Where Criminals Fear to Tread

By Glen Kitteringham, CPP

Routine Activity Theory

Routine activity theory (RAT), developed by criminologist Marcus Felson, is one of the main theories of environmental criminology. It postulates that crime happens all the time and everywhere where there is opportunity. According to the theory, opportunities exist when three factors are in confluence: an appealing target, a motivated would-be offender (illegitimate site users), and a lack of site guardians.

Appealing target. Suitable targets can include people, things, or places. In selecting targets, offenders consider the value of the target, the physical characteristics of the target, its visibility, and ease of access. As an example, because DVDs have resale value, are light and highly portable, and are usually displayed unsecured, they make attractive targets to shoplifters.

Driving forces. One question is what motivates a would-be offender? Driving forces can include idleness; or provocation born of poverty, unemployment, and perceived inequality; peer pressure; addiction; mental illness; or cultural permissiveness toward crime.

Guardians. Capable guardians come in many forms—both human and inanimate. Human guardians can be patrol officers, but the site’s legitimate users—its  nonsecurity employees, including janitorial staff, and maintenance personnel, as well as customers—can also be guardians. Through education, these site users can become security’s eyes and ears.

Security awareness can be developed through formal and informal programs such as presentations, meetings, newsletters, and broadcasts using building PA systems. For instance, many shopping malls have televisions in food courts that could be used to educate patrons and staff about purse snatchings or other activities.

In large office properties, there are often monitors in lobbies broadcasting news and entertainment. Security may be able to use these to educate building users about locking offices, not leaving wallets and purses unattended, reporting suspicious activity, and other issues. Capable guardians can also be natural or man-made barriers and obstructions, fences, and other forms of physical access control such as surveillance systems.

Situational Crime Prevention

Situational crime prevention (SCP) theory is similar to RAT in that it states that most crimes are those of opportunity and that places where opportunities exist will become crime hotspots. The five pillars of situational crime prevention are: increasing the effort a criminal would have to exert, increasing the risks, reducing rewards, reducing provocations, and removing triggers that give offenders a way to excuse their behavior.

Effort. Increasing the effort required of a potential offender could include target-hardening, such as by the installation of cement bollards designed as decorative planters. It could also include natural access control techniques, such as the planting of prickly bushes outside of first floor windows to discourage anyone from climbing in, as well as tactics such as exit screening.

Risk. Ways to increase the risks of committing a crime include extending guardianship—for example, leaving lights on to make a building look occupied, assisting natural surveillance by improving outdoor lighting, strengthening formal surveillance, and reducing the anonymity of site users through the use of uniforms, name badges, or other visual identification.

 Rewards. The reduction of criminal rewards can be accomplished by concealing or removing easy high-value targets, identifying property (for example, stenciling the company name on equipment), monitoring resale markets, and denying sought-after recognition. For instance, the prompt removal of graffiti denies the offender his or her renown and removes signs of gang territoriality.

Provocation. Reducing provocation includes reducing stress by efforts such as playing soothing music or using muted lights, avoiding disputes by measures such as limiting the number of concurrent site users, or reducing the temptation for misbehavior by a posted code of conduct, for example. Also effective is attempting to neutralize peer pressure, if applicable, and discouraging copycats by promptly repairing vandalism.

Excuses. Finally, opportunities for offenders to rationalize or excuse their actions can be removed by establishing rules and displaying them through clear signage, such as “shoplifting is stealing.” Companies should consistently and fairly apply all rules to all patrons as well as control drug and alcohol use.



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