• Center for Problem oriented policing

Step 43: Remove excuses for crime

This fifth category of situational techniques recognizes that offenders make moral judgments about their behavior and that they often rationalize their conduct to "neutralize" what would otherwise be incapacitating feelings of guilt or shame. They make such excuses as: "He deserved it," "I was just borrowing it," and "I only slapped her." These excuses may be especially important for ordinary people responding to everyday temptations to evade taxes, drive when drunk, sexually harass junior employees and steal employers' property.

Set rules. All organizations make rules about conduct in their fields of governance. For example, businesses regulate employees' time-keeping and stores require sales assistants to follow strict cash-handling procedures. Organizations such as hospitals, public libraries and hotels must, in addition, regulate the conduct of the clients they serve. Any ambiguity in these regulations will be exploited if it benefits the client. One important strand of situational prevention, therefore, is rule setting - the introduction of new rules or procedures (and the clarification of those already in place) to remove any ambiguity concerning the acceptability of conduct. For example, in attempting to reduce "no-shows," many restaurants will now only accept reservations if callers leave a telephone number where they can be reached. Some also require a credit card number so that a charge can then be made for no-shows. Requiring anglers in California to wear their fishing licenses was successful in getting more of them to comply with license purchase rules.

Post instructions. Work rules are often set out in employment contracts, and rules established by credit card companies, telephone providers, and insurance companies are contained in the service contracts. Regulations governing public places or facilities may be publicly posted, either to prevent people claiming ignorance of the rules or to show precisely where these apply. The roads, in particular, make extensive use of signs governing driving or parking. Studies have found that warning signs significantly reduce illegal parking in spaces reserved for disabled drivers. Many other facilities - parks, colleges, transit lines and housing projects - also post signs to govern a wide range of behaviors. Despite their wide use, there have been few evaluations of the preventive effectiveness of posted instructions - but they are an essential tool of law enforcement and are often used in problem-solving efforts.

Alert conscience. This situational technique differs from "informal social control" in two important respects. First, the focus is on specific forms of crime occurring in discrete, highly limited settings and, second, the purpose is to alert conscience at the point of committing a specific kind of offense rather than attempting to bring about lasting changes in generalized attitudes to law breaking. For example, signs at store entrances announce "Shoplifting is stealing," and in Manhattan's Port Authority Bus Terminal signs proclaim "Smoking here is illegal, selfish and rude." Roadside speed-boards give immediate feedback (without issuing fines) to motorists traveling above the speed limit.

Assist compliance. When Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso suggested in the 19th century that people should be locked up for urinating in the streets, his pupil Enrico Ferri suggested a more practical way to solve the problem: build public toilets. This constitutes an example of facilitating compliance, a technique of wide application. It includes subsidizing taxi rides for those who have been drinking, providing litter baskets and "graffiti boards" (for people's public messages), and improving checkout procedures in libraries, which reduce delay and thus excuses for failing to comply with rules for book borrowing. In a classic paper on Disney World, Shearing and Stenning provide a fascinating glimpse into the ways in which sophisticated crowd control and management involving the use of pavement markings, signs, physical barriers (which make it difficult to take a wrong turn) and instructions from cheerful Disney employees - greatly reduce the potential for crime and incivility in the theme park (see box).

Control drugs and alcohol. Crime is facilitated by alcohol and drugs, which undermine inhibitions or impair perception and cognition so that offenders are less aware of breaking the law. The value of situational controls on drinking has often been demonstrated. Johannes Knutsson, research director at the Norwegian Police College, has shown that limiting the amount of alcohol that individuals could bring into a Swedish resort town on Midsummer Eve helped to reduce drunkenness and disorderly conduct. The small community of Barrow, Alaska, instituted a total ban in 1994 on the sale of alcohol to curb binge drinking, which led to an 81 percent drop in alcohol-related calls for service, a reduction of 43 percent in felonies, and drop of more than 90 percent in removals of drunken people from public places (see Goldstein Award submission at www.popcenter.org). Voluntary agreements reached among local drinking establishments to promote responsible drinking have reduced alcohol-related crime in numerous nightlife areas in Australia. Rutgers University has decreed that beer must be served from kegs instead of cases at dorm parties because cases are easier to hide and, as one student said: "If you have one keg and a line of 20 people behind it, people will get less alcohol than if you had a refrigerator and people were throwing out beer."

Next Step

Remove Excuses

Set rules

  • Rental agreements
  • Harassment codes
  • Hotel registration

Post instructions

  • "No Parking"
  • "Private Property"
  • "Extinguish camp fires"

Alert conscience

  • Roadside speed display boards
  • Signatures for customs declarations
  • "Shoplifting is stealing"

Assist compliance

  • Easy library checkout
  • Public lavatories
  • Litter bins

Control drugs and alcohol

  • Blood alcohol self-testing in bars
  • Server intervention
  • Alcohol-free events

Arriving at Disney World

  • Signs tell visitors arriving by car to tune into Disney radio for information.
  • Signs direct them to the parking lot they must use and road markings show the way.
  • Smiling parking attendants direct visitors to their space and loudspeakers remind them to lock their cars.
  • Visitors are directed to rubber-wheeled trains to take them to the monorail.
  • Recorded announcements direct them to stand safely behind guardrails.
  • They are reminded about the location of their parking space (e.g., Donald Duck 1).
  • They are (politely) asked to sit, to keep their arms and legs within the confines of the carriage, and to make sure children do the same.
  • Before disembarking, they are told how to get to the monorail and barriers stop them from going the wrong way.
  • On the platform, attendants guide them into corrals the right size to fill one compartment of the monorail.
  • Safety gates at the platform edge open only when the monorail arrives.
  • Any delays in service are announced and expected times of arrival are given.
  • On board, passengers are asked to remain seated "for your own safety".
  • Passengers are told how to disembark and how to move to the first entertainment.
  • They are once again reminded to look after their children and to take their possessions.
  • While waiting to enter each exhibit, visitors are marshaled in lines, which indicate waiting times; those in line are entertained by Disney characters.
  • On leaving the exhibit, they are guided by signs, barriers and attendants to the next one.

Source: Shearing, Clifford and Phillip Stenning (1997). "From the Panopticon to Disney World: The Development of Discipline". Situational Crime Prevention: Successful Case Studies (2nd ed.), Ronald V. Clarke. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.