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Responses to the Problem of Burglary of Single-Family Houses

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 following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's 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. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.

Burglary prevention efforts typically involve a variety of responses; it has been difficult to assess individual response effectiveness. However, the following section describes specific responses that might be combined to form an effective burglary prevention strategy. Despite the importance of multiple interventions, you should avoid trying a little bit of everything; instead, you should use complementary tactics.

Situational Crime Prevention Responses

A range of burglary prevention responses involve target-hardening, increasing the risk—or presumed risk—of detection for offenders, and reducing the rewards. While police have historically recommended many of these responses, they are increasingly used in tandem with one another and with other strategies. Most research suggests it is the combination of responses that is effective.

1. Installing burglar alarms. Burglar alarms have become quite prevalent. An estimated 17.5 percent of U.S. households have them.77 In Britain, 24 percent of households had alarms in 1998—a doubling in proportion since 1992.78 At an average installation cost of $1,200 in the United States, along with monthly monitoring charges of about $25, alarms are concentrated among more affluent households.79

Burglar alarms have a high rate of false alerts—perhaps as much as 95 percent. Despite that rate, alarms are often recommended for crime prevention. The National Crime Prevention Institute recommends installing alarms, and some insurance companies offer urban policyholders discounts for doing so. (For more detailed information on alarms, see Guide No. 5 in this series, False Burglar Alarms.)

Most studies of burglars indicate that many will avoid residences with alarms, but alarm effectiveness has not been well evaluated.† As alarms become more prevalent, their effectiveness may change. If most residences in an area have alarms, burglars may tend to avoid the area. Even if a burglar tackles an alarm, its presence may cause him or her to be hasty; burglars steal less property from houses with alarms.80

† The electronic industry cites a study of three suburban locales. Residences with alarms faced a 1.4 percent risk of burglary, while residences without alarms faced a 2.3 percent risk (Hakim and Buck 1991). Due to research limitations, these findings should not be presumed to hold true for all jurisdictions.

Portable burglar alarms have been effectively used for crime prevention. Police agencies have issued them temporarily to detect offenders. In one burglary prevention project, a small pool of portable alarms were allocated on a rotating basis, according to risk.81

2. Installing closed-circuit television (CCTV). CCTV has been widely used in commercial buildings, public settings and apartment complexes. It may also be used for single-family houses, although such applications will be cost-prohibitive for many, and have not been evaluated. CCTV may deter burglaries, or offenders might confess when confronted with incontrovertible evidence. Temporary CCTV installations may be an option, particularly when used after repeat burglaries or with an alarm.† CCTV can also be used to verify alarms.

† See Painter and Tilley (1999) for a description of CCTV in a variety of settings.

3. Hardening targets. Increasing vulnerable houses' security can reduce victimization.82 Home security surveys or target-hardening assessments may prevent burglaries, but these are often requested by residents at the lowest risk for burglary. Even then, residents are unlikely to fully comply with all crime prevention advice. Those whose houses have been burglarized or who live near a burglary victim are most likely to follow such advice.83

Security assessments typically include target-hardening advice related to locks, windows and doors. Importantly, such advice—provided immediately after a burglary—also helps the victim secure the break-in point, to deter a repeat offense.

Target-hardening makes getting into houses more difficult for burglars, and includes installing the following: sturdy doors with dead bolts; window locks, rather than latches; double-pane, storm or divided light windows, or laminated glass that is forced-entry resistant; pin locks on windows and sliding glass doors; and sliding glass door channel locks or slide bolts. Generally, moderate lock security should suffice, as there is no evidence that more elaborate lock security reduces burglary.84 Door security may be influenced as much by the door's sturdiness as by its lock. Regardless, residents should use, rather than simply install, security devices.

Some residents install bars and grills on windows and doors, but the aesthetic costs deter many residents from doing so. Installing them may violate building codes and pose a safety threat by blocking fire exits.

If target-hardening is too expensive, corporate sponsors may be solicited to fund it.† New construction may also incorporate target-hardening (see response 9).

† In seven cities in Britain, an insurance company funded target-hardening measures for low-income areas; burglaries declined as a result (Mawby 2001). In Huddersfield, England, burglary victims were given a discount voucher to buy security equipment (Chenery, Holt and Pease 1997).

Target-hardening can be enhanced through victim education, as well as public awareness campaigns that encourage likely victims to take precautions, and that increase offenders' perceptions of risk. Such efforts may be carried out through the media, through the police (e.g., going door-to-door), or through Neighborhood Watch or other community groups.

4. Marking property. Property-marking efforts have had mixed results. It is difficult to get citizens to have their property marked. This response appears to be most effective when combined with extensive efforts to enlist participation,‡ and with extensive media warnings to burglars that disposing of marked property will be more difficult, or that its value will be reduced.85 As part of this response, police must ensure that recovered property is carefully evaluated to detect marking. Property can be marked with bar codes, engraving, dyes and etching liquids, labels, and electronic tags. In some initiatives, citizens post window decals to warn potential burglars that their property is marked.

‡ Police in New South Wales, Australia, went door-to-door to persuade citizens to participate, and provided free marking equipment (Laycock 1991).

5. Increasing occupancy indicators. Most burglars avoid encountering residents, and thus look for indicators of occupancy. Such indicators include interior and exterior lights left on (or intermittently turned on and off via timers), closed curtains, noise (e.g., from a television or stereo), cars in the driveway, and so forth. Dogs, alarms and close neighbors can serve as substitutes for occupancy. There are also mock-occupancy devices, such as timers that suggest someone is home. In addition, residents should avoid leaving clues that they are away (e.g., leaving the garage door open when the garage is empty). Before going on vacation, they should have their mail stopped (or ask a neighbor to pick it up), and ensure that their lawns will be maintained in their absence.

A dog's presence in a house is an effective burglary deterrent. Credit: Kip Kellogg

6. Creating safe havens. Home security can be obtained through physical design, such as in gated communities or limited-access "fortress societies," where security guards are supplemented by alarms and video surveillance.86 Those who have the economic resources can create such safe havens by retrofitting existing communities or developing new ones. Such communities enhance feelings of safety and produce modest crime reduction benefits. Some police feel that these designs slow response time and make patrolling more difficult.87
7. Improving visibility. Many features that make houses vulnerable to burglary (e.g., isolation) cannot be changed. However, improving houses' visibility increases the likelihood that burglars will be spotted—or deters burglars who perceive greater risk.

Since burglars seek houses with cover, residents should remove obstructions to visibility. Generally, they should trim trees and shrubs and modify fencing so that such features do not block the view of the house from neighbors or passersby. Well-planned—particularly motion-activated—lighting may enhance such measures' effectiveness.

Increased lighting may increase natural surveillance in darkness: however, its impact on crime is highly context-specific. If no one is around to spot a burglar—for example, at an isolated house—increased lighting is unlikely to stop the crime, and may actually make the burglar's job easier. In some areas, enhanced street lighting has reduced residential burglaries:88 depending on the neighborhood, it may reduce fear and encourage greater pedestrian traffic, increasing opportunities for natural surveillance. In some cases, the benefits of increased street lighting have extended to daylight hours, presumably because of increased awareness and community pride.89

8. Implementing Neighborhood Watch (NW) programs. Police have often launched NW programs in response to residential burglary, but the offenses have not consistently declined. NW varies widely, but primarily involves neighbors' watching one another's houses and reporting suspicious behavior. Many NW programs include marking participants' property and assessing their home security to harden targets (see responses 3, 4 and 13). However, many NW participants fail to mark property or follow target-hardening advice,90 although NW works best when they do so.91 NW has most often been implemented in low-risk areas with more affluent homeowners.92 NW has a greater impact when there are some residents at home during the day.

Neighborhood Watch programs have not proved to be particularly effective at reducing residential burglary. Credit: Kip Kellogg

NW effectiveness can be enhanced by offering introduction kits to vulnerable new residents; publicizing the program, including posting stickers on windows or doors, and/or signs on residents' properties or in the neighborhood; educating residents through door-to-door campaigns; marking property; conducting security assessments; and keeping residents informed about crime trends. (Police departments are increasingly providing citizens access to crime data and crime maps via Internet websites.

"Cocoon watches" are a variant of NW. Neighbors living near recently burglarized houses are asked to be particularly alert. This close set of neighbors—usually, about half a dozen—form a virtual cocoon around the house,† increasing the likelihood of detecting a burglar who returns to strike again. In Kirkholt, England, with a burglary victim's consent, neighbors were informed about the offense and offered a security upgrade—increasing awareness about the crime and, perhaps, neighborhood vigilance.93

† This practice has been part of more comprehensive crime prevention initiatives, making an evaluation of effectiveness difficult (Laycock and Tilley 1995).

Educating residents about crime prevention is an important element of NW. Since many residential burglaries do not involve forced entry, simply securing one's house can prevent crime. In areas where burglars are the neighbors, watchfulness has different implications. Residents may be intimidated by offenders, and concerned about retribution.

Other means to increase citizen watchfulness, although unevaluated, include the following:
  • Audible warnings: During Operation Bumblebee, London police drove around and issued warnings over a public address system whenever a certain number of burglaries occurred in an area.94
  • Reverse 911 systems: Autodialers have been used to notify residents when burglaries have occurred, offering crime prevention tips and/or seeking information about offenders. In Baltimore County, Md., use of an autodialer resulted in the quick apprehension of offenders.95 The use of autodialers can be enhanced through mapping, to establish burglary patterns and thus set boundaries for residents who are called.
  • Resident hotlines: In limited areas, residents may use hotlines to report a suspicious person ringing doorbells under the pretext of looking for someone.96
  • Publicity: Media campaigns may enhance the benefits of any crime prevention initiative. Such campaigns have rarely been evaluated, but some studies suggest media coverage deters offenders and encourages citizen participation.97
9. Modifying building codes. Modifying building codes to comply with best crime-prevention practices is a promising means to reduce burglaries.98 In Chula Vista, California, police worked with developers to modify new homes, including installing dead bolts on garage service doors, windows with forced-entry resistance, and pin locks on sliding glass doors. In addition, homeowner association rules for new developments require that garage doors be kept shut. These measures resulted in a 50 percent decline in burglaries over two years in a police reporting area.99 In Overland Park, Kansas, a municipal ordinance was adopted to secure all exterior doors to reduce forced entry through door kicks, a common entry method in the jurisdiction.100 † The increased costs of crime-resistant materials are a primary consideration for builders; however, high-growth communities may reap substantial benefits by modifying building codes.

† Overland Park building codes and crime prevention ordinances can be found at www.opkansas.org. Security measures are also written into Simi Valley, California, building codes; the police department inspects new houses for compliance. The measures resulted in a 52 percent decline in burglaries from 1974 to 1995 (Hoffman 1998).

Building codes vary from one jurisdiction to another, and builders may use low-quality security hardware and building materials. Forced-entry provisions in building codes can be used to improve window and door security—at relatively low cost, generally.101 The Peel Regional Police in Canada found that modifying building codes (at the provincial level) was a difficult task, but such modifications may be practical in other settings.

10. Modifying community design. To address the burglary risk in growing areas, some jurisdictions have adopted community design principles. Two studies have shown that a U.K. effort known as Secured by Design has reduced burglary. The Secured by Design strategy involves limiting traffic access by building developments on cul-de-sacs, creating greater oversight around a single road entry into neighborhoods, maximizing the opportunity for natural surveillance through strategic window and door placement, orienting dwellings to maximize oversight of areas, limiting access to dwellings through site layout, and outfitting houses with good locks and building products.102 Such designs also remove or minimize the risk typically associated with corner houses.
11. Reducing traffic access. In Florida, modifying streets and closing roads resulted in a decline in burglaries.103 Such changes should take into account both vehicle and pedestrian movement—road redesigns will do little to deter burglars who live in the immediate area. Eliminating pedestrian paths, under some conditions, has reduced residential crime.104
12. Reducing house access. Home security may be enhanced by limiting access to houses—for example, by installing gates in alleys that provide rear access, and installing fences or planting tall hedges to limit access where visibility cannot be improved. Although fences may limit visibility on some properties, thus hiding a burglar, full-height fences secured with locked gates can make property access much more difficult, and hinder a burglar in carrying away stolen goods. Some plants—such as thick shrubs, or those with thorny foliage—deter perimeter access to properties and to parts of houses where visibility cannot be improved. Pyracantha and yucca are examples of such plants; appropriate plant selection varies based on climate and available light and water.105 In England, extensive efforts have been undertaken to secure private alleys, as many burglars gain access to homes through rear entries.106 Although gaining consent to install gates in alleys has been challenging, and, at the time of this writing, no evaluations were available, installing gates is felt to be very promising in reducing burglary. Some access-control measures can also be incorporated into community design (see response 10).

Victim-Oriented Responses

13. Protecting repeat victims. Because repeat victims account for a large proportion of residential burglaries—and because subsequent offenses occur so quickly after the first—burglary prevention strategies targeting this group have tremendous potential for reducing crime. A range of burglary prevention efforts in Britain have been effective in reducing revictimization,107 but most of these efforts have focused on public housing, rather than the detached single-family houses addressed in this guide. It is reasonable to believe, however, that crime prevention strategies targeting repeat victims would have similar positive effects in the United States.

Households with prior victimization are easily identified via police offense reports.† Residents—once victimized—are highly motivated to comply with crime prevention advice. Programs targeting repeat victims have employed a range of prevention measures,108 such as:
  • Repairing and securing break-in points
  • Hardening the targets
  • Establishing cocoon watches
  • Installing mock-occupancy devices
  • Increasing police patrols
  • Installing audible or dummy alarms
  • Installing temporary silent alarms (lent by the police to victims for up to two months)
  • Increasing outdoor lighting
  • Posting window or door stickers advertising participation in property marking.

To be most effective, these measures—or others—must be taken quickly, within 24 hours if possible, before another burglary occurs.

† Poor-quality offense data—premise miscodes, incident coding errors, missing information, and the like—may impede identification of repeat offenses. A major data "cleaning" is necessary to make data reliable. See Curtin et al. (2001) for common problems with offense data. 

Offender-Oriented Responses

14. Targeting repeat offenders. Police often know who repeat offenders are. Surveillance of stolen-property outlets, such as pawnshops, can identify them. Some police have conducted observations and curfew checks of offenders under court supervision.109 Truancy reduction initiatives may be a component of this strategy. Given the high rates of recidivism, burglars are likely to reoffend. In one study—of primarily semi-detached dwellings—arresting repeat offenders (and hardening targets) resulted in a 60 percent decline in burglaries.110 Targeting repeat offenders has produced more indictments and convictions, and longer sentences.111
15. Disrupting stolen-property outlets. Pawnshops have historically been outlets for stolen property, but their popularity has declined in recent years due to the use of hot sheets circulated by police; mandatory photographing of pawners; requirements that pawners provide identification, and that pawnshops record the information; and factory-stamped identification—or owner-marked identification—on products such as televisions and other electronic equipment.

In cases of recurring thefts of specific property (such as laptops), more extensive property marking (such as Smart Water† or genetic fingerprinting) or tracking equipment may be used to monitor theft and stolen property's end destination.112 Recurring thefts may also point to repeat burglars.

† Smart Water is a concealed dispenser of indelible dye that can be used with a silent alarm. It may be best used to target repeat offenders or high-risk locations.

A range of strategies can be used to disrupt markets for stolen goods, especially hot products, primarily by reducing the number of markets available. Such strategies include targeting fences and publicizing arrests for selling stolen goods.113

16. Providing substance abuse treatment. Because substance abusers may resort to burglary to finance their habits, providing targeted treatment may result in a decline in offenses. In Merseyside, England, providing methadone treatment reduced burglaries.114 The relationship between drug use and property offenses is well established. Early studies of police crackdowns on drugs—especially heroin—showed dramatic declines in burglary.115 (Other drugs have been more closely associated with violent crime.) Studies of substance abuse treatment—both voluntary and involuntary— demonstrate declines in criminal activity, declines that remain after completion of treatment.116
17. Improving initial police response and follow-up investigations. Efforts in Britain suggest that measures to increase arrests of offenders result in substantial crime prevention.† Most measures are part of comprehensive strategies, making their specific impacts impossible to evaluate. They might include the following:
  • Improving patrol response to burglaries. In one study, in-progress calls accounted for 10 percent of all reported residential burglaries; in 90 percent of those cases, the police did not apprehend an offender at or near the scene. Of the offenders apprehended after an in-progress call, 43 percent were caught at the scene, and 34 percent were caught based on information witnesses provided. In this study, faster and two-unit responses to in-progress calls resulted in the arrests of more offenders.117 (Most burglaries, of course, are not reported in progress and police make most arrests based on the responding officer's initial actions. Cases should be screened to exclude those with low solvability.118)
  • Analyzing crime patterns. Crime analysis is used to identify series, spatial and temporal patterns, type of property being stolen, and modus operandi patterns. Mapping is becoming particularly useful for detecting burglary patterns and examining local burglary problems.‡ Since burglary is often neighborhood-specific, maps should reflect neighborhood boundaries and major topographical elements that effectively separate residential areas.
  • Improving physical-evidence collection. Widespread access to the Automated Fingerprint Identification System in the United States has provided new potential for matching latent prints—and increases the need for evidence collection. Although many crime scenes provide no physical evidence, those that do can lead to increased arrests of offenders, or provide supporting evidence.119
  • Building intelligence databases about suspects. Using confidential informants can be a cost-effective way to get information about chronic offenders. Anyone arrested may be a potential informant; other informants may be recruited.
  • Conducting surveillance. Surveillance is very expensive, but may be used strategically. For example, police in Edmonton, Alberta, mapped the geographic occurrence of 240 daytime burglaries over seven weeks, and predicted areas likely to be targeted. Using surveillance, they soon apprehended two offenders during a break-in, and subsequently linked them to more than 123 of the burglaries.120
Police should assess investigative practices for their utility and cost-effectiveness. However, crime prevention initiatives including a range of these practices have resulted in reductions in burglary.

† In recent years, the U.K.'s Home Office has produced a wealth of information about police best practices regarding burglary reduction. See, for example, Tilley et al. (1999), Bridgeman and Taylor=Brown (1996), and Chenery, Holt and Pease (1997). Much of the literature is available at www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/crimreducpubs1.html.

‡ See, for example, Brown et al. (1998) and Reno (1998). 

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

 18. Increasing criminal sanctions. Given the low burglary-reporting rates (about 50 percent of offenses are reported), low clearance rates (about one in eight reported offenses are cleared), and low conviction rates (about two-thirds of offenses result in a conviction), the chance of a burglar's getting caught and sentenced is about 5 percent. One study suggested that, despite increased penalties, burglars are not less likely to offend. Increased penalties deter offenders only if combined with greater perceived risks or fewer anticipated rewards.121

Convicted burglars, especially habitual offenders, already face stiff penalties. Once convicted, about 80 percent of burglars are incarcerated; the average prison sentence is five years. Of all property offenders, burglars receive the longest prison sentences.122

19. Providing generic crime prevention advice. Most people are never victims of burglary, and generic crime prevention advice is usually adopted by those who need it the least. Providing such advice—including conducting home security surveys requested by residents—absorbs much police time that would be better focused on houses at higher risk. Studies in Britain have demonstrated that target-hardening of dwellings not previously victimized—those determined to be at risk—is simply not effective.123
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