• Center for Problem oriented policing

Step 42: Reduce provocations

When studying prisons and pubs, Richard Wortley noticed that crowding, discomfort, and rude treatment provoked violence in both settings. This led him to argue that situational prevention had focused too exclusively on opportunities for crime and had neglected features of the situation that precipitate or induce crime. As a result of his work, Clarke and Cornish have included five techniques to reduce what they called "provocations" in their new classification of situational techniques. These techniques are explained below, drawing on Wortley's examples.

Reduce frustration and stress. Everyone gets angry when treated rudely by waiters, when people push in front to be served, or when trains are delayed with no explanation. Sometimes they get so angry they become violent. This could be avoided by improved service, which is increasingly being demanded and delivered. However, complaints may be ignored when those mistreated have little power. For example, prisoners are often ignored when they complain that they cannot eat when hungry or choose their TV programs, even though these complaints could be met quite easily by staggering meal times and providing more TVs. Waiting one's turn to use the phone, another source of frustration for prisoners, can be reduced by computerized systems to ration phone use (see box). Outbursts of anger and violence can also result from people being subjected to extreme discomfort - too much noise, being jostled, and having nowhere to sit. These conditions exist in many clubs, bars, and delayed passenger airline flights and have consistently been found to induce trouble. More seating, soothing music, and muted lighting are all ways to reduce stress in these settings.

Avoid disputes. In the U.K., rival groups of fans are segregated in soccer stadiums and their arrival and departure is scheduled to avoid the periods of waiting around that promote trouble. Taxi fares from New York City's Kennedy Airport to Manhattan are fixed at a standard $45 to prevent cheating and disputes over fares. In an attempt to produce consensual crowd management at the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, riders were allowed to operate camp-sites for their fellow motorcyclists and were encouraged to develop rules for use of the facilities. This helped to eliminate the brawls between police and motorcyclists, which had marred the event in previous years.

Reduce arousal and temptation. Male doctors should not conduct detailed physical examinations of female patients without a nurse or receptionist present. This protects the doctor from false accusations, but it also reduces the temptation to sexually abuse the patient or make inappropriate advances. Laws that prohibit convicted pedophiles from taking jobs involving contact with children not only protect children, but also help adults to manage their sexual desires. That the very sight of a gun has been found to trigger feelings of aggression provides one good reason for regulating the display of weapons. Similarly, the fact that high proportions of sex offenders own or use violent pornography provides a rationale for controlling these materials. Finally, reducing temptation is the basis for advice about being careful with one's money in public as well as advice to young women about being careful when out alone at night.

Neutralize peer pressure. Many parents discourage friends who are a "bad influence" on their children and schools disperse groups of troublemakers into different classes. But adults as well as children are subject to peer pressure. Existing staff may induct new workers into stealing from their employers, and young men are often encouraged to drink too much by friends. One publicity campaign mounted in Australia to reinforce the powerful deterrent impact of random breath testing made use of the slogan, "Good mates don't let mates drink and drive." A publicity campaign in this country used "Friends don't let friends drive drunk."

Discourage imitation. All new television sets contain a "V-chip" so that parents can program their TVs to prevent children from viewing violent programs. Though the link between violent movies and violence in society is much disputed, there is some evidence of "copycat" crimes because media reports of unusual crimes sometimes provoke imitation elsewhere. It has also been shown, for example, that students who see their teachers engaging in illegal computer activity are more likely to commit computer crimes themselves, and that other pedestrians will follow someone crossing against a red light. Indeed, how often have you "run the red" only to find when glancing in your rear-view mirror that so has the car behind you? It has also been shown that picnic tables in parks that had been scratched and carved are more than twice as likely to attract further damage. Findings such as these provide the rationale for "rapid repair" programs to deal with vandalism. Wilson and Kelling extended this principle in their famous "broken windows" article by arguing that the failure to deal promptly with minor signs of decay in a community, such as panhandling or soliciting by prostitutes, can result in a quickly deteriorating situation as hardened offenders move into the area to exploit the breakdown in control.

Next Step

Reduce Provocations

Reduce frustration and stress

    • Efficient lines and polite service
    • Expanded seating capacity
    • Soothing music and muted lighting

    Avoid disputes

    • Separate enclosures for rival soccer fans
    • Reduced crowding in pubs
    • Fixed cab fares

    Reduce arousal and temptation

    • Controls on violent pornography
    • Prohibitions on pedophiles working with children
    • Advice about avoiding sexual victimization

    Neutralize peer pressure

    • "Idiots drink and drive"
    • "It's OK to say No"
    • Disperse troublemakers at school

    Discourage imitation

    • Rapid repair of vandalism
    • V-chips in TVs
    • Censor details of modus operandi to avoid "copycat" crimes

    Phone Fraud, Slot Time, and Victoria Secrets at Rikers Island

    Rikers Island, a stone's throw from New York City's La Guardia Airport, is a huge system of 10 jails. These house different categories of inmates, whose phone privileges vary with their status. Corrections officers were supposed to use logbooks to record phone use and to regulate the amount of time each inmate spent on the phone. In the early 1990s, this system had broken down. Inmates had developed their own system, known as "slot time", and the annual cost of calls had escalated to more than $3 million. The most powerful inmates controlled the phones, which they often used to access their beepers and maintain their drug businesses in the outside world. Inmates were also accessing "sex lines" and were using stolen credit card numbers to make long distance calls and purchases. Nancy La Vigne, who studied this problem as a graduate student at Rutgers University, notes, "The female inmates did just this, accessing the Victoria Secrets catalogue, which resulted in a jail that could boast the best-dressed inmates in the country - until officials caught on."

    The officials introduced a high-security computerized phone system that put strict limits on phone use, in line with the status of the caller. Detainees gained access to the phones through bar codes on their ID cards and by entering a PIN. This system immediately cut phone costs in half, but it was also noticed that fewer fights were erupting over access to the phones. In fact, La Vigne's study showed that the monthly rate of these fights dropped from 6.7 per 1,000 inmates in the year before the new phone system to 3.6 per 1,000 after its introduction.

    Source: La Vigne, Nancy (1994). "Rational Choice and Inmate Disputes over Phone Use on Rikers Island". Crime Prevention Studies, volume 3, Ronald Clarke. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

    Read More:

    • Wortley, Richard (2001). "A Classification of Techniques for Controlling Situational Precipitators of Crime." Security Journal, 14: 63-82.