Chapter 4: Problem Solving

To move policing from a philosophical and theoretical perspective to practices applied within America’s communities, specific actions must be taken. The essence of the myriad tasks assigned to police by tradition and policy mandate have a common thread: They are problems that citizens want to be solved. The idea of police problem-solving is closely associated with the scholar Herman Goldstein. Goldstein’s (1990) Problem-oriented Policing (POP) concept was seized upon early on by the advocates of Community Policing. The real role of police, Goldstein argued, was to deal with the “residual problems of society.” He proposed that this should be done through “systematic inquiry” in a way that essentially mirrors the scientific method.

Community problem-solving is critically important for several reasons.  First, traditional policing, which usually revolves around random patrol, is a waste of money.  It doesn’t control crime, and it alienates marginalized communities.  It is only supported because we (the public at large) labor under the false assumption that it must work because that’s the way we’ve always done it.   The research literature shows otherwise.   Second, reactive policing, based on the ever-popular “rapid response” model, serves to widen the chasm between police and the communities that they serve.  When communities have structural and social problems that precipitate crime, citations, and arrests are temporary fixes at best.  A simple examination of a month’s 911 call logs reveals that officers respond to the same addresses to deal with the same problems over and over again.   Despite a complete lack of efficacy, random patrol is still the dominant model of policing in the United States.  Community policing provides a theoretical framework in which problem-solving is the best tool for the proactive prevention of crime and disorder.

Problem-Oriented Policing

In his seminal 1979 book, professor Herman Goldstein developed the concept of problem-oriented policing (POP).  Like most great ideas, nobody had really thought that way before, but it seems very simple in hindsight.  POP asked officers to rethink their purpose.  Goldstein was one of the first scholars to suggest that the job of the police may not, after all, be to “catch bad guys.”  The big idea of Goldstein’s method was to switch from a reactive model to a proactive one.  This harkens back to the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  This is realized when police identify the underlying causes of community problems—including crime and disorder—and solve those problems.

Traditional reactive policing can be thought of as “incident driven” or “incident oriented.”  A call for service comes into 911, officers are dispatched to the scene, and (if they are lucky) someone is cited or arrested.  This, the research evidence suggests, is an exercise in futility.  It is this futility that motivated Goldstein to think about a better way of doing things all the way back in 1979.  Part of his dissatisfaction with the traditional model was that incident-oriented policing was a constant drain on police resources.

Impediments to POP

Before COP and POP merged, there was a movement to implement POP as a strategy to improve efficiency, and the proactive community aspects of it weren’t fully developed.  As with all changes in the way we police America’s cities, POP ran into barriers to implementation.  This literature on changing the police culture can provide some valuable insight into the barriers advocates of the new community policing will face.

A survey of the evaluation literature on POP suggests that police departments failed to measure what matters.  In other words, most departments didn’t implement systems for acknowledging and rewarding officers for problem-solving.  In hindsight, this was pure foolishness.  If we incentivize the old way of doing things, then we will continue to get the old behaviors.  Unfortunately, no one seems to have thought of that in past efforts at implementing POP.  A likely cause of this failure is that measuring what is essential to POP is hard.

Conversely, measuring what matters with reactive patrol is quite easy.  Let’s examine what reactive officers are expected to do: Answer calls, identify bad guys, and then cite or arrest the bad guys.  We can measure calls answered by examining 911 calls (dispatch records) and get a count.  We can examine how many tickets were issued, and we can examine how many arrests were made.

If we use those metrics to determine how good of a job an officer is doing, then she will most assuredly write a lot of tickets and make a lot of arrests.  When people outside of policing wonder why minority communities often feel persecuted, this system is a  proximate cause.  When an office knows her numbers are down, she simply goes out and “drums up” some business.  Those who have never done a patrol shift may not realize how easy it is to find violators.  The traffic code is so voluminous and so complex that it is impossible not to regularly violate the traffic code.  This suggests that if we want to see real community policing that fosters community problem-solving, then we must learn to measure and reward problem-solving efforts by rank-and-file officers.

As the American Bar Association (1986) noted,

“Control over police practice should, insofar as possible, be positive, creating inducements to perform properly rather than concentrating solely upon penalizing improper conduct. Among the ways this can be accomplished are…inducements to police officers in terms of status, compensation, and promotion, on the basis of criteria that are related as directly as possible to the police function and police goals” (American Bar Association, Standard 1.5.2).

Simply put, if the role of the police is (primarily) to solve community problems, then this is what must be measured and rewarded.  Reward systems (e.g., promotions, bonuses, pay raises) need to reward officers for solving community problems, and citations and arrests need to be taken out of the mix to reinforce the change.   A critical (if often neglected) element of problem-solving is the evaluation phase. Goldstein foresaw the problem of “feel-good stories” being the most common metric and warned against this.  Feel-good stories may help galvanize communities, but professional problem solvers require an evaluation based on real, objective data.  For problem-solving to work, and for police officer performance to be evaluated, performance data must be collected and analyzed.  This principle of gathering and analyzing data (empirical evidence) is useful in evaluating specific problem-solving strategies.  It is also instrumental in gauging the overall health of the police-community relationship.

The Merger of POP and COP

In the very early days when the community policing philosophy was still taking shape, it was beginning to emerge as a philosophy of how police could interact with the communities they served in positive, cooperative ways.  Then, as it is now, many people hated the police.  There was a general sense among many progressive criminal justice thinkers that the community policing philosophy had merit, but it was short on strategies.  In other words, it dictated how citizens and police should interact but didn’t offer much practical advice on how the police mission was to be accomplished.

At some point along the way (which I have yet to precisely identify), community policing advocates adopted the POP strategy and merged it into community policing.   To my way of thinking, this was the moment that community policing moved from the realm of philosophy into the practical world of policing.  After that moment, there were verbs in the community policing literature.  There were things that the police could do.

Community policing arose out of a backlash against what the public perceived to be racism and heavy-handed tactics.  Problem-oriented policing arose from an acknowledgment that by any metric, police do a pretty terrible job of controlling crime and disorder.  Today, forward-thinking criminal justice thinkers see important synergies between the two concepts.  Many believe that the two ideas once merged into a cohesive philosophy of policing, can help create just and verdant communities where crime and disorder are low and quality of life is high for everyone.

Problem-Solving in Context

Without the essential problem-solving component, community policing is little more than a pleasant philosophy of community relations.  The President’s Task Force (2015) recommends that “law enforcement agencies…track and analyze the level of trust communities have in police just as they measure changes in crime” (p. 2). We suggest that, at present, most police departments in the United States (the vast majority of which are very small) do neither. Instead, we recommend employing the partnership model to solve problems from the bottom up and empowering citizens in the communities being policed to share in the problem-solving process.

It is crucial to keep in mind that problem-solving is a broad term that implies more than simple attempts to eliminate crime and disorder.  Community problem-solving is premised on the assumption that “crime and disorder can be reduced in small geographic areas by carefully studying the characteristics of problems in the area, and then applying the appropriate resources…” and on the presumption that “Individuals make choices based on the opportunities presented by the immediate physical and social characteristics of an area. By manipulating these factors, people will be less inclined to act in an offensive manner.”

The logic behind community problem-solving, then, is relatively simple.  Underlying conditions within communities create problems.  These conditions are very broad in nature.  They include the characteristics of the people involved (residents, victims, offenders, police, and others).  We also know that the social settings in which people interact are critically important in precipitating (or not) crime and disorder.  In addition, physical environments are also important.  This last point is probably the most neglected facet of the “chemistry of crime” by traditional policing.

A community problem, then, is a set of circumstances or conditions that spawn human activity that is with the police department’s span of responsibility.  This definition is tricky.  It suggests that police should be less concerned with responding to antisocial human behavior (which means they are in reactive mode) and instead focus on the social and environmental factors that facilitated that behavior in the first place.  Simply put, crimes are nearly always a symptom of some underlying problem.  This is not meant to suggest that there are not seriously disturbed individuals in our society that commit heinous crimes against their fellow citizens. What is suggested is that psychopathy is very rare and that these situations are most often better suited to special units within a department.  Because of the unfortunate existence of human predators, police will always need to be prepared to deal with dangerous exigencies.  To operate as if every single officer needs to think this way is a massive waste of resources and toxic to community relationships.

Under community policing, officers must learn to self-identify as problem solvers.  The fact that they are sometimes called to put on a different hat and deal with dangerous people and situations cannot be a defining characteristic of the police culture.  Evaluations of POP projects resulted in a clear indication that community problem-solving cannot take place in any meaningful way without community participation.  Determining the underlying causes of community problems obviously calls for in-depth knowledge of the community and the social dynamics within it.  One of the reasons that POP is so compatible with community policing is that community partnerships formed to identify and solve problems quickly build and reinforce trust.  Trusting relationships with communities and police leads to a virtuous cycle of community enhancement.  As people trust more, they communicate more freely, and new problems are identified.  With each new challenge that a partnership solves, time and resources are made available to tackle other issues, and quality of life incrementally improves within the neighborhood.

While POP suggests that police should focus on solving problems, community policing says that police should focus on the problems that concern neighborhood residents.  Letting federal initiatives, state guidelines, vocal advocacy groups, and other influencers outside of local communities dictate departmental priorities is wrong.  Police departments must learn to accept the validity of community concerns.  Of course, neighborhood subgroups and the police will not always agree on which particular problems that neighborhood officers should focus on.  This most often happens when officers still suffer from the limited mindset of traditional policing and refuse to focus on things that aren’t “real police work.”

The romanticized notion that police are there to protect us sheep from the wolves (i.e., the “warrior ethos”) dramatically limits their effectiveness in community building and problem-solving.  One aspect of police work is to accept grave danger and rush toward the sound of gunfire.    This, however, is a very, very small part of the average patrol officer’s daily duties. The vast majority of police work should be to identify community concerns and work diligently to solve those problems.  The key to achieving large-scale impacts is for police officers to serve as facilitators and catalysts.  Empowering communities to solve their own problems allows officers to be a force for change that no single person—officer or citizen—could ever achieve alone.

The nature of community problems necessitates different levels of response from police departments and community partners.  Many problems can be dealt with on a neighborhood level by the officer assigned to that neighborhood, but many problems will require a more coordinated effort, especially when those problems concern a community of interest (such as the Black community) rather than a particular neighborhood.  All levels of the police department need to contribute to problem-solving, depending on the magnitude and scope of the problem under consideration.  High levels of domestic violence across the city, for example, dictate that police managers need to get involved and develop solutions on a broad level.  Women’s groups and social service agencies are likely partners in such a problem, and managers are in the appropriate position to coordinate those services.

Under community policing, the problem-solving process depends on the expertise and assistance of a broad array of governmental agencies, private organizations, and other community resources.  Upper-level managers (senior command staff) can serve as liaisons between the police department and other government agencies to effect broad changes, such as boarding up crack houses and modifying street layouts to eliminate through traffic (which can decrease open-air drug markets and street prostitution).  Once partnerships are formed at the agency level, mid-level managers can form individual teams, and action can be taken.  Such community partnerships have been shown to create an unprecedented amount of leverage in the struggle to improve the quality of life in cities where community policing has been implemented with a problem-solving focus.

While every person in a police department has a role to play, it is a mistake to think that everything happens at the policy level.   The real emphasis of community policing is taking on the predicate causes of crime and disorder by alleviating community problems at a grassroots level.   This means that the bulk of the work in a department that has genuinely adopted community policing will fall on rank-and-file officers.  This means that departments must systematically alter the duties of patrol officers such that time spent interacting with community members is maximized.

A standard prescription for increasing the “discretionary time” of officers is to revamp the 911 system such that it is only used for true emergencies.  This necessitates that dispatchers be trained to triage calls to 911, sending officers in rapid response mode to the scene only when there is a bona fide emergency.  Many calls to 911 don’t involve serious crimes or dangers to the public.  They are often information requests.  The service broker component of community policing can also be performed to great effect by well-trained dispatchers.  Research has shown that alternative responses are acceptable to most community members so long as they are adequately explained to the caller.

Community vs. Problem-Oriented Policing

From the vantage point of social scientists (mostly criminal justice and criminology professors), community policing is problematic in that the concept is, by design, fluid.  What community policing means varies from city to city and from neighborhood to neighborhood within a city.  The concept is difficult to define and even more difficult to measure.  Advocates of community policing see this flexibility of community policing as one of its major strengths; program evaluators, on the other hand, see it as a critical fault.  It is nearly impossible to say if something is present or absent and works or doesn’t work if you can’t measure it.   This is a problem that needs more work, but suggestions that community policing should be abandoned because it makes the lives of academics (and police analysts) more difficult should be dismissed.  Community problems such as crime and disorder vary widely, and the matrices of causes and effects are imposingly difficult to interpret.   This suggests that police efforts to solve community problems must be tailored to each specific problem.

Rethinking “Crime”

When you get right down to it, the idea of a “crime” is meaningless.  That may sound like an outlandish claim for a criminal justice professor to make, but hear me out.  What is it that crimes have in common?  It isn’t victims.  In fact, some of the most contentious political issues revolve around so-called “victimless crimes.”  One of my classroom strategies to get students to stop playing on their phones and engage in the discussion is to make outlandish, politically charged statements (which I am prone to reverse my position on the very next class meeting).  With that goal in mind when I teach criminal justice theory classes, I’ve often defined crime this way:

A crime is a behavior that a small group of elite, rich, old, white men doesn’t want you to do.

This definition is admittedly inflammatory, and that is my point in making the statement.  What shocked me when I began using this “attention-getting” strategy was that most of my students nodded in agreement.  There was no real debate.  The strategy failed to stir vigorous classroom debaters, but it did serve to underscore some key issues when we are thinking about crime.

In the United States today, crime is mostly a matter of statute.  Statutes are laws passed by legislative bodies such as the Congress of the United States.  Different states have different names for their legislatures, but they all function in very similar ways.  Someone proposes a law, a committee hashes out the details, and if the committee deems it worthy, the bill goes to the whole group for a vote.  If the vote passes (in both houses), it goes to the executive branch.  If the governor doesn’t veto the bill, it becomes a law.  There are several permutations not covered in this oversimplified version of the process, but the critical point is that a small group of elected officials make our criminal laws.  If there is no law on the books, an act is not a crime, no matter how reprehensible it may be.

In the natural sciences like physics, the key to a theory being a good one is that it covers all “observable phenomena.”  That is, you can’t find any exceptions to the theory.  Gravity was such a theory for hundreds of years until Einstein came along and blew it out of the water.  Physics still has a problem with finding a single theory that can explain the very big (cosmology) as well as the very small (quantum mechanics).  Similarly, criminologists are still looking for a unified field theory of crime.  Some have been attempted, but these are generally so vague that they don’t have any practical application.  The problem with crime is that it isn’t a naturally occurring phenomenon.  Crime (criminal law) is a human system of rules, and the underlying behaviors that define crimes are merely things that lawmakers don’t like.  The obsession of criminologists with explaining all crime with a single theory has driven some theorists to abandon the label altogether.  They don’t want to be called criminologists; they prefer the term crime science to describe what they study.

Traditional criminology (which is dominated by sociology) has focused largely on why people commit crimes.  Sometimes, this is recast as “why doesn’t everybody commit crimes?”  This, a crime scientist might argue, is irrelevant from the perspective of the police.  The vast majority of criminological theories are specified in terms of social structures that police are powerless to influence.  Economics, educational attainment, cultural norms, social processes, social conflicts, and a host of other macro-level variables are often considered.  Because of the sheer number of permutations of these theories, the policy implications are less than clear.  What we can say for certain is that police departments don’t have the authority to institute those policies, and most of them will have to be altered by legislatures at the state and national level (Congress).

The idea of crime science is often closely associated with environmental criminology.  The big idea is that police can’t stop people from deciding to commit crimes, but they can help alter the environmental factors that precipitate crimes. This theoretical perspective is very valuable to community policing because it dictates things that officers, in partnership with communities, can actually do to prevent crime and disorder.  The balance of this chapter will consider some of these basic crime science concepts and the police strategies that they suggest.  This overview is very far from complete, and you are referred to the wealth of literature that covers these topics in great detail.

Crime scientists Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson described, very simply, what is necessary for a crime to take place.  First of all, you need a person that is willing to violate some statute.  The number of “willing offenders” depends on the nature of the statute in question.  Most people would not go around raping and killing their fellow citizens, even if the police ceased to exist.  More people are willing to take your property from you for personal gain.  Still more are willing to purchase and consume illegal drugs, especially marijuana (where it is still illegal).  Even more of us are willing to drive too fast, not come to a complete stop at stop signs, and not pay state sales taxes on our garage sales.  The takeaway from this is that we’re all criminals to some degree.  Criminals are not monsters are aliens; they are people, and they have many of the same drives and fears that we all do.

Cohen and Felson, in what has come to be called Routine Activities Theory, explain that in addition to a person willing to break the law, you need several other factors.  You also need a suitable target.  If geneticists could design a ladybug that devastated coca plants and quickly eradicated the species, then nobody would sell cocaine.  Not because the drug dealers had a change of heart, but they don’t have a supply of drugs to sell.  We most often think of targets as the victims of crimes, but they can also be places and things.  The fact that some people are predisposed to sell drugs, and some people are predisposed to steal things is of great concern to traditional criminology.  Criminologists have a burning desire to explain why these people have these dispositions.  Crime science says they commit crimes because they decide to, but that isn’t very important.  The idea that there is always a willing offender can be pretty much taken for granted by police officers trying to make communities safer.  If you leave a $100 bill lying around, someone will take it.  That’s why most people have enough sense not to leave cash lying around.

The third factor that Cohen and Felson tell us is necessary for a crime to take place is the absence of a capable guardian.  While mentally ill persons and drug-addled persons are an exception, one thing we know about most criminals is that they don’t want to get caught.  Any cop will tell you, every car they see in their rearview mirror has its brake lights activated.  That is because we automatically press the break (often when we aren’t exceeding the speed limit) simply because we don’t want to get caught speeding.  This aversion to getting caught is deeply ingrained into most people.  When we see references to “capable guardians” we most often think of police officers (which of course are great guardians), but when it comes to most offenders and most crimes, any person or anything (e.g., camera systems and alarms) that can potentially cause the offender to get caught serves as a guardian.  In the world of crime prevention, the absolute best guardian of your person and your property is you.

Early advocates of problem-oriented policing seized upon Routine Activities Theory and developed an infographic called the problem analysis triangle (a.k.a. the crime triangle).  The triangle is formed by drawing lines between Cohen and Felson’s three elements:

  1.  a willing offender
  2. a suitable target
  3. the absence of a guardian

Anytime we find these three things in concert, the probability of a crime occurring is very, very high.  Since there is no way to identify who might be a willing offender, crime prevention efforts must focus on targets and guardians.  This, however, is precisely the opposite of how traditional policing works.  Traditional patrol focuses—as does traditional criminology—on the offender.  This forces police into a reactive posture.  In other words, we know the person is an offender because we saw (or have evidence to show that) the person broke the law.   Attempting to be proactive (a good thing), which many officers are desperate to do, pushes officers to rely (wrongly) on racial and cultural stereotypes.  This helps us understand the perverse persistence of racial profiling in law enforcement.  If you are looking to stop crimes, and you are also focused strictly on offenders, then you become desperate for any clue as to who is a potential offender.

This does not suggest that police should never be concerned with offenders.  When a person is known to have perpetrated a serious crime, fugitive apprehension becomes the primary focus of police in that case.  The identification and arrest of criminal perpetrators will always be a goal of policing.  It just needs to be put into a broader perspective that sees the presence of crime as a failure of prevention that needs to be absolved.

Routine Activities has been refined to add three “controllers” (in the form of an outer triangle in the infographic).   For the target (or victim), this is the guardian of the original formulation.  People usually follow the social norms of protecting themselves, their families, and their friends, as well as their property.  Guardians do include police, as well as private security workers.  For the offender, the controller is a “handler,” which is simply a person that has some influence or control over them.  Handlers are usually friends, parents, spouses, and other people in relationships with the offender, but can be probation and parole officers.   When it comes to places, handlers are the owners, managers, or designated employees.  In other words, someone who has a vested interest in the environment and thus a desire to control behavior within it.  This applies to store managers and the like, but can also apply to school bus drivers, teachers, and flight attendants.

A further expansion of the theory was a problem classification system developed by John Eck and William Spelman.  They classified police problems according to three categories.  According to the classification system, there are wolf problems, duck problems, and den problems.  Problems that arise from a single offender (or group) that repeatedly engages in the same criminal activity are referred to as wolf problems, as the predatory name suggests.  These sorts of issues are the most difficult to deal with because guardians in one place cause the predators to move to another target.  The best solution is often through handlers.  Dealing with this sort of offender is the most widely agreed-upon use of prisons.

When particular targets (victims) are repeatedly the target of criminal activity, there is a sitting duck problem.  Taxi drivers being repeatedly robbed is a common example of this type of problem.  The key to understanding these kinds of problems is the frequent interaction of victims (targets) with offenders.  The location may change, but the problematic interaction often remains.  The keys to dealing with these sorts of problems are for the victims to take more precautionary measures, and to improve the effectiveness of guardianship.

In other circumstances, the targets and offenders change, but the location of the problem remains the same.  These problem locations are called den problems.  A ubiquitous example of this type of problem is that bar (there seems to be one in every town) where fights are always breaking out.  The problem with these sorts of places is that managers (handlers) are ineffective.  It is important to note that these different types of problems are rarely found in their “pure” form.  Most crimes happen because more than one of these problematic situations exists in concert.

A key conclusion of crime science is to affirm the adage “opportunity makes a thief.”  For crime scientists, this isn’t a mere saying; it is the foundation of the crime control strategy.  There is an elegant simplicity in the logic that as opportunity increases, so will crime.  The converse of that is also known to be true:  As opportunity decreases, so too does crime.  In the rare case where opportunity can be eliminated entirely, crime will disappear.

Given that irrefutable logic, it is incredible that criminologists and cops are so obsessed with offenders (claim the crime scientists).  If we follow this line of reason to its logical conclusion, we find that if society completely eliminates the opportunity for crime, then there will be no crime.  That logic is flawed because the prerequisite conditions are not possible and not even desirable in a democratic state.  Petty theft was almost nonexistent under the rule of Sadam Hussein.  German society was well ordered under the rule of Hitler.  The challenge for American police is to control the opportunity for crime without infringing on liberty.

The most effective crime prevention strategies often come from people that are able to think like a criminal.  In other words, to prevent crime, we must be able to think from the offender’s perspective.  We must determine the immediate benefit the offender is seeking.  There is little need to search for distant, ultimate causes.  It is enough to say that people rob banks because they want to get rich.  We often refer to crimes as “senseless,” but most of the time, they made perfect sense to the offender, at least at the time.

An excellent example of this was discovered by the New York City subway authority when they decided to try and curb “senseless” graffiti on platforms and trains.  An analysis of the motivation of these offenders showed that they simply wanted to display their art.  If workers immediately painted over the graffiti, the “taggers” quickly lost their motivation.

Rational Choice

Some of the earliest systematic thought on why people commit crimes comes from what criminologists call the “classical school.”  These early thinkers were very similar in their logic to what modern behavioral psychologists call “operant conditioning.”  There are some basic assumptions of this school of thought.  The most basic assumption is that human beings seek out pleasure and seek to avoid pain.  We can also conceptualize this idea in terms of rewards and punishments.  The basis of classical decision-making, then, is that we examine the potential rewards, contrast those with the potential costs.  If the benefits outweigh the costs, then we decide that is what we should do.  The converse is also true: If the costs outweigh the benefits, then we decide not to do something.  Noted thinker Jeremy Bentham referred to this sort of cost-benefit analysis in the criminal context as the “criminal calculus.”

Bentham’s phrase suggests that rational choice theories posit that the decision to commit a crime is a well-thought-out, deliberative process.  Very few people would make that argument today.  We know that criminals are prone to be rash and impulsive.  Most modern thinkers now say that criminals do choose to commit crimes, but these choices are not well thought out.  We can predict, however, that criminals are seeking some benefit, and that they are aware of opportunities, and that they consider (at least to some degree) the prospects of getting caught.  Economists have long studied the human decision-making process, and the consensus is that we’re not very good at it.  We have too many biases, and we make decisions on incorrect information or give the wrong weight to correct information.

The Displacement Myth

Many detractors of problem-oriented policing suggest that when we utilize crime prevention methods that focus on targets and places, we merely move the location of the crime and change the victim.  In other words, situational crime prevention efforts only move crime around, and they don’t prevent anything.  According to this perspective, crime moves around in five general ways:

  1. The offender simply moves to a different place
  2. The offender waits until a different time
  3. The offender selects a different target
  4. The offender selects a different method of committing the crime
  5. The offender decides to undertake a different kind of crime

All of these options are certainly possible, but research shows that it isn’t very probable.  The logical flaw that these arguments face is that they presuppose that offender predispositions are compulsions.  Some crimes, such as an addict obtaining heroin, are, by definition, very compulsive in their behaviors.  Most crimes, however, are not so.  A burglar, for example, will not likely commit a burglary unless the conditions specified by the crime triangle are met.  Very few people leave home bent on committing a burglary.  Outside of the limited examples of certain sexual offenses and drug addiction, the drives are simply not strong enough to produce a specified number of crimes per period.  To suggest that displacement occurs in all prevention efforts ignores the role of temptation and opportunity.  Research into displacement suggests that it does happen, but to a much smaller degree than expected.  Even in the case of drug addicts, researchers have shown that drug users will often resort to using alternative drugs to their drug of choice, and they will use less when the supply is limited.


Thus far, we have established that nonconfrontational methods of crime prevention are generally superior to offender-based strategies.  This is true both in terms of the suppression of crime rates and community attitudes toward police.  All of the facts seem to converge on the idea that police departments are much better off focusing on crime prevention rather than the traditional reactive role of “catching bad guys.”  It should come as no surprise that when it comes to crime, the environment matters greatly.  It is also important to note that in today’s world, urban growth is not organic.  Buildings and greenspaces alike are designed.  It stands to reason that with careful thought, crime can be designed out of our cities.  That is the goal of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).

The basic premise of CPTED is that effective design and effective use of the “built environment” can reduce both incidents of crime and people’s fear of crime.  This, in turn, improves the quality of life for those that live and work in that environment.  CPTED is different from target hardening in that it doesn’t call for annoying and ugly physical security measures such as locks, barriers, gates, and security patrols.  Instead, it promotes pleasant, attractive spaces that enhance the experience for legitimate users of the area.  Because of its mostly passive nature, CPTED can be far more economical than traditional human-centered methods of improving security.

CPTED is based on four major design principles.  These are natural surveillance, natural access control, territorial reinforcement, and management.  You will notice some strong overlaps between these CPTED principles, as well as overlaps between them and the tenets of Routine Activities.  When the term natural is used in CPTED, it refers to the normal and routine (as in Routine Activities) use of the space.  The core idea is to derive surveillance (providing guardianship) and access control to the area through people’s routine activities.

Recall our fundamental premise that criminals don’t want to get caught.  This means by the police or anyone that may observe and report their observations to the police.  It isn’t much of a stretch to extend this idea to determine that criminals don’t want to be observed at all.  In CPTED, surveillance is synonymous with observation, and the basic idea is to create spaces where everyone is always in view of someone else.  The specter of constant scrutiny increases the perceived risk of detection, and thus deters crime.  The goal is not to exclude people from the space, but to keep everyone in view of everyone else.  This works well as a crime deterrent in spaces where users of the space are willing to report misconduct.  This means that CPTED is powerless in spaces where residents are unwilling to report observations to police.  Indeed, even passive strategies like CPTED depend largely on positive relationships between citizens and police.

People tend to go where they are “nudged.”  Signs, clear pathways, and unimposing barriers can be designed to route people where designers want them to go.  This is important because commonly used pathways are safe pathways.  Windows, lighting, and an absence of obstructions can all be used to create a pleasant environment that is also safer.   Design elements such as shrubs, doors, fences, and even flower beds can be used to keep unauthorized persons out of a particular place.  This use of design elements is referred to as natural access control.  Of course, traditional target hardening techniques such as heavy duty locks, reinforced doors, and burglar bars can serve these functions, but they tend to hamper the aesthetic appeal of the environment.  These security elements are sometimes appropriate for a private property but are unappealing and often unnecessary in public spaces.  Very often, barriers need not be physical.  Psychological barriers often work very well.

It is human nature to protect the territory that we feel we have a stake in keeping safe.  Also, the vast majority of us have a deeply internalized respect for the territory of others.  Most of us would not simply stroll into a friend’s house without knocking.  Clear boundaries that mark territory as belonging to another establish a strong psychological barrier.  An 18-inch tall white picket fence sets apart my neighbor’s yard from my own.  It isn’t much of a physical barrier since I could step over it, but it can provide a significant psychological barrier.  Even so, some don’t observe social norms (like criminals).  Even so, identifying those that don’t belong in a place is much easier when that space is clearly delineated.   Criminals don’t avoid such areas because they are worried about the social norm of respecting the space of others; they worry because they obviously don’t belong there.  Remember, criminals don’t want to be observed.  They don’t generally like to call attention to themselves (unless they are trying to impress an audience).

Management of a space—how well it is maintained—sends clear social messages as well.  The more run down an area is, the less it appears that anyone cares about it.  The signal that no one cares about the space suggests to criminals that socially unacceptable behaviors are not likely to be noticed.  Well maintained and clean spaces are not likely to become targeted.  It is obvious that people care, and those that care are likely to be watching.

Another critical component of CPTED, referred to as sightlines,  is closely aligned with the idea of guardianship.  A sight line refers to the idea that a clear line of vision is not obstructed such that no area is unobserved within the space.  Sharp corners, walls, privacy fences, and bushes can all break up sightlines to the detriment of security.  Low shrubs, flower beds, and wrought iron fences provide barriers to entry but do not disrupt sightlines.  Homeowners that value privacy and create it with hedgerows and tall fences do create privacy, but that privacy invites victimization.

Hot Products

Not all targets of crime are equally likely to be victimized.  There is a myth, partly perpetrated by the FBI’s crime clock, that all Americans have something close to an equal chance of being victimized.  This is far from the truth.  In reality, the probability of crime is not spread out evenly.  Place matters.  Everyone knows that some neighborhoods are more dangerous than others.  Who you are matters.  Young people are at higher risk than older people.  Women are more likely than men to be victims of sexual crimes, and men are more likely than women to be victims of violent crimes.

Minorities are much more likely to be the victims of all sorts of crimes than whites.  Statistically speaking, we know that elderly white women are among the least likely to fall prey to criminals and that young Black men are the most likely to become the victims of violence.  Crime data tells us that who you are matters very much when determining your likelihood of becoming a victim of crime.  When it comes to property, the nature of the property gives us some valuable information about how likely that property is to be targeted by criminals.

Researchers have dubbed items most likely to be targeted by criminals as “hot products.”  Crime prevention efforts that recognize the special nature of these items can provide greater protections for them, and thus reduce criminal victimization.  As you would expect, the ultimate hot product is cash.  When it comes to thefts, the type of place matters.  Residential burglars steal different items than shoplifters.  This goes back to the central tenet of crime science that solutions to crime problems must be very, very specific.  Burglars tend to pick jewelry, cash, and electronics.   Shoplifters vary, depending on the nature of the establishment.  At convenience stores, for example, the most commonly stolen items are cigarettes, beauty aids, and over the counter medications.  You can often tell which items are most often stolen by their placement in the store.  Items stored behind the counter are the hottest products.  Some stores use loud alarms to call attention to things like laundry soap and deodorant.

Again, it is important to consider the criminal’s motivation.   Car thieves illustrate this point extremely well.  Joyriders, for example, tend to prefer sporty models.  Car “choppers” are looking for vehicles that are very common and just out of the warranty period.  That’s when people start looking for replacement parts.  If you are selling stolen car parts, you want customers that are easy to find.

While what precise products are hot depends on a host of factors, some common attributes are very helpful in determining where the focus should be placed in crime prevention efforts.  Researchers in this area developed the acronym CRAVED to help identify these characteristics:

  • Concealable
  • Removable
  • Available
  • Valuable
  • Enjoyable
  • Disposable

It is worthy of note that what products are hot change over time because of technological innovation.  Thirty years ago, large televisions were almost never stolen.  They were valuable, but they were cumbersome.  Modern flatscreen televisions are much more removable.  In urban areas, refrigerators are seldom taken, because they are heavy and bulky, so they aren’t very removable.  This doesn’t always hold in rural areas, because trucks are ubiquitous, and neighbors often don’t have clear sightlines.

[ Chapter 3: Community PartnershipsChapter 5: Procedural Fairness ]

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License

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