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Where Criminals Fear to Tread

​A LARGE ACCOUNTING FIRM was having a problem with laptop thefts at one of its regional facilities. Thirteen of these computers had been stolen during a five-month period. An examination of the cases as part of a larger study on laptop thefts in the building where this company was a tenant revealed several contributing factors. Visitors were allowed to enter the tenant floors unchallenged and unescorted. Tenant entryways were locked but were easy to break into, and they weren’t surveilled. A visitor could, therefore, easily get into the tenant’s space and walk away with a laptop unchallenged.

In response to the study, this tenant implemented several security recommendations, including installing surveillance cameras, hardening door frames, and instituting procedural security steps, such as challenging and escorting all visitors. Nine days after the new measures were put in place, an attempt to break into the tenant’s space failed. The thieves have not returned, and the company has had no incidents in 30 months.

When contemplating crime or unwanted activity, offenders weigh the positive and negative aspects of committing an offense to see whether they will likely get away with it. Situational and environmental crime-control measures, such as those implemented in the laptop theft case above, can help to change the would-be criminal’s mind regarding whether committing the offense is worth the risk. While crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) is the most well-known of the environmental crime control theories, several others are proving useful in the field as well. The following overview looks at the prevailing approaches and how they can be applied by companies to secure their facilities.


CPTED has three underlying principles that have been refined by criminologists during the last 40 years. They are geared toward protecting physical, electronic, or human assets. The first principle is the use of natural surveillance to allow legitimate building and site users to see further and wider while also reducing the ability of illegitimate users to remain undetected. The second principle is the use of natural access control such as landscaping. The third is territorial reinforcement that keeps illegitimate and unwanted activity away from the site and encourages legitimate and sanctioned activities.

Defensible space theory is aligned with CPTED. Its principles are: spheres of influence that allow occupants to exert territorial influence, improving the natural capability of residents to survey interior and exterior spaces; and the reduction of vulnerabilities through the use of building materials.

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 manmade 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.

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.