Where Criminals Fear to Tread

By Glen Kitteringham, CPP

Crime Patterns

Crime pattern theory (CPT) has three main concepts: nodes (where people travel to and from other locations), paths (the area around which offenders seek out the opportunity for crime), and edges (the boundaries surrounding where people work, live, shop, or seek entertainment). Crime is most likely to occur at these edges, according to CPT.

CPT is probably the most complicated of the environmental crime control theories, being a mixture of rational choice, routine activities, and socio-cultural, economic, legal, and physical environmental cues. Such a complex theory requires a multidisciplinary response specific to the particular incident.

Displacement and Diffusion

Under the displacement of crime theory, if a criminal is stopped at one location, he or she will simply move on to another until successful, resulting in a zero-sum game for society. There are six types of displacement: the time in which the crime is committed; the method that is used; the type of target attacked; the location of the act; the type of offense; and the person committing the crime (one drops out, another takes his place).

Diffusion of benefits, the opposite of displacement, postulates that security practices and procedures overlap and that if a criminal is deterred from breaking into one business, he will not break into the one next to it because of the belief that security extends to that location.

Under this theory, each security enhancement to a specific location helps to make the surrounding environment less inviting to criminals. Security can be improved by identifying and removing the factors within the environment that facilitate unwanted activity. For example, service corridors, fire exits, and stairwells of commercial properties invite undesirable activities, such as vagrant’s sleeping, drinking, or doing drugs on the property. It is easy enough to make these areas inaccessible to illegitimate users.

In the Field

While these theoretical environmental crime control theories look good on paper, commercial property owners may be skeptical about how well they work in the commercial environment. The good news is that there are hundreds of studies showing the benefits of the various theories implemented at a practical level. One resource is the Federation Press, which has a 22-volume series dedicated to the implementation of various environmental crime control theories. Another resource is the Center for Problem Oriented Policing whose Web site is the home of 50 specific issue papers on these theories, many applicable to commercial properties.  Titles include “Assaults in and Around Bars,” “Shoplifting,” “Robbery of Convenience Stores,” and “Theft of and from Cars in Parking Facilities.”

I have also had personal experience both in terms of applying these theories and in studying real-world cases.

In terms of applying them myself, when my company’s headquarters had a problem with skateboarders, a number of physical security measures were implemented, including eliminating wooden benches that skateboarders used to “catch an edge” and replacing them with individual steel seats, installing large heavy planters to block skateboarding runs, installing cameras to increase surveillance of the areas, and giving security personnel a mandate to constantly challenge skateboarders. With these changes, incidents were reduced from more than 7,200 per year to fewer than 500.

With regard to a broader study of situational crime prevention techniques in the real world, I was part of a group of researchers who examined the details surrounding 250 separate successful and unsuccessful laptop theft incidents over a three year period. (This is the study referenced in the case at the beginning of this article.) We also interviewed a convicted laptop thief. We found a clear correlation between application of crime prevention techniques and reduction in the number of incidents of laptop thefts. We identified more than 120 specific individual actions that commercial property owners, laptop users, tenants, law enforcement officers, and legislators could use to reduce or eliminate the opportunities for laptop theft.

The inspiration for the endeavor came from Derek B. Cornish and other criminologists who, in the 1990s, conducted research into car thefts that determined there were several stages that had to be met for a car thief to succeed. These stages included deciding to steal a car, preparation, entering the setting, enabling conditions, selecting the target, completing the theft, exiting the setting, and the aftermath. At each step of what Cornish called a “script,” there were situational crime prevention methods that could raise the level of offender discomfort and cause the abandonment of the crime.

In the case of laptop thefts, the script followed by the offender begins with preparation. In this phase, the would-be thief develops access methods that can include both physical and procedural security-defeating processes such as breaking and entering, social engineering, and piggybacking. The second step is for the offender to identify likely targets through steps such as conducting surveillance to determine appropriate targets, testing site defenses, and determining locations.

To short circuit the preparation phase, it is necessary to identify the tools and methods to be used, then counter with appropriate physical and procedural security countermeasures where possible.

In the laptop study, a number of physical security measures were identified that included installing astragals and latch guards, hardening door locks, using deadbolts, securing exterior electromagnetic locks with cover plates, and hardening door frames, walls, and doors. The group also identified a number of procedural security measures that further reduced opportunities. These procedures included mandatory sign-in for all visitors, escorting all visitors and never leaving them alone, challenging any unknown individuals seen in company space, instituting authorization permits for all site visitors, and having all employers in the building implement a badging requirement for all employees, visitors, and contractors.

Additional measures were applied directly to laptops to render them less valuable and more likely to be located after being removed from the property. These included installing encryption, password protection, and software designed to provide location information whenever the laptop connected to the Internet. Users were also educated about the need to secure data on laptops. They were advised as well not to store vital corporate information on laptops. 

Environmental crime control theories should not be left to the academicians. Based on personal experience and volumes of research, my own theory is that if companies apply these concepts to their own real-world crime problems, they will be glad that they did.

Glen Kitteringham, M.Sc., CPP, is a security professional, environmental criminologist, and writer who has worked in the security industry since 1990. He holds a Master’s of Science degree from the University of Leicester. His first book was published in 2006, titled Security and Life Safety in the Commercial High-Rise. Kitteringham is also assistant regional vice president for ASIS International Region 50 (Canada), CPP chapter representative, and a member of the ASIS Council on Commercial Real Estate. He has worked in the commercial real estate industry for the past ten years.

@ The laptop study findings were summarized in a white paper, “Laptop Theft in Commercial Buildings 2006 Survey.” To read the paper and for links to more information on all of these theories and the resources mentioned, go to



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