Canadian Security Magazine

Why crime prevention may backfire

By Steve W. Ballantyne   


What is it that we do to prevent crime? In a lot of cases, what we do is called situational crime prevention. In his book, Situational Crime Prevention: Successful Case Studies, crime researcher and academic R.V. Clarke’s definition of situational crime prevention (SCP) is insightful.

“Situational crime prevention comprises opportunity-reducing measures
that (1) are directed at highly specific forms of crimes (2) involve
the management, design or manipulation of the immediate environment in
as systematic and permanent way as possible, (3) make crime more
difficult and risky, or less rewarding and excusable as judged by a
wide range of offenders.”

Situational crime prevention (SCP) therefore tries to stop the offender before he or she actually commits the offence. Specific areas of opportunity-reducing techniques include: target hardening, access control, CCTV, security laminate, security guards, signage and alarms. These are all products and services we use and recommend daily in our industry.  

While in and of themselves, these products and services are all proven to be effective-in their more localized context-they also may have more dangerous and less local ”˜side effects’ as they are employed.  Some of these side effects that lead to greater crime are known as: Displacement, Escalation, Facilitation and Creative Adaptation.

Displacement appears to be one of the main limitations of SCP. Clarke even describes displacement as the “Achilles’ heel of situational crime prevention.” Researchers have come across many instances where displacement has occurred, such as when the British government mandated all new cars to be fitted with steering column locks to prevent thieves from driving off with them, and the ”˜displacement’ result was that older cars were stolen.


In a property-marking program in Ottawa, researchers found that burglaries had shifted from the homes that had the marking systems to the houses that had not.

Researchers in the UK discovered that a reported decrease in burglary on a British public housing estate where target hardening was implemented had the unfortunate effect of increasing property crimes in neighbouring areas.

Displacement also has social implications since it raises serious inequality issues between the haves and have-nots. Wealthy people (and businesses) have the financial resources to implement situational prevention measures  whereas the poor certainly do not. Researchers also raise the unsettling idea that a displaced criminal activity may become a much more serious offence than the former. One of their examples shows that there was a higher casualty rate from the London underground fire at Kings Cross because of the toxic fumes that came from the chemicals in the anti-graffiti paint. Thus a relativity minor crime was displaced to a much more serious crime via a situational crime prevention application. 

Escalation is another concern crime prevention practitioners have. Researchers cite examples of escalation such as fencing that was installed to prevent soccer hooliganism, which in reality, contributed to the 93 deaths of spectators who had been crushed against it. Physical barriers and fencing may also invite defacing or outright destruction to them. Another good example of escalation is given by researchers — bulletproofing was applied to subway token booths in New York ultimately resulting in attacks on booths with gasoline-fuelled fires.

Some SCP programs have even facilitated crime rather than thwart it.  Researchers use the example of pick-pockets on the London underground who stand near signs warning of theft to see which pockets are checked by the passengers.  When I was traveling on the underground the first thing I did after reading these warning SCP signs was to put my hand on my wallet to make sure it was still there!  Researchers also argue that the conventitional hardening techniques installed in prisons may actually facilitate the process of depersonaltion, thus making prison guards targets for assaults. 

Creative Adaptation
Creative adaptation is another area in the limitations of SCP.  One example of creative adaptation is the criminals attempt to stay ”˜one step ahead of the law’. According to author P.N. Grabosky, in his book Unintended Consequences of Crime Prevention:

“”¦entrepreneurial criminals may engage in increasingly refined avoidance behavior.  The ingenuity and adaptability of crime prevention targets may be enchanted by new challenges and, with repeated strengthening, may constitute a more formidable threat than was initially the case. Marx (1990) heralds an endless spiral of technologies and counter technologies for crime and crime prevention.”

Thus, in some cases, the utilization of SCP techniques may produce a more adaptive, stronger criminal capable of overcoming the new technologies designed to thwart him.  We may in fact be training super criminals with all our technological advances in crime prevention techniques.  Over the past decade numerous tellers and managers of payday loan shops, bank branches and jewelry shops have been kidnapped in their homes and forcibly driven to their establishments where they were forced to open and robbed of their money.  There is no doubt that the crime prevention hardening applications employed are working quite well, forcing these criminals to creatively adapt their robbery strategies.  In terms of target hardening, forcing the criminal to use creative adaptation may result in him becoming a better criminal in order to stay in “business.”

The realization that crime prevention may lead to more crime
By simply recommending a crime prevention application to prevent a future crime, while preventing the initial minor crime, it could also displace, escalate, facilitate, or creatively adapt crime-and possibly into a more serious crime, the thought is somewhat horrifying. I certainly didn’t become a security practitioner to increase crime; I had become a security practitioner to help people. And what if, in the increase of frequency or danger in crimes by hardier and more savvy criminals, innocent people were actually hurt or killed as a result of the crime prevention methodologies that I employed? It was then I was determined to examine thoroughly any recommendations I had in the future for my clients to ensure that my situational crime prevention applications did not displace, escalate, facilate, or creatively adapt minor crimes to much more serious crimes.  Security managers, consultants, executives, alarm designers, installers and crime prevention practitioners have to be extremely careful in designing their prevention strategies in awareness of the crime potentials as a result of their interventions. Situational crime prevention is serious business and lives may literally hang in the balance.

The positive aspect of failures in SCP
I have written this article to clearly show the various areas of limitations and failures in situational crime prevention but as noted crime researcher P.N. Grabosky had this to say about his own research:

    “Despite its apparent occupation with failure, this essay has been written in a constructive spirit.  Just as the study of engineering failures does not imply that society should forsake the use of bridges or buildings, the study of crime prevention failures does not suggest that crime prevention efforts should be abandoned.  The analysis of engineering failures enables the subsequent construction of stronger bridges and taller buildings; the analysis of crime prevention failure can lead to the design and implementation of better crime prevention programs.”

So, just as certain applications of SCP measures may make and train ”˜super criminals’, the study of the limitations and failures of SCP may also make researchers, crime reduction practitioners and security managers ”˜super crime fighters.’

Steve W. Ballantyne is a Security and Risk Management expert with SecuraGlobe Solutions Inc. based in Oakville, Ont.

Print this page


Stories continue below


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *