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Can Being a Conscientious Citizen Help Reduce Predatory Crime?

During the late 1970s, the routine activities theory by Cohen and Felson posited that rates of predatory crime are reflective of how three specific variables are distributed in time and space. In short, the theory stated that for crime to be committed, three elements converge: an available target, a motivated offender, and a lack of guardians.  Whether or not the three come together presumably reflects how people in a given social context conduct their lives and pursue sustenance activities (Tittle, 2000).  Routine activity theory asserts that the lack of guardianship, or in some instances weak guardianship, occurs when frequent outside activities lure the homeowner away from home for extended periods.  Target selection, as with any type of predatory crime, is directly related to the value, size and portability of objects to be stolen. The third aspect being that of a motivated offender is assumed constantly present regardless of place, time or guardian presence.

Many scholars believe that regardless of the opportunity created by suitable and unguarded targets, motivated offenders will seize the moment should the opportunity present itself. Some researchers, on the other hand, have suggested that minorities, males, and youths have more motivation for illegal conduct and have therefore employed demographic measures as proxies for criminal motivation (Tittle, 2000).  Many theories attempt to explain criminal events by defining either the criminal or the victim in a particular crime set.  The routine activity theory, however, addresses both components and a broader grouping of theories of opportunity. Much of the early research of routine activity theory focused on property crimes, as it was generally believed the theory was not readily adaptable to personal or violent crimes (Mustaine & Tewksbury, 2000). This was, in part, because the theory focused on victims as static conditions and immobile objects, rather than as social actors. This thought process was challenged by some in the early developmental stages of routine activity theory and has been abandoned only in recent years.

Contemporary routine activity theory research has clearly shown its utility for understanding violent crimes offenders, and victims (Mustaine & Tewksbury, 2000).  The original philosophy of the routine activity approach associated offenders as a given, however, later work focused more on informal social control of offenders by linking the routine activity philosophy to Hirschi’s social control theory (Eck & Weisburd, 1995).  As a result, a two-step version of the control theory was created that not only established social bonds, but also social control as well.  This particular theory posits that parents develop an emotional attachment between themselves and their children in which the parent becomes an intimate handler.  As such, through close proximity, the parent has an intimate knowledge of the child’s behavior, which manifests itself as a form of social control. As a result, anyone recognizing the youth can exert social control over the youth merely through the knowledge of, and association with, the child’s parents (Eck & Weisburd, 1995).

This level of social control is based not only on identification of the youth but on the identification of who exactly is breaking the rules.  In a smaller community, the task of determining who is breaking the rules is not necessarily a difficult one, since people in smaller communities tend to be more easily recognizable.  However, it becomes easier to evade social controls as individuals become more transient and move to larger metropolitan locations where they are not recognized (Eck & Weisburd, 1995).  In essence, this notion of informal social control then requires keeping likely offenders near capable guardians in order to discourage crime from occurring.  It can also be accomplished by establishing capable guardians to control or monitor places when monitoring likely offenders becomes more delimited.  So, in effect, the role of the capable guardian can be assumed by not only a parent or homeowner but by a hotel doorman, a restaurant manager, a private security officer or a close neighbor who can discourage crime by monitoring locations rather than individuals (Eck & Weisburd, 1995).  In other words, taking on the role and responsibility of a conscientious citizen adds a level of “social guardianship” and can assist in discouraging criminal activity.

Felson further describes the responsibility for places, into four separate categories. The first, Personal Responsibility, asserts that those assume responsibility for some places, who own them or who are intimately related to owners (Eck & Weisburd, 1995).  The second, Assigned Responsibility, asserts that responsibility for some places is assumed by employees specifically assigned to look after those places. Incentive to perform is provided to these employees for fear that they might be disciplined or fired, should a crime be allowed to be perpetrated in that particular place (Eck & Weisburd, 1995). Third, Diffused Job Responsibility, asserts that responsibility for places is assumed by other employed persons with less precise responsibility. Therefore, a member of the office secretarial pool might take note of somebody loitering in the building or entering the suite of offices without justification, even if not assigned the job responsibility of checking, and take appropriate action (Eck & Weisburd, 1995).  And finally, General Responsibility asserts that any conscientious citizen or visitor assumes responsibility for some places whose presence discourages crime or who realizes that illegal activity is or might be occurring there (Eck & Weisburd, 1995).

Empirical Studies

Empirical studies have yielded many theoretical explanations that substantiate and generally support routine activity theory, however, some have proven to be inadequate in illuminating a theoretical explanation.  Early studies utilize routine activity theory as an explanation that addresses the likelihood of criminal victimization on a macro level, even though Cohen and Felson (1979) actually constructed the theory to be tested at a micro level.  Rather than emphasizing the characteristics of offenders, with this approach scholars began to concentrate on the circumstances in which they carry out predatory criminal acts (Cohen & Felson, 1979). Subsequent scholars have expanded the examination of routine activity theory in an attempt to explain not merely criminal victimization in a broader sense but to build a systematical theoretical position that coherently examines individual victimization, and attempts to hammer out inconsistencies and contradictions of position regarding the importance of places (Eck & Weisburd, 1995).  Part of the rationalization for focusing on crime places is the notion of hot spots.  Numerous studies have suggested that crime is not spread equitably throughout a city and that there is significant clustering of crimes in smaller areas called hot spots (Braga, 2007).  These hot spots tend to generate over half of all criminal events (Sherman, 1989; Braga, 2007), even within the most crime-ridden neighborhoods, as crime showed the tendency to cluster at a few discrete locations while others remained relatively crime free (Sherman, 1989).

The policing of hot spots, many times made more robust through data-driven or evidence-based policing, has become a very popular way for police departments to prevent crime. Recent studies have revealed that 7 in 10 departments with more than 100 sworn officers reported using crime mapping to identify crime hot spots (Braga, 2007; Weisburd et al. 2003). In fact, a growing body of research evidence suggests that focused police interventions, such as directed patrols, proactive arrests, and problem-oriented policing, can produce significant crime prevention gains at high-crime “hot spots” (Braga 2002; Eck 1997, 2002; Skogan and Frydl 2004; Weisburd and Eck 2004). However, many critics of place-based interventions posit that such policing strategies result in displacement, whereas the criminals then move to places not protected by police intervention (Braga, 2007; Repetto 1976) or not yet recognized through evidence-based data. Given the growing popularity of hot spots policing, regular systematic reviews of the empirical evidence on the effects of focused police interventions on crime hot spots by police administrators should be conducted to assess the value and sustainability of this approach to crime prevention (Braga, 2007).

Although victimization is the most popular dependent variable, it is important that scholars have also begun to study types of victimization, crime concentration of particular areas, the preventive effects of various place features, the mobility of offenders, and the perplexing concept of how offenders select their targets. Some scholars have gone as far as to examine Cybercrime, in an attempt to evaluate the extent to which the theory’s concepts and an etiological schema can be transposed to crimes committed in a virtual environment (Yar, 2005). Substantively, although some of the theory’s core concepts can indeed be applied to cybercrime, there remain important differences between virtual and terrestrial worlds that tend to limit the theory’s usefulness (Yar, 2005).

In any event, there have been numerous studies have that have focused on testing routine activity theory at both the macro and micro levels, while at the same time attempting to explain criminal victimization, as well as criminal offending.  Despite advances made both theoretically and empirically over the last three decades, efforts to synthesize the existing body of scholarship have fallen short.  During this time, however, theories of crime have been greatly informed by an influx of thinking that supersedes criminology’s traditionally myopic focus on offenders. Most notably, the exposure/lifestyle theory (Hindelang et al. 1978), routine activity theory (Cohen and Felson 1979) and work relating to environmental criminology and crime pattern theory (Brantingham and Brantingham 1981) have significantly influenced thinking about criminal victimization and crime rates (Farrell, Clark, Ellingworth, & Pease, 2005). The role of victims and other targets, and their interaction with the environment or context, are now understood to play a major role in determining the opportunity structure (Clarke and Cornish 1986) in which offenses occur and aggregate crime rates are determined (Farrell et al., 2005).

Conclusion

 Traditional routine activity research has had the tendency to focus on understanding criminal events, causes of crime, victims, and offenders. Typically, however, the emphasis has only been directed at one party to the event, that being the victim (Mustaine & Tewksbury, 2000). Such a narrow focus implies that a pool of potential offenders is always present, and therefore it is more important to focus on victims. However, one must not minimalize the importance of location and the varied opportunities that locations bring to the equation. For years after the release of the Kansas City experiment, and lacking any credible replicated studies, criminologists and law enforcement policymakers alike touted that there was no evidence to prove that police patrol can affect crime. However, subsequent hot spots studies have provided evidence to the contrary. Research has now shown clear, yet modest, general deterrent effects of substantial increases in police presence in crime hot spots (Sherman & Weisburd, 1995). Studies have also indicated that there are problems inherent with directed patrol within hot spots that are systemic to law enforcement agencies, in that many police officers find directed patrol distasteful and boring, as its focus is on preventing crime from occurring rather than the higher profile and more exciting prospect of apprehending criminals subsequent to the crime has already occurred. Additionally, directed patrol efforts have more recently drawn fire by social activists, as a practice that promotes systemic discrimination, creating and perpetuating disadvantage for minority individuals.

Obviously, one theoretical approach is not the end-all explanation to the problem of who, how, why and when crime is committed.  The lack of a capable guardian will always provide a lack of structure that leaves time available for deviant acts to occur.  Socializing with peers away from the home environment and authority figures can encourage deviant behavior if an opportunity presents itself.  Routine activities account for an immense amount of the relationship between deviance and the structural variables of age, sex, and social status and are a key intersection between the macro-level of social structure and the micro-level of individual lives (Osgood, Wilson, O’Malley, Bachman, & Johnston, 1996).  Therefore, the routine activity perspective is representative of a radical departure from traditional theories in the study of deviant and criminal behavior (Osgood et al., 1996).

The routine activities theory was developed in an attempt to assist in the understanding of the spatial distribution of crime. As with other related theories such as broken windows theory, it reaffirms that crime theories should incorporate an understanding of the many causal factors related to deviant behavior, not merely victimization. It reflects the various influences on the suitability of targets, upon the motivation and ability of potential offenders, upon the capability of guardianship, or upon the frequency of their interaction (Farrell et al., 2005).  Offenders are but one element in a crime, and for that matter, not the most important one either.  Predatory crimes need targets absent a guardian, fights thrive on audiences and troublemakers, illegal drug sales depend on camouflaged settings that are easy to access and exit. The routine activity theory emphasizes how illegal activities thrive on the legal routine activities of everyday life (Felson, 1998), but it also defines our responsibility as conscientious citizens.

 

 

References

Braga, A. (2002). Problem-oriented policing and crime prevention. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

Braga, A. A. (2007). Effects of hot spots policing on crime. Retrieved from http://www.aic.gov.au/campbellcj/reviews/titles.html

Brantingham, P. J., & Brantingham, P. L. (1981). Environmental Criminology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Cohen, L. E., & Felson, M. (1979, August). Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American Sociological Review, 44, 588-608.

Cornish, D., & Clarke, R. (Eds.). (1986). The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Eck, J. (1997). Preventing crime at places. In University of Maryland, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice (Ed.), Preventing crime: What works, what doesn’t, what’s promising (pp. 7-1-7-62). Washington, D.C.: Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

Eck, J. (2002). Preventing crime at places. In L. Sherman, D. Farrington, B. Welsh, & D. L. MacKenzie (Eds.), Evidence-based crime prevention (pp. 241-294). New York: Routledge.

Eck, J. E., & Weisburd, D. (Eds.). (1995). Those who discourage crime. Crime and Place (pp. 53-66). Washington, D.C.: Criminal Justice Press and The Police Executive Research Forum.

Farrell, G., Clark, K., Ellingworth, D., & Pease, K. (2005). Of targets and supertargets: A routine activity theory of high crime rates. Internet Journal of Criminology, 1-25.

Felson, M. (1998). Crime and everyday life (2nd ed.). London: Pine Forge Press.

Mustaine, E. E., & Tewksbury, R. (2000, August). Comparing the lifestyles of victims, offenders, and victim-offenders: A routine activity theory assessment of similarities and differences for criminal incident participants. Sociological Focus, 33, 339-362.

Osgood, D. W., Wilson, J. K., O’Malley, P. J., Bachman, J. G., & Johnston, L. D. (1996, August). Routine activities and individual deviant behavior. American Sociological Review, 61, 635-655.

Repetto, T. (1976). Crime prevention and the displacement phenomenon. Crime and Delinquency, 22, 166-177.

Sherman, L. W. (1989). Hot spots of crime and criminal careers of places. Criminology, 27, 35-52.

Sherman, L. W., & Weisburd, D. (1995, December). General deterrent effects of police patrol in crime hot spots: A randomized controlled trial. Justice Quarterly, 12(4), 625-648.

Skogan, W., & Frydl, K. (Eds.). (2004). Fairness and effectiveness in policing: The evidence. Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Tittle, C. R. (2000). Theoretical developments in criminology. Criminal Justice, 1, 51-101.

Weisburd, D., & Braga, A. (2003). Hot spots policing. In H. Kury, & J. Obergfell-Fuchs (Eds.), Crime prevention: New approaches (pp. 337-354). Mainz, Germany: Weisser Ring.

Yar, M. (2005). The novelty of cybercrime: An assessment in light of routine activity theory. European Society of Criminology, 2(4), 407-427.

 

 

 

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Are “De-escalation” Policies Escalating Line of Duty Deaths?

The authority of the police to use “reasonable and necessary” force to effect arrest has been not only one of the most debated powers granted to police, but most likely one of the most misunderstood as well. The term “reasonable and necessary” force is based on the ambiguous “reasonable person” standard. At best, it leaves the police in a perilous conundrum of trying to find that “reasonable person”, and in the blink of an eye, determine how that person would apply the use of force in separate, widely varying and quickly evolving incidents. The lack of a clear, definitive definition has left the police scrambling for ways to defend themselves and protect the public without the nagging fear that their actions will result in claims of excessive force and career-ending litigation.

Enter the regeneration of “de-escalation.” The notion of “de-escalation” is not a new phenomenon and has been, in one way or another, part of every use of force continuum for decades.   Finding ways to slow down the scenario, provide officers with less-than-lethal alternatives and reduce the need for the use of deadly force have been commonplace in most use of force policies. Use of force begins with the mere presence of an officer and can be escalated through verbal or visual commands, soft empty-hand control techniques, hard empty-hand control techniques, intermediate weapons (pepper spray, electro-muscular disruption devices), impact weapons, and concluding with deadly force, if necessary. However, even with this wide continuum of force options, the standard of the “reasonable person” remains on a wildly swinging pendulum that is subjectively and inconsistently applied.

The outcry for a nationwide de-escalation policy has brought police use of force under further scrutiny, the inference being, government on a national level replacing local use of force governance historically implemented by local law enforcement. This poses a question of effectiveness, efficiency, and accountability. Expecting an already overburdened, understaffed and inefficient federal government to judiciously administer, scrutinize and enforce local law enforcement use of force policies and incidents is unreasonable, especially to a reasonable person.

Studies have shown that agencies without de-escalation policies experience a much lower officer mortality rate than those agencies with de-escalation polices in effect. De-escalation can work, just not in every incident. Individuals experiencing mental illness, those under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol or those with predisposed tendencies for violence usually are not the most rational people to deal with. In those incidents, de-escalation policies may be ineffective based on the actor’s irrationality and inability to cooperate. In the majority of use of force incidents, if the actor would just do as the officer requests, excessive force would never even be a consideration. Still, use of force protocols cannot be abandoned. Officers are placed in situations in which they cannot retreat, and a use of force incident can arise, causing the officer to make a split-second decision based on his or her training, experience, the law, and department policy. The threat of disciplinary action, negative media attention, frivolous litigation and loss of livelihood further muddle the decision-making process, confusing officers and causing them to pause in moments where life or death decisions need to be made.

There is no panacea for this problem. We must continue to work as a society to help the police help us. This will require giving the police less ambiguous laws and unrealistic policies that will allow them to make clear-cut decisions without the fear of being held to a standard that is ever-changing.

 

References:

Alpert, G. and Smith, W. (1994). “How Reasonable Is The Reasonable Man.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology: Vol. 85/2, 481–501.

 

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The Contribution of Research to Policing

For decade’s police organizations throughout the United States and some to some extent even today, have failed to fully embrace academia and their attempts to provide options to criminal justice dilemmas through the use of empirical and scholarly research.  One of the guiding principles of this thought process was the notion that those in academia, merely sat perched in their sterile environments theorizing about how crime could be addressed in a perfect world, and did not really understand the true idiosyncratic complexities challenging officers on the street. Additionally, law enforcement officers and administrators alike, knew that quality research of any kind takes time.  Practitioners were faced with dilemmas in real time and did not have time to wait for researchers to conduct research, compile data, analyze it and publish their results.  Additionally, academics tend to believe that what has been researched and proven scientifically will automatically work, and if not, that practitioners are ignoring research and failing to implement it.  The fact is that many practitioners welcome the research provided by academia.  Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is multi-faceted and there are many agencies, individuals and personalities that must all come together in a “ideological perfect storm” and agree to implement research findings in a collaborative manner.  In any event, the process could literally take years and most police chiefs are appointed annually. So, the inability of researchers to present viable options to real-time crime issues in real-time, and the ability for that perfect storm to form, ultimately proves to be a career ender for many police chiefs who had no alternatives at their disposal.

The facts remain that the police have a difficult and wide-ranging set of ambiguous issues facing them; researching those issues accurately and scientifically is very time consuming; and, unfortunately, even if research results were available immediately, police departments, in general, have had a history of being highly resistant to change and hesitant to implement new programs.  However, great strides have been taken over the past two decades, to close the gap between how the police perceive research and being able to recognize the value that research can bring to the police operation.  Police departments have become more receptive to research-driven innovations to address crime and have begun to regularly collaborate with researchers in an attempt to become more focused in their research efforts.

Breaking the barriers to research has proven to be effective in many ways.  Research has been able to contribute to police work by providing answers to age-old dilemmas.  Analyzing police data has allowed researchers to theorize and suggest critical innovations in the way the police should go about the business of policing.  Innovations such as Compstat, hot spot policing, problem-oriented, community policing and evidence-based policing represent just a few. Utilizing these concepts in conjunction with one another will allow the police to refine their crime control strategies and improve their performance.

It would be incredulous to assume that research is the panacea that will solve all of the problems facing the police.  Quality of life issues change, and with them change the strategies that the police will need to use to address those issues. As such, society will continue to set the priorities for the police and the police will need to rearrange their goals and strategies to meet those needs.  Additionally, police researchers will never be lacking for topics to research, and currently, only the surface has been scratched.  Martin Innes (2010), in his article, asserts that there are four sets of relationship in which police research arises, research by the police, research on the police, research for the police and research with the police.  Now that police administrators have begun to accept research as a viable alternative providing solutions that work, it is imperative that the collaboration between researchers, the police and all government partners remain constant and strong, or policing will lose the toehold they currently have, making it even more difficult to gain ground in the future.

The ability to harness fact-based knowledge that can directly impact the effectiveness of police in addressing societal challenges is a rich investment in the stabilization of our communities.  Research provides the catalyst for innovation and increases the value of policing in our society.

 

References:

Innes, M. (2013). “A ‘Mirror’ and a ‘Motor’: Researching and Reforming Policing in an Age of Austerity.” Policing: 127–134.

 

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