• Center for Problem oriented policing

Step 35: Understand the crime from beginning to end

We think of crime as over in a flash. It takes just a few seconds to snatch a necklace in the street, pick a pocket, or to break into a car. And rare are the burglars who search every conceivable hiding place. Instead, they try to leave as soon as they have found something worth stealing - usually within a few minutes of entering the house. Snatching the necklace or breaking into the house is, in fact, just one step in a series of steps needed to complete each of these crimes.

You should try to understand the sequence of steps involved in your crime or disorder problem. There are several approaches that you can follow:

  • Leslie Kennedy of Rutgers University and his colleague Vincent Sacco separate the steps into precursors, transactions, and aftermath, and have produced a criminology textbook, The Criminal Event, organized around these three stages.
  • William Haddon has developed a similar classification to assist thinking about road accident prevention. He divides preventive actions into pre-crash, crash, and post crash.
  • Derek Cornish uses the concept of crime "scripts" to guide analysis. The underlying idea is that any particular category of crime requires a set of standard actions to be performed in a particular order, just as in the script of a play. The scenes are the sequential stages of the crime; the cast consists of the criminals, victims and bystanders; and the tools they use are the props.

Whichever of these approaches you use, try to list the sequence of steps the offender must make to complete the crime. The table below is Cornish's simplified representation of the many steps that joyriders must complete, but it shows that the specific act we consider to be the crime (in this case, taking the car) is preceded by preparation, and followed by escaping and enjoying the proceeds. This brings us to the reason for analyzing crimes in this careful, step-by-step manner: understanding clearly the sequence of actions required for the successful completion of the crime will reveal to you many more points of intervention. In other words, this will broaden the choice of responses for to you consider in your project. The final column of the table lists the possible responses, keyed to each stage of joyriding.

Joyriding is one of the simpler crimes, but you can follow the same process of breaking the crime down into its constituent steps for more complex crimes as well. One example is crowd disturbances (including riots). Clark McPhail, a leading expert on crowds, created a three-step process for analyzing all gatherings: the assembling process, the assembled gathering, and the disbursal process. Tamara Madensen, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, added two earlier steps: initial planning and pre-assembly preparation. Police might send out warnings about hosting large drinking parties to forestall initial planning. To prevent bonfires, easily burnable trash should be removed during the pre-assembly preparations. Police might greet arriving students to encourage lawful behavior during the assembling process. When the crowd is assembled, police can monitor behavior and intervene if trouble develops. During the disbursement process, police want to make sure the crowd breaks up quickly and peacefully.

Steps in Joyriding and Associated Responses

PreparationGet tools (e.g., screwdriver, duplicate keys, slidehammer, short steel tube)
Select co-offender
Control sales of equipment such as hand scanners and duplicate keys
Entering settingEnter parking lotParking lot barriers; attendants; few entrances
Enabling conditionsLoiter unobtrusivelyCCTV and/or regular patrols to deter loiterers
Selecting targetReject alarmed cars
Choose suitable vehicle
Visible protection of tempting vehicles
Completing the theftEnter car (duplicate keys, use screwdriver)
Break ignition lock (tube or slide-hammer)
Hot wire ignition and start car
CCTV to monitor suspicious behavior; improve natural surveillance of lot; vehicle alarm to alert security; vehicle immobilizer
Exiting the settingLeave parking lotAttendants or other exit barriers
AftermathUse car to joyride
Abandon car on wasteland
Set fire to car
Vehicle-tracking system activated; vehicle curfew program; surveillance of dumping sites

Source: Cornish, Derek (1994). "The Procedural Analysis of Offending and its Relevance for Situational Prevention." Crime Prevention Studies, volume 3. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press

Preventing Deaths of Illegal Migrants

In an unusual application of situational prevention, Rob Guerette of Florida International University, has undertaken a careful study for the U.S. Border Patrol of the circumstances in which illegal migrants die crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Each year, some 300 migrants die in tragic circumstances - for example, by drowning in canals and rivers, by heat exposure in desert regions, or as result of vehicle accidents. By tracing the steps that add the illegal migrants take in crossing the border and trying to understand the circumstances that lead to loss of life, he came up with a number of life-saving suggestions. He classified these suggestions in a two-way grid:

  • Across the top, he followed William Haddon's method and sorted the preventive suggestions into those that applied before, during, and after the life-threatening event.
  • Down the side of the grid, he followed the crime triangle and sorted measures by whether they were aimed at (1) the migrant or the "victim," (2) the "coyote," who is employed by migrants to get them safely across the border (the "offender"), and (3) the "place" or environment, i.e., desert, rivers, urban areas, and so forth.

Some of these suggestions were extensions or improvements of measures already in place, but others were novel, which shows the value of his approach. Most of the suggestions are self-explanatory, but more background is needed to understand some of them (the numbering follows the table):

  1. His research showed that proportionately more females die from heat exposure.
  2. Migrants typically gather in staging towns close to the border in Mexico where they make contact with "coyotes."
  3. When highly trained search and rescue agents are dispatched to make a rescue, Guerette found migrants are more likely to survive than when regular line agents are dispatched.
  4. To prevent immediate attempts to re-cross the desert in the very hot months, migrants apprehended at these times in the Arizona desert were laterally repatriated in 2003 to Mexican towns near the Texas border. This experiment was effective in saving lives.
  5. In 2004, the Mexican authorities agreed to accept repatriations from Arizona to destinations in the interior of Mexico.
  6. Motorists in Arizona commonly see small bands of illegal migrants attempting to cross the desert in the hot months. This campaign would seek their aid in saving lives by calling a 1-800 number to report the sighting.
  7. Border Patrol agents in Arizona told Guerette that they often had great difficulty in locating a migrant reported to be in distress by other migrants, whom they had apprehended. This is because large swathes of the desert are quite featureless and the directions given by apprehended migrants are often vague. A systematic program of temporary desert markings using color-coding or symbols could ameliorate this difficulty.

Next Step

Before life threatening eventDuring life threatening eventAfter life threatening event
Migrant1. Inform female migrants about dangers of crossing the desert
2. Implement alert system for hazardous conditions
3. Distribute instructions in staging towns for migrants to follow when in distress
4. Expand Border Patrol search and rescue capacity
5. Lateral repatriation 6. Interior repatriation
Coyote7. Implement alert system for hazardous conditions
8. Warn coyotes of prosecution in event of migrant deaths
9. Target coyote for arrest10. Create task force to prosecute coyotes when deaths occur
Environment11. Target problematic times and places
12. Erect barricades at dangerous crossing points
13. Post visible warning signs in risky areas
14. "Save a life/report a migrant" publicity campaign 15. Desert markers16. Continually review data to detect new patterns of hazard