• Center for Problem oriented policing

Step 41: Reduce the rewards of crime

Rational choice theory holds that offenders are always seeking to benefit themselves by their crimes. These benefits may not simply be material, as in theft, because there are many other rewards of crime, including sexual release, intoxication, excitement, revenge, respect from peers, and so forth. An important strand of situational crime prevention is therefore to understand the rewards of any particular category of offending and to find ways of reducing or removing them.

Conceal targets. Householders often try to foil burglars by hiding jewelry or other valuables. They also keep their curtains drawn to stop thieves from looking through the windows to see what they own. Some people don't wear gold chains in public, and others avoid leaving their cars overnight on the streets if these are models attractive to joyriders, such as Hondas and Acuras. The table presents British Crime Survey data showing that cars left on the street are at very much greater risk of theft than those left in the owner's garage or driveway. These are all ways to conceal targets and reduce temptation. Some other concealment strategies are less obvious. For example, gender-neutral phone lists can help protect women from obscene phone calls, and unmarked armored trucks can reduce the risk of in-transit robbery.

Car Thefts and Parking Place, England and Wales, British Crime Survey

Where parkedCar crimes* per 100,000 cars per 24 hours
Garage at home2
Other street327
Public parking lot454

*Includes theft of, theft from, attempts and deliberate damage

Source: Clarke, Ronald and Pat Mayhew (1998). "Preventing Crime in Parking Lots." Reducing Crime through Real Estate Development and Management, Marcus Felson and Richard Peiser.Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute.

Remove targets. The installation of a machine that accepted credit cards in a Spanish church brought several benefits: donors received receipts for tax purposes, the church received larger gifts, and, since cash was not deposited, the church reduced its theft risk through removing targets. An earlier application of this same situational technique comes from the days of the Californian Gold Rush. Plagued by robberies of stagecoaches, one mine started casting gold in 400pound cubes. These were too heavy for robbers to carry away on horseback. More up-to-date examples of target removal are provided by changes made to pay phones. To stop people from smashing glass, wall-mounted booths have been substituted for kiosks in high-risk locations in the U.K. and prepaid cards that dispense with the need to store large sums of cash have removed an important target for theft. Perhaps the most striking example of target removal is the introduction of exact fare systems and safes on buses, which dramatically reduced robberies of bus drivers in New York and in 18 other cities in the late 1960s.

Identify property. Motor vehicles in developed countries must be registered and must carry a unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). This is to assist taxation, but these measures also reduce theft. One of the last states to require vehicle registration was Illinois in 1934, whereupon vehicle thefts declined from 28,000 in the previous year to about 13,000. More recently, the federal Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act of 1984 has mandated the marking of all major body parts of "high-risk" automobiles with VINs. Police "operation identification" programs have had limited success in this country, but Gloria Laycock of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science found that property marking undertaken in three small communities in Wales, combined with extensive media publicity, halved the number of reported domestic burglaries.

Disrupt markets. Criminologists and police have devoted rather little attention to understanding and disrupting markets for stolen goods. Criminologists have found it difficult to obtain data about these markets, and the police have preferred to pay more attention to catching thieves and burglars than fences, partly because the penalties for fencing stolen goods are relatively light. However, if there were no market for stolen goods there would be few persistent burglars and few thefts of trucks carrying large loads of tobacco and alcohol. Recent work for the Home Office by Mike Sutton has awakened interest in disrupting markets for stolen goods. The disruptive measures need to be tailored to the nature of the market and they include systematic monitoring of pawn shop transactions by the police, crackdowns on illegal street vendors, and monitoring of small ad sales in newspapers to detect repeat vendors. Police "sting" operations - such as bogus used goods stores - should be avoided because research has found that they may stimulate theft in the area around the sting.

Deny benefits. Installing speed humps is a sure way to deny the benefits of speeding. Security-coded car radios and ink tags provide further illustrations of crime prevention techniques. Security-coded radios cannot be used unless the thief knows the PIN and, according to studies undertaken in the United States and in Australia, cars with these radios have lower theft rates. Ink tags are used in clothing stores to prevent shoplifting. They release ink if tampered with and indelibly the stain garment to which they are attached. The thief cannot wear the garment or sell it, which removes the incentive for theft.

Next Step

Reduce Rewards

Conceal targets

  • Off-street parking for cars attractive to joyriders
  • Gender-neutral phone directories
  • Unmarked armored trucks

Remove targets

  • Removable car radios
  • Women's shelters
  • Pre-paid cards for payphones

Identify property

  • Property marking
  • Vehicle licensing and parts marking
  • Cattle branding

Disrupt markets

  • Checks on pawn shops
  • Controls on classified ads
  • License street vendors

Deny benefits

  • Ink merchandise tags
  • Graffiti cleaning
  • Disable stolen cell phones

Denying The Benefits Of Graffiti

Graffiti-covered subway trains became almost a trademark of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, and they frequently appeared in the opening sequences of movies that were set there. The subway authorities had tried innumerable law enforcement and target-hardening strategies to rid the subway cars of graffiti, but with little result. Eventually they hit upon a simple idea that brought them success: Once a car had been cleansed of graffiti it would immediately be withdrawn from service and cleaned again if it attracted fresh graffiti. This effectively denied "taggers" the benefits of "gettin up" and seeing their handiwork on public display. Because of the huge number of subway cars, it took six years before all the cars were clean. Nowadays, they are no worse than subway cars in other cities.

Clean Cars

Source: Sloan-Howitt, Maryalice and George Kelling (1997) "Subway Graffiti in New York City: 'Gettin up' vs. 'Meanin it and Cleanin it.'" Situational Crime Prevention: Successful Case Studies, Ronald Clarke, Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

Read More:

  • Sutton, Mike and colleagues (2001). Tackling Stolen Goods with the Market Reduction Approach. Crime Reduction Research Series Paper 8. London: Home Office.