Crime Prevention: teaching new dogs old tricks

The Peelian principles of the prevention of crime are as important to policing as ever, particularly in times of austerity plus emergent growth in new forms of crime in the digital age. We don’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel though: there has been extensive thought given to crime prevention in the past and we should not be quick to forget pioneering work, rather seek ways of new application. Edwin Sutherland was arguing back in the 1940s that crime tended by influenced by a person’s personal motivations (such as their childhood history) or ‘situational’. Situational factors can be described as ‘environmental’ – this is simply meaning the features around you, such as a lock on a door, fence, a guard or a CCTV camera.

In the 1970 and ‘80s, Micheal Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi brought the notions of situational prevention back into fashion. Ronald Clarke, in 1983, really established this approach as fundamental to crime policy. Clarke focussed his work on the physical and social setting, rather than just the perpetrator. He summarised it as the science of decreasing the opportunities for crime using “measures directed at highly specific forms of crime that involve the management, design or manipulation of the immediate environment in as systematic and permanent way” (1983:225).

The core principle of situational crime prevention that is of interest to policing professionals is that more opportunities for crime lead to more crime, and vice versa. Getting into the theoretical background, we need to consider Clarke and Felson’s work (1983) and Felson (1984) on rational choice theory (RCT) and crime pattern theory (CPT). Every crime can be argued to be a choice, and the offender, to one extent or another, weighs the risks to the reward. You guessed it, the easy targets get hit the most!

Routine Activity points to the importance of three key factors (sometimes called the problem analysis triangle)
– A motivated offender
– A suitable victim
– A lack of control or a ‘guardian’

The application of this is decreasing the availability of the victim and increasing the presence of control. Simple!

To get a little bit more in depth, Clarke (1983) divided crime prevention into three approaches:
– Degree of surveillance
– Target hardening measures
– And environmental management

Later, in 1992, he listed twelve techniques to reduce crime, and then extended this to sixteen in 1997 after working with Ross Homel. Not to be outdone, Cornish and Clarke in 2003 increased the techniques again to twenty-five.

Those techniques will of course always be under development and evolvement, but for now we can summarise them into five key points:
Increase the effort of crime
o E.g. target hardening – put a lock on it, body screens, screening entry and exit points; and deflecting offenders by diverting routes or replacing materials (such as diverting a football team coach and using plastic glasses in bars)
Increase the risks of crime
o Offenders generally don’t like being caught! Some things make crime harder, like Neighbourhood Watch, being in a group rather than alone, improved lighting, low hedges for natural surveillance, reducing anonymity, patrols, alarms and cameras.
Reduce the rewards
o Concealing a valuable can mean it’s not pursued, putting it on show, vice versa. Sabotaging goods makes them useless (tags that cover stolen clothes or cash in dye); property marking makes moving on illicit goods more tricky, as does inspection of second hand markets.
Reduce provocations
o The point here is ‘idle hands’… so if you have a nice long queue for drunken folk waiting for a taxi, guess what tends to happen? We can also examples in keeping warring factions apart in football matches and demonstrations, and keeping the impact of vandalism to a minimum – see Wilson and Keeling (1982), ‘Broken Windows’ theory – to say ‘it’s NOT ok’, rather than ‘everyone does it’.
Remove excuses
o Rules that say ‘No *** allowed’ can help remove some folk making sometimes ridiculous excuses of ‘I didn’t know’. Pulling on people’s conscience can help too – signs that say ‘your speed is’, and advertising around excesses of alcohol and the use of drugs.

Whilst the list of crime prevention techniques might always be on the move is no doubt linked to the fact that crime is too. Criminals are constantly seeking new ways. As a basic, we should be helping to minimise the amount of what have been called ‘criminogenic’ goods – such as a car with no alarm, or criminogenic behaviour – telling lots of people your PIN number!

But further, we should be tracking what criminals entrepreneurs are up to to with field research, and using the tried and tested principles of the past in the increasing crime of our digital world. Criminals are fairly aware of ‘applied’ criminological theory, so policing professionals should be too!