Two similar attacks on women in the District have prompted concern that the Internet-fueled youth violence phenomenon called the “knockout” game has taken hold in the city — but criminologists say the history of such attacks stretch back years and happen less frequently than perceived.
Reports of the incidents, in which attackers randomly target unsuspecting victims and attempt to knock them out with one punch, began to receive widespread media attention after attacks that included a September assault on a 46-year-old New Jersey man who died from his injuries and a 12-year-old boy who was sucker punched by a group of teenagers in Brooklyn this month.
“It’s a very old game,” said John Roman, a fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “It has a tendency to flare up and be a trend for a little bit.”
In the District, two women were attacked in separate but similar incidents on Nov. 14 and 15 in the Northwest neighborhood of Columbia Heights. Police have not linked the attacks to the vicious game, with Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump saying the attacks are being investigated as simple assaults and that neither woman was “knocked out.”
In one instance, a 27-year-old woman reported that she was walking home along the 3300 block of 14th Street in Northwest D.C. when a group of juveniles on bicycles swarmed past her and one teenager hit her in the back of the head.
In the other, 32-year-old Phoebe Connolly said she was hit in the face by one boy as she rode her bicycle past a group of teenagers in the 2200 block of 11th Street Northwest.
“He just like threw a hook with his left hand and just got me right in the face,” Ms. Connolly told WJLA-TV. “And he said ‘wa-pow’ as he hit me in the face.”
No arrests have been made in either of the D.C. attacks, making it difficult to determine the motivations for the assaults.
But reports of similar attacks in recent days have streamed in from Philadelphia to San Diego, with the point seeming to be simply a perverse way for teenagers to show off in front of friends, Mr. Roman said.
That has prompted some suspects to videotape their attacks. And as those videos, or surveillance video capturing the assaults, has surfaced it may have triggered a ripple effect.
“Perhaps as more and more kids see the videos, if they are people predisposed to think this might be fun, seeing someone else do it, of course, could make it seem more possible,” said Jeffrey Butts research director at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “And so we could have copycats that come about as a result of the dissemination of the video.”
He added that the behavior has been around for years.
A series of “knockout” beatings occurred in St. Louis in 2011, including one that killed a 72-year-old man.
Police eventually charged seven juveniles with several of the crimes, but all the charges were dropped after a key witness did not appear in court, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The crimes seem to happen in short spurts but have not increased enough to be seen as an emerging trend, Mr. Roman and Mr. Butts said.
“You have to be incredibly unlucky to be victimized by this. I wouldn’t worry about going to Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan,” Mr. Roman said. “With so much social media like YouTube and Vine as ways to get video out, I think these things have a tendency to spread faster than they used to but I suspect they will also flare out faster.”