A simple but profound shift in thinking has helped police organizations to realize new gains in crime control, crime reduction, victimization, and fear. Many police agencies have adopted prevention as the overarching goal of policing, rather than as a specialized function or set of activities. Understanding prevention as the strategic goal of the policing process puts into practice Sir Robert Peel’s ninth principle of policing: “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them” (Lee 1901).

For police, prevention in the past has consisted primarily of exhorting people to “lock it or lose it” and dispensing advice on door locks and window bars for their homes and businesses. Crime prevention typically was (and often still is) an addon program or appendage to the police agency, which normally included a few officers who were trained to go to citizens’ homes and perform security surveys or engage in public speaking on prevention topics.

The introduction of situational crime prevention (SCP) in the 1980s by Ronald V. Clarke (1983) offered a new, proactive crime prevention and control strategy to law enforcement practitioners and academics alike. SCP departs from most criminological theories by focusing on the occurrence of crime rather than the detection of offenders. Simply put, SCP provides a means of reducing crime by reducing crime opportunities and increasing the risks to offenders.

The Evolution of Situational Crime


Crime prevention is not a new idea. Our earliest ancestors maximized lighting from the sun and moon and employed defensive placement of homes on the side of cliffs, with only one entrance and exit (Scanlon 1996). Cave dwellers established ownership of a space by surrounding it with large boulders. The Romans developed and enforced complex land laws. Walled cities and castles exist throughout the world. It is a natural human impulse to claim and secure an area to prevent problems (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, n.d.).

In the early 1960s, environmental prevention strategies emerged in the works of Jane Jacobs (1961), author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She argued against urban renewal strategies that promoted the building of high-rise public housing complexes that invited crime through poor design. Jacobs’ ideas about safe neighborhoods also incorporated the urban areas surrounding buildings themselves.

A decade later, C. Ray Jeffrey (1971), drawing on Jacobs’ works, coined the phrase ”crime prevention through environment design” in a topic of that title. Jeffrey believed that the proper design and use of the environment can help reduce the incidence of crime and improve people’s overall quality of life. Concurrent with Jeffrey’s work, Oscar Newman (1972), an architect, argued that flaws in the physical environment were responsible for, or at least facilitators of, criminal behavior. Newman believed that the physical characteristics (building design) of an area could suggest to residents and potential offenders that the area is well cared for and protected, or that it is open to criminal activity.

The 1970s experienced a rise of community-based crime prevention programs, such as the neighborhood or block watch. These programs were based on Jacobs’, Jeffrey’s, and Newman’s physical design approaches. The focus is on such strategies as citizen surveillance and action (for example, cutting back bushes, installing lighting, removing obstacles to enhance sight lines, organizing security surveys, and distributing news about crime and crime prevention) (Lab 1977).

Later, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling’s (1982) broken-windows theory extended Newman’s (1972) focus on housing projects to entire neighborhoods. ”Broken windows” refers to physical signs that an area is unattended and purposely ignored and neglected. They found that abandoned vehicles and buildings, trash and litter, and broken windows and graffiti are physical indicators that no one cares, thus sending the message that neighborhood disorder is acceptable. In addition to these physical indicators are social manifestations of the same problems, such as loitering youths, public drunkenness, prostitution, and vagrancy.

Both the physical and social indicators are typically referred to as signs of incivility that attract offenders to the area.

The most recent, and perhaps most promising, movement in crime prevention focuses efforts and interventions on attacking specific problems, places, and times. Clarke (1983) proposed ”situational prevention,” measures directed at highly specific forms of crime that involve earlier environmental strategies in ways that reduce the opportunities for crime and increase its risk. Examples of situational prevention include the installation of surveillance equipment in parking lots experiencing vandalism, erecting security screens in banks to stop robberies, altering traffic patterns in a drug market neighborhood, using electronic tags for library materials, and using caller ID for obscene phone calls (Lab 1977, 8-9).

Situational Crime Prevention

While working at the Home Office, London England, Ronald Clarke introduced SCP as a method of improving our understanding of crime, crime reduction theory, and crime changes. SCP draws upon the following criminological theories:

• Rational choice theory. Crime is committed by rational individuals who weigh the benefits against the risks (Cornish and Clarke 1986).

• Routine activity theory. A crime is possible when a motivated offender and a suitable target (victim) come together in space and time, absent a capable guardian (a person whose mere presence would deter potential offenders including passersby, security guards, and street vendors) (Cohen and Felson 1979).

• Lifestyle theory. The risk of victimization is related to a person’s lifestyle; such things as work environment and leisure activities may expose people to potential offenders (Fattah 1993; Farrell and Pease 1993).

As indicated, SCP provides a change in focus from most crime prevention theories that are primarily concerned with the person committing the crime. SCP seeks to not eliminate criminal or delinquent tendencies through improvement of society or its institutions, but also making criminal action less attractive to offenders (Clarke 1997, 2). SCP is a practical “environmental criminology” approach that seeks to reduce crime opportunity by making settings less conducive to unwanted or illegal activities, focusing on the environment rather than the offender (Clarke 1997, 2).

SCP relies on the rational choice theory of crime, which asserts that criminals choose to commit crimes based on the costs and benefits involved with the crime. For example, a potential offender will commit a high-risk crime only if the rewards of the crime outweigh the risks (Clarke 1997, 8-9).

The Five Strategies and Twenty-Five Techniques of Situational Crime Prevention

Cornish and Clarke’s (2003) five SCP strategies and twenty-five techniques (five for each strategy) are as follows:

1. Increasing the effort needed to commit the crime. Crimes are easy to commit, and the average person is susceptible to engage in criminal activity if the right opportunity arises. These casual criminals, as they are called, may be eliminated by increasing the effort needed to commit a crime:

• Hardening targets. Install locks, bolts, protective screens, and other physical barriers to obstruct an offender’s access to a potential target.

• Controlling access control. Install barriers and design walkways, paths, and roads to keep unwanted users from entering vulnerable areas.

• Screening exits. Require tickets at the door of a theater and use electronic devices at stores to detect the theft of music, DVDs, and clothing.

• Deflecting offenders. Discourage crimes by giving people alternate, legal venues for their activities, such as decreasing littering by providing litter bins or separating fans of rival teams after athletic events.

• Controlling tools and weapons. Implement universal measures such as firearm permit regulations and specific measures such as metal detectors in community centers.

2. Increasing the risks associated with the crime. Offenders who believe they are at risk of being apprehended are less likely to offend. For example, a simple “How’s my driving?” sign with a toll-free phone number on the back of a delivery truck may deter the driver from speeding or committing other traffic violations. The five ways to increase the risk are as follows:

• Extending guardianship. Going out at night in groups increases personal safety. Carrying a cell phone provides the opportunity to report suspicious incidents quickly. The police notification to neighbors about a burglary in the area extends the number of “eyes on the street” and enhances safety.

• Assisting natural surveillance. This includes the surveillance provided by people as they go about their daily activities; also included are removal of advertisements from storefront windows, removing hedges in front of businesses, and constructing glass-encased stairways on the outside of parking structures .

• Reducing anonymity. The display of taxi and limousine driver IDs for passengers, for example, increases people’s familiarization with one another.

• Utilizing site managers. The presence of building attendants, concierges, maintenance workers, and attendants increases site surveillance and crime reporting.

• Strengthening formal surveillance. Using security personnel and hardware (such as closed-circuit TV and burglar alarms) is a deterrent to unwanted activities.

. Reducing the rewards. Reducing the rewards from crime makes offending not worthwhile. Following are techniques for doing so:

• Concealing targets. Keeping valuables out of plain view of potential offenders can reduce temptation; also included are hiding jewelry while walking alone, keeping cell phones and other valuables out of plain sight in parked vehicles, and keeping one’s name gender-neutral on any phone lists.

• Removing targets. Eliminate crime motivation from public areas by following such examples as a no-cash policy and keeping valuable property in a secure area overnight.

• Identifying property. Inscribe indelible ownership marks on property to prevent individuals from reselling it.

• Disrupting markets. Reducing the market for stolen goods may have significant impact on burglary and theft. This may include the police monitoring pawn shops and crackdowns on flea markets and illegal street vendors. It may also involve the mandatory licensing of door-to-door solicitors.

• Denying benefits. Offenders may be deterred if they are denied the benefit of their efforts. Included are having PIN numbers on debit cards and photos on credit cards, engaging in rapid graffiti removal, and attaching ink tags on clothing.

4. Reducing provocation. The environmental situation or the manner in which places are managed may provoke crime and violence. Reducing provocations focuses on situations that precipitate or induce crime. For example, busy bars and unmonitored drinking will inherently combine to provoke physical violence. The following techniques assist in the reducing of provocations:

• Reducing frustration and stress. People are easily angered and frustrated in today’s busy world. Studies show that improving lighting enhances people’s mood and morale in the workplace. Additional seating and soothing music may reduce people’s frustrations in crowded public places. Online drivers’ licensing and motor vehicle registration eliminates the need to stand in long lines.

• Avoiding disputes. Wearing a San Francisco 49ers jersey at an Oakland Raiders football game is inviting a fight. Fixed cab fares in airports helps avoid fare disputes. Reducing the amount of time that public transportation is available from large concerts and sporting events reduces the chance of fights occurring that are related to drunkenness and crowded conditions.

• Reducing emotional arousal. Laws that restrict convicted pedophiles from living within a certain distance from schools help to reduce the temptation of being in contact with children. Many states require a ten-day “cooling off” period to purchase a gun.

• Neutralizing peer pressure. Peers evoke a strong influence in others in school, work, and play. “Friends don’t let friends drink and drive” slogans are designed to positively influence drunk driving using peer pressure. There are several prevention programs for parents who struggle with a child negatively influenced by friends.

• Discouraging imitation. The rapid repair of vandalized property (carving park benches) and the prompt removal of graffiti reduce the likelihood of repeat incidents. This is the thesis of Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) broken-windows theory mentioned earlier. Cable companies allow parents who are concerned about the influence of television violence on juveniles to easily block out violent and sexually explicit programs.

5. Removing excuses. Many offenders argue that they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong. Informing people of the law and the rules eliminates any excuses for engaging in illegal activity. For example, “no parking” and “no trespassing” signs are enforceable if they are posted. The following techniques prevent offenders from excusing their crimes by claiming ignorance or misunderstanding.

• Set rules. Rules govern behavior. Charging a person’s credit card a fee helps to reduce restaurant no-shows. Signed agreements regulate the behavior of students living in dorms. Many companies establish strict telephone procedures to ensure that good customer service is delivered.

• Post instructions. “No parking,” “no smoking,” “handicap parking,” and “no trespassing” signs remove any claims of ignorance of the law.

• Alert people’s conscience. “Copying is a crime” warnings in bold letters on music CDs and DVDs are designed to get people’s attention. Digital signs that display a vehicle’s speed are commonly used by police to slow traffic in high-accident areas and school zones.

• Assist with people’s compliance. Programs that provide free taxi rides to bar patrons during the holidays and bars that offer free nonalcoholic drinks to designated drivers help patrons adhere to drunk driving laws. Adequate garbage receptacles and public lavatories on beaches and in parks reduce littering and public urination.

• Control drug and alcohol abuse. Free breathalyzer tests in bars and bartender training reduce the risks of intoxication and drunk driving.


Clearly, the field of crime prevention has matured from its very early primitive forms, now involving more sophisticated methods for adapting the environment and for targeting homes and businesses. SCP has emerged as an essential crime prevention and control strategy by focusing on reducing opportunities that are provided to offenders motivated to commit crimes. The emphasis on proactive crime prevention is far preferred to the more traditional reactive approach, by which the police are primarily involved in taking crime reports and investigating but a small proportion of offenses.

Next post:

Previous post: