provides both with many opportunities for retaliatory acts. Neighbor disputes may be common in settings where criminally involved actors live in close proximity to one another and are likely to come into conflict or in settings where the code of the street is dominant and residents believe that use of violence is an effective tool for dispute resolution.

Table 2: Nature of Gang Involvement in Violent Retaliatory Disputes in Rochester, N.Y.

Gang Involvement

Percentage of Disputes (N=139)

No indication of any gang connection


Gang member versus non-gang member over personal issues (for example, insults or disrespect)


Gang member versus gang member over personal issues


Gang versus gang conflict (involving multiple members) over gang business (for example, turf or drug business)


Gang member versus gang member over gang-related business (for example, gang discipline)


Gang member versus non-gang member over gang-related business (for example, drug-business conflict)


Gang versus gang conflict (involving multiple members) over personal issues (for example, disrespect of key members)






Witness-intimidation disputes

Witness-intimidation disputes involve intimidation of witnesses who have testified in a criminal trial or are considering testifying.§§ Those who cooperate with authorities or are perceived as a risk of
cooperation can be targets of retaliation.47

§§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 42, Witness Intimidation for further information.

Family-retaliation disputes

Family-retaliation disputes involve disputes where family members join the dispute after one of their family members has been victimized. 

Important elements of retaliatory disputes

Based on the Rochester study findings, the following important conclusions about retaliatory disputes should be taken into consideration when you are developing police responses to retaliatory violence: 

  • Retaliatory disputes involve a variety of relationship types.
  • Both violent¶ and nonviolent† retaliation occurs in retaliatory disputes.‡
  • Some types of disputes are more likely to be characterized by violence than others. For instance, a significantly higher proportion of the incidents in gang disputes involved violence than incidents in neighbor disputes.
  • Retaliatory disputes have a life course.48 Most disputes in Rochester lasted about a month,§ which reveals that there is often ample time for police to intervene in retaliatory disputes, provided the infrastructure is in place to identify, track, and intervene.
  • Some types of disputes last longer than others. Witness intimidation disputes last longer because they are closely tied to criminal-justice processes, with threats and violence occurring before, during, and after a trial.
  • While most disputes are best understood as individual interpersonal conflicts suitable for intervention with known individuals, retaliatory disputes can also emerge between groups, which would require different approaches.
¶ Violent events include homicide, assault shootings, shots fired, robbery, fights (with or without a weapon) and menacing.
† Most property incidents involve damage or destruction of property in retaliation for an attack or perceived affront.
‡ See Jacobs and Wright (2006) for further discussion of the use of non-violent retaliation in retaliatory disputes.
§ Median values were reported here because outliers unduly inflated the calculation of the mean.
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