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Responses to the Problem of Burglary of Retail Establishments

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The responses discussed below provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your problem. These responses are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of them may apply to your particular problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis.

In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem: you should give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. Building a partnership with these various stakeholders can be essential to success. For example, if you decide to target career burglars, you may need the help of parole and probation officers or local prosecutors in securing appropriate prison sentences. If you believe that street lighting must be improved, you will need help from the city and the local utility company. Above all, you will need to persuade individual retailers to take the security measures you will surely find are needed. Local business associations might help you in securing retailers' commitment.

Be aware that chain stores may need to get the head office's approval for any new security measures. Chains are likely to have their own security departments, and security staff will need to be convinced that changes in company practice are needed to meet local conditions. On the other hand, the security departments might help you formulate your response, or put you in touch with local loss prevention specialists.

Several other important considerations should guide your choice of responses:

  • You should pay particular attention to repeat burglaries, since focusing on these can provide important dividends for detection as well as prevention.
  • You should not overlook the fact that the burglary is only the first stage of the crime. The burglars will subsequently sell or exchange the stolen goods, leading to additional response possibilities.
  • You should be alert to the possibility of displacement resulting from the implementation of some responses. In particular, you might expect some displacement to other stores when stores that have been burgled increase their security. If your responses are successful, you might also expect some displacement to nearby areas that fall outside the scope of your measures. However, research has shown that offenders typically do not travel far, and that geographic displacement is rather limited. It is also the case that if stores with the most-attractive goods are given increased protection, burglars will not necessarily rob other stores with less-attractive goods. Finally, research has found that protecting an entire area from burglary can result in a "diffusion of benefits" to surrounding areas, so that their burglary rates decline as well.20
  • You should remember that, once you have completed your problem-oriented project and moved on to other duties, some responses you have introduced might not be sustained. There is the added danger that a reduction in burglaries will induce complacency and the belief that the problem has been "licked." There are several ways to deal with these threats,† but an important one is to make relatively permanent changes in the physical environment, changes whose effectiveness does not depend on human backup. For example, a business watch program and strengthened doors/windows might both result in initial reductions in burglary, but the latter's effect is likely to last longer.

† For a discussion, see Curtin et al. (2001).

The responses discussed below are organized under three main headings according to the groups with the main role to play in implementing them: the police, retailers and city/local government. It will be clear that research evidence about the effectiveness of most responses is patchy and sometimes inconsistent. If direct evidence of a particular response's effectiveness is lacking, the response assessment is guided by accepted crime prevention principles.

Police Responses

1. Targeting repeat offenders. Police crackdowns can produce reductions in crime, but these reductions may not last long. Research has shown that after the police leave, it is often "business as usual" for the local offenders.‡ However, a recently published study found that a crackdown on prolific local burglars, followed by a "consolidation" phase in which the properties most at risk were target-hardened, produced reduced residential burglary rates in one community in England. The crackdown was not the usual kind, involving heavy police presence in a particular neighborhood. Instead, it involved concentrated police attention on—including intensified investigation of—burglary suspects in one local area. Police identified, targeted and arrested 14 suspects thought to be among the most prolific local burglars, resulting in a 60 percent reduction in burglaries. There was no evidence of any displacement of burglary to other crimes or to nearby areas; indeed, car thefts dropped in the crackdown area, and burglaries dropped by 50 percent in nearby areas, suggesting that the offenders arrested were responsible for many of those crimes, as well.21 A combined crackdown and consolidation along these lines could be equally effective in reducing retail burglaries.†

‡ For a recent review and discussion, see Novak et al. (1999).

† For a comprehensive assessment of repeat offender programs, see Spelman (1990).

2. Targeting repeatedly burgled stores. There is a large body of evidence that focusing police and crime prevention resources on repeatedly burgled homes can produce substantial declines in burglary. Similar benefits could be obtained by concentrating preventive resources on repeatedly burgled stores.22 The research also suggests that repeat burglaries are frequently the work of highly prolific offenders, who often return soon after the original burglary. Short-term use of measures focused on recently burgled stores might result in arrests of these offenders. As well as the deployment of directed patrols, such measures include the use of high-tech devices such as portable, covert closed-circuit television (CCTV) (which records pictures and sound only during periods of activity); portable silent alarms (which alert the police when activated); proximity alarms (which loudly sound when premises are approached from a particular direction); and "forensic traps" (such as chemically treated mats to pick up intruders' footprints).‡

‡ Experience with these high-tech devices is limited to date, but it appears that they can pose numerous practical problems. For example, store owners/employees often forget to activate the devices when they leave at night, or forget they are activated when they return (Taylor 1999). As with conventional intruder alarms, portable burglar alarms also pose the problem of false alarms (see the False Burglar Alarms guide in this series).

3. Disrupting markets for stolen goods. Far too little is known about how offenders dispose of stolen goods, and too little is done to disrupt markets for the goods.§ It is true that in many jurisdictions, pawnshops are required to report the goods they receive to the police. While this requirement's effectiveness has not been properly evaluated, the best programs seem to be those in which pawnshop records are automated, downloaded daily to the police, and automatically searched against the police records database for hits on stolen property. In any case, burglars can dispose of stolen goods in many other ways, including peddling them on the street, selling them to friends or acquaintances, selling them through newspaper ads or in bars and clubs, exchanging them for drugs, and even selling them door-to-door. Burglars also sell goods to small shops, and police in many areas have undertaken "stings" in which they set up bogus fencing operations in used-goods stores. The popularity of these stings appears to have declined. They are expensive and time-consuming, and research suggests that they can lead to an influx of crime into the area around them.23 Alternative strategies to disrupt sales of stolen goods to stores include (1) conducting surveillance of suspect stores in your area to gain evidence of thieves' entering and making sales, so as to prosecute both the thieves and the fences; (2) encouraging stores that buy used goods to display signs stating they are part of a crime prevention program to reduce sales of stolen goods; and (3) implementing local ordinances requiring stores to establish proof of ownership for used goods they buy.24
§ See the Problem-Specific Guide on Stolen Goods Markets.
4. Establishing business/shop watch programs. Despite their popularity, there is little evidence that neighborhood watch programs are effective deterrents to burglary. Similarly, there is little evidence that business/shop watch programs produce tangible results beyond some possible public relations benefits.25 These programs are also difficult to establish.26 Greater success might result from establishing "cocoon" business/shop watch programs in which police encourage stores close to a recently burgled store to exercise heightened surveillance for a month or two.

Retailer Actions

5. Upgrading external security. This target-hardening option covers a variety of measures, including:
  • Strengthening locks and reinforcing doors and windows
  • Installing strengthened glass, shutters or grilles in windows
  • Installing video cameras to monitor possible entry points
  • Installing security lighting at entry points
  • Installing concrete pillars or decorative planters to prevent ram raiding.

Installing pillars, posts or planters in front of store doors helps prevent burglars from driving vehicles through the doors. Credit: Kip Kellogg

As mentioned, the research evidence regarding these measures' value is unclear and inconsistent. Burglars say they find these measures of little hindrance, and from a police point of view, they may provide little benefit if they merely displace burglary to other stores. Planning authorities may resist some of these measures, particularly shutters and security lighting, because they can make an area less attractive.27

That said, there is some limited evidence from recent studies that target hardening can be effective in preventing burglary of particular premises and, if perceived to be widespread, can also protect an entire area.28 Which measures to use with which stores depends on a variety of cost, convenience and aesthetic considerations; the advice of a professional security consultant might be required.

Burglar alarms, private security patrols and safes for especially valuable merchandise, along with signs indicating these security features are present, can all help reduce burglary of retail establishments. Credit: Kip Kellogg

6. Installing burglar alarms. Most stores have burglar alarms, and research suggests these can effectively protect the premises from burglary.29 One study has found that areas with a higher number of premises with burglar alarms have lower rates of burglary.30 However, many burglar alarms have unacceptably high rates of false alarms, and more-sophisticated thieves can disable them. Different systems vary considerably in their costs for owners and for the police. For more information on these topics, see the False Burglar Alarms guide in this series.
7. Safeguarding cash and valuable stock. This approach falls under the situational prevention category of "target removal." It includes:
  • Removing high-value goods from window displays
  • Concealing goods
  • Minimizing stock with "just in time" deliveries
  • Using safes or secure cages for the most valuable items in stockrooms
  • Marking valuable goods such as computers with traceable, hard-to-remove identification numbers
  • Banking cash each day
  • Leaving empty cash registers open at night (to prevent their being broken into).

While these techniques are good security practice, nothing is known from research about their effectiveness in preventing retail burglaries. However, cash reduction is a well-proven method of preventing commercial robberies, and removal of coin-fed fuel meters in British homes has been shown to prevent residential burglaries.31

8. Locking escape routes. It is good security practice to make it as difficult to get out of a store after hours as it is to get in. (Fire exits must not be locked during normal business hours or when the store is otherwise occupied). When leaving at night, store managers should cut off the power supply to loading-bay doors, and make sure other doors and windows cannot be opened from the inside.
9. Screening and training shop staff. It is good security practice (where law permits) to screen prospective employees for criminal records. It is also good practice to train staff in security measures, to clarify their responsibilities (particularly for key security), and to encourage their involvement—for example, by keeping watch for suspicious behavior and unfamiliar vehicles.

Private security patrols around large shopping malls help reduce burglaries to retail establishments located in and around the malls. Credit: Kip Kellogg

10. Employing security guards after hours. Burglars say that security guards pose the greatest threat to their activities.32 Guards are widely employed in large malls and retail parks, which helps to account for the relatively low burglary rates of stores in these locations. An alternative adopted by some large stores is to employ a night crew that handles cleanup, restocking and display dressing. The store is protected from burglars while this necessary work gets done.
11. Using crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED). CPTED entails changing landscaping and design to (1) discourage access to all but intended users, (2) allow intruders to be spotted, and (3) establish the boundaries between private and public property. While research provides little guide as to CPTED's effectiveness in reducing retail burglaries, the general principles of this approach are widely accepted.33 If stores in your area are contemplating either major remodeling or construction of new premises, they should consider incorporating CPTED strategies to reduce their future burglary risks. A CPTED survey can be done for an entire area, not just for individual businesses. If a block of businesses or a business district cooperates in paying for a CPTED specialist to undertake a survey and recommend improvements, the cost will be minimal. Information about CPTED can be obtained from the National Crime Prevention Council (www.ncpc.org/) and the International CPTED Association (www.cpted.net).§

For an example of how one police department used CPTED to reduce burglary along a commercial corridor, click here.

City Planning Measures

12. Improving street surveillance through lighting and CCTV. Commercial burglars prefer targets that receive little surveillance,34 and they could be expected to avoid well-lit streets† and those with CCTV surveillance. Consistent with this, a study in Britain found large reductions in shop burglaries following the introduction of CCTV surveillance in three downtown areas,35 and a study in Portland, Ore., found that improving the lighting on a commercial strip produced a significant drop in retail burglaries.36 As with all security measures, lighting has to be carefully designed to provide maximum benefits without unnecessary cost.‡

† State or county crime prevention associations may provide grants to fund lighting improvements.

‡ For a discussion, see Poyner and Fawcett (1995), and Painter and Tilley (1999). See also the Response Guide Video Surveillance of Public Places.

13. Promoting "living over the shop." In an effort to restore downtown areas' vitality and provide after-hours surveillance of retail properties, the British government is sponsoring a program to encourage people to live in vacant space above shops. The program, which has been adopted by many towns and cities, has the additional benefit of increasing the supply of low-cost housing.37 A recent evaluation, based on interviews with a variety of interested parties, found that most people supported the program and believed it helped to reduce crime in downtown areas.
14. Promoting business improvement districts (BIDs). Many U.S. cities have designated BIDs formed by coalitions of local businesspeople. The objective is to promote investment in declining business areas. Similar initiatives in Britain fall under the title of "town center management." An important objective of most BIDs† is to reduce crime and the fear of crime. To this end, initiatives may include improvements in street lighting, installation of public CCTV systems, regular cleaning of graffiti and repair of vandalism, dedicated patrols by police and security guards, and formation of a force of "city guards" to provide a street presence and assist visitors or tourists. Evaluations of BIDs are currently being undertaken in the United States.38

† Though not, apparently, of most TCM schemes (Beck and Willis 1995).

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