Criminal Theory on the Street: Analyzing Why Offenses Take Place

By Swope, Ross E. | Law & Order, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Criminal Theory on the Street: Analyzing Why Offenses Take Place


Swope, Ross E., Law & Order


Analyzing Why

Offenses Take Place

Any experienced police officer can identify problem areas in his sector: he will be able to point out locations that experience burglaries, or where aggravated assaults occur almost daily. For the most part, what field personnel already know can now be confirmed by descriptive crime mapping. The time of day, day of week and season for peak crime occurrences can be identified. All of this data is essential in developing tactical and strategic interventions to address the problem. The questions as to where and when offenses take place are answered. The "why" question, however, has not been answered.

To answer why offenses take place it is necessary to perform crime analysis. Crime analysis involves the collection and analysis of data pertaining to criminal events, offenders and victims. Crime analysis can provide clues about the identity of suspects, assist in the design of prevention and apprehension strategies, aid in evaluating programs, and help gain a better understanding of environmental factors that may be associated with crime.

Criminological Theories

The solution to distilling all the variables of crime is criminological theory. Successful analysis of spatial patterns of crime can be guided by criminological theory that can link geography to crime, unravel the spatial characteristics of different types of crime and provide explanations for the high vulnerability of some neighborhoods or demographic groups.

Many experienced police managers will recognize these criminological theories or concepts, maybe not by name but through their experiences. Practitioners can benefit from applying criminological theory to a criminal justice problem. Specific conditions and processes generate identifiable crime patterns. Theories can help us understand these patterns and develop effective intervention. Theory can expand the crime analysis process to allow one to see crime in its backdrop rather than as a self-contained phenomenon with self-contained solutions. The point of using crime analysis based on criminological theory is that a systematic approach to analysis rooted in theory may yield more consistent results with a deeper level of explanation.

Opportunity Theory

The opportunity theory is based on an offender's opportunity to commit a crime. In the context of environmental criminology, opportunity theory has two aspects: target attractiveness, which includes value and portability; and accessibility, which includes ease of physical access, visibility and absence of sufficient guardian. As to the first aspect, the British Crime Survey found that cars of the wealthy within a given area were more likely to be targeted. All things being equal, the higher value item is stolen. In the second aspect, it was found that cars parked in a shopping center lot with frequent passers-by suffered far less than those used by commuters who parked at a railway station. Parking lots are easy to go into and out of, and those at railroad stations offer low risk to criminals because there is limited pedestrian traffic that can observe the offense. There is reduced surveillance and an absence of a sufficient guardian.

If through crime analysis visitors' cars at a tourist attraction were broken into and the burglaries were identified as a problem, the opportunity theory could be applied to develop interventions to address the problem. Interventions to have the visitors take valuables with them or remove them from sight could reduce the target attractiveness and visibility, both elements of the opportunity theory.

Routine Activity Theory

The routine activity theory states the probability a crime will occur at any specific time and place might be taken as a function of the convergence of a likely offender and suitable target in the absence of a capable guardian. The essential characteristic of this theory is the concept of opportunity presented in day-to-day activities. …

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