R.A.T. Catcher: Crime Prevention and the Routine Activity Theory
By J. R. Roberts, Security Strategies, LLC
"Tybalt, you rat catcher - will you walk"?
Romeo & Juliet
Most of us, whether consciously or not, adhere to routines and patterns.
These habits can take the form of following the same route to and from
work, stopping at the same Starbucks at the same time, patronizing a
local dry cleaner with regularity, or filling up with gas at the same
convenience store consistently.
Preferring to stick to terrain we are familiar and comfortable with,
we tend to frequent the same grocery store, fast food chain, and mall
or retail outlet with clockwork predictability.
It certainly comes as no surprise then that opportunistic criminal predators
also engage in routine and systematic activity patterns when selecting
Travelling familiar corridors criminals look for targets that will afford
ease of access, quick escape routes and offer little or minimal chances
of resistance, detection, or apprehension. This "risk vs. reward"
evaluation is sometimes referred to as the "rational choice"
perspective. Certainly there is no suggestion that the decision to commit
a crime is in any way "rational" by societal standards, but
rather the process of selecting a target based on the perception that
the target will offer quick, easy and low risk impediments to the perpetrator
while affording a suitable "reward" is a key component in
the commission of the criminal act whether it be shoplifting, the theft
of an automobile, or the armed robbery of a convenience store.
It is here that the "comfort zone" plays a critical role in
the criminal act. Just as legitimate and law abiding citizens follow
patterns, so too does the felon, preferring to frequent familiar environs.
This process has been dubbed the "routine activity theory"
by Marcus Felson and Lawrence Cohen and was first advanced in the late
Simply put, routine activity theory suggests that a criminal act is
likely to occur when an opportunistic offender converges in space and
time with a suitable target. In 1989 Lawrence Sherman participated in
a comprehensive study in Minneapolis that revealed just how concentrated
and geographically or "place" specific crime can be when it
was determined that a staggering 50% of street crimes in the city took
place at just 3.5 % of addresses.
This finding was confirmed in a separate 14 year study of crime in Seattle
published in 2004 which found that 50% of crime was found in just 4.5%
of street segments.
Clearly, as environmental or place criminologists have suggested for
some time, when it comes to crime, the old adage of "location,
location, location" is apropos.
"People who commit crimes have a normal spatio-temporal movement
pattern like everyone else. The likely location for a crime is near
this normal activity and awareness space. Criminals are likely to commit
their initial crimes near these learned paths or activity nodes or near
the paths and activity nodes of their friendship network. Crimes are
likely to cluster near these activity spaces with a higher concentration
near the activity nodes"
The opportunistic criminal offender can be territorial, largely confining
themselves to familiar geographic terrain while seeking a target rich
environment affording maximum reward with minimal risk. Offender mobility
patterns vary based on age, type of crime, and gender. Victims are most
likely to be impacted at or near one of their own routine activity modes.
Understanding then, that the criminal event is triggered by a confluence
of often routine activities where the offender and victim converge in
a specific setting at a particular time and place, and where there is
an absence of "capable management" and other environmental
factors present which would present unacceptable risks to the ordinary
When Worlds Collide
"And like a rat without a tail I'll do I'll
do and I'll do"
At 22 Jane D. was happy and excited to be starting college. Having
been born and raised in a predominately rural setting, her family had
some trepidation about the large southern city where she would be living
- a city that regularly placed among the top 10 for violent crime.
The campus was located several miles from the rather notorious downtown
area, and Jane had found a brand new apartment building that catered
to college students and was only a short two-block walk from the school.
The apartment complex featured gated entry to parking, was well lit,
and possessed both CCTV cameras and a roving security presence. There
had been no prior or previous crimes at the apartment building.
Jane adapted well and developed a strong circle of friends including
from the family style restaurant where she worked part time. Jane stayed
at school during the Christmas holiday break, picking up extra hours
at the restaurant.
Three days after Christmas, Jane and a number of her friends from work
rented a small bowling alley to throw a holiday party. Consuming "more
jello shots than anyone could remember" the party was extended
until 2:00 am when Jane and her friends were told to leave by management
that felt "things had gotten out of hand".
Anxious to continue the party, it was agreed that the group would caravan
in 3 cars back to the apartment building where Jane lived. Jane drove
with a male friend while the remainder of the group piled into two cars.
The group in the two cars arrived at the apartment complex about ten
minutes after leaving the bowling alley and drove past the small open
"public" parking area to the gate which required use of a
tenant "clicker" to open.
They waited over fifteen minutes before scaling the gate and going up
to Jane's apartment (they had been provided with a spare key) after
another fifteen minutes without a sign from Jane or her friend, they
began to worry and started calling Jane's cell phone. Now almost 2:45
in the am it took them several tries to finally reach Jane and her friend
who told them they had overshot the apartment and were lost miles from
their destination. "When they told us what part of town they were
in we became very concerned- they had wandered into a very, very bad
section of the city." remembered one of the party goers.
Together with her companion and after switching drivers and getting
directions at a gas station, Jane turned around and began to head back
to her apartment to join her anxious friends. It was a little after
3 o'clock in the morning and unbeknownst to the unsuspecting couple,
a tragedy had already been set into motion that would soon reach a violent
and inexorable conclusion.
Larry and Curly had been friends since they were small. They grew up
in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, and served time
at the same Juvenile detention center. Although only 21 & 22 respectively,
they had amassed a lengthy number of arrests and run-ins with law enforcement.
Moe, at 28 the leader of the trio, had more arrests than both of them
combined and had only been released from prison a few months previously
having served 4 years on a 6 year sentence.
The three of them emerged from the late night club they frequented regularly
- located in a blighted wasteland of derelict warehouses and shuttered
and failed commercial buildings the spot was popular with many young
and violent offenders, and would later be shut down by Federal authorities
as the scene of a large scale narcotics distribution operation. This
was familiar territory for the three predators and just a few short
miles from where two of them resided.
After a brief discussion, and having determined that they were short
of the cash required to continue the evening, it was agreed that the
trio would "do a lick" (street parlance for committing an
armed robbery.) It was then that they spotted the car driven by Jane
and her companion. The two young well-dressed college kids driving a
late model vehicle stood out in the area and at that time of the morning.
Following them, one of the assailants would later state "they was
drunk. Weaving' all over the road, they run up on the curb cupla times."
The trio followed their prey for several miles until they saw them pull
into the open area of the apartment parking lot (largely empty as most
students had left for the Holiday).
Confronting the couple before they could exit their car, the 3 felons
held them at gunpoint, and then proceeded to remove them in to an isolated
location that was a grassy area off of a dead end street near the railroad
tracks. The location was about 6 miles from the apartment and only 3
miles from the central "comfort zone" frequented by the offenders-
half way between where they had "partied" at the club (where
they spotted their prey) and where they lived.
They robbed and beat the male, then sexually assaulted the woman and
beat her as well. The man was shot in the back before the trio fled
the scene- all at or around 4 am. Fortunately the male victim recovered
from the gunshot wound after the two victims were discovered and taken
to the hospital. Arrests and convictions followed swiftly.
The tragic case of Jane D. serves to underscore the importance of understanding
"territoriality" in criminal behavior and is a cautionary
tale of overlapping lifestyles in time and space and as impacted by
routine activity. A classic and literal example of being at the wrong
place at the wrong time.
Andy Blumwell, a crime analyst with the West Midlands Police department
in the United Kingdom reviewed 250,000 crimes over a two-year period
and where the perpetrator was identified. He determined that in over
50% of these events, the offender lived within one mile of the crime
Allowing for the tighter restrictive geographic confines of the UK and
Europe, crime analyst Susan Wernicke conducted a similar study in Overland
Park, Kansas and determined that by age 17, the average "distance
to crime" for perpetrators from home to crime was 2.7 miles.
"Crimes do not occur randomly or uniformly in time or space. Crimes
are patterned; decisions to commit crimes are patterned; and the process
of committing a crime is patterned."
It becomes imperative then, in forming a better understanding of criminal
activity and disproportionately vulnerable or likely targets for criminal
behavior to better understand the relationship of "place"
or environment and "routine activity" of the victim or target
as well as the offender.
Thus, a systematic series of impediments by potential victims may subsequently
"harden the target" and make the "risk/reward" ratio
unacceptable. Implementation of practical crime prevention measures
by "at risk" facilities and by the citizens who frequent such
locations can lead to systemic reduction in the likelihood of victimization.
A careful analysis of environment and locations that may afford disproportionate
opportunity to potential predators and where a confluence of target/victims
are likely to intersect as part of an ordinary and geographically bounded
trafficked corridor that are part of ordinary routine activities is
an essential component of basic crime prevention.
"On a micro level, ordinary crime emerges when a likely offender
converges with a suitable target in the absence of a capable guardian"
The Rat and The Broken Window
"What if my house be troubled by a rat? And
I be pleased to give 10,000 ducats to have it banned"?
The Merchant of Venice
In his work Defensible Space, architect Oscar Newman identified two
virtually identical large apartment buildings. Both of the premises
in question were located in a densely populated urban setting and both
experienced high rates of crime.
Newman made subtle but profound changes to one facility, while it's
"twin" remained unaltered.
The test building enjoyed enhanced "natural surveillance"
features (i.e.: increased ability to both see and be seen) through minor
fenestration alterations and improved lighting. A sense of "ownership"
or territoriality was facilitated for the residents through clear boundary
demarcations, landscaping and signage regarding regulations. Litter
and graffiti were removed regularly and aggressively.
The results were remarkable.
Residents felt safe, secure, and proprietary about their building, becoming
extended "eyes and ears" in reporting and discouraging unwanted
behavior. Crime rates plunged precipitously.
By putting into practice many of the ideas and notions of crime and
environment written about earlier by Jane Jacobs, Newman proved the
viability of sending "cues" or signals that directly impacted
on potential criminal behavior.
C.P.T.E.D. (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design) would soon
follow with pioneers like Raymond Jeffries and Tim Crowe helping to
shape a new way of thinking about crime and our surroundings.
Defined as "the proper design and effective use of the built environment
in reducing crime and enhancing quality of life" CPTED continues
to evolve and prove a vital, vibrant, and creative tool in effecting
both positive and criminogenic conditions.
The Broken Windows Theory is nothing more than an evolutionary branch
of the "order maintenance" aspect of CPTED.
Broken Windows re-enforces the notion that problems associated with
blight and societal disorder and decay exacerbate the probability and
likelihood of continuing, escalating and more serious crimes absent
interdiction and intervention.
Routine activity that places potential victims and predators in the
same place and at the same time can reduce and prevent potential crime
by sending powerful signals that the requisite risk/reward ratio makes
the locale unattractive to the "illegitimate" and safe for
the "legitimate" user of the space in question.
Criminologist Dr. John Eck added an important component to the crime
prevention formula when he introduced the notion of "capable management
This doctrine emphasizes the critical role the owner/operator/manager
of any potential target has in claiming "ownership" and subsequently
good stewardship of their premises by evaluating risk at the property
and implementing measures to exercise control at the perimeter, exterior,
and interior that will reduce the likelihood of crime.
Risks are determined by the nature of the facility in question, the
population it serves, and its immediate surrounding environs. Prior
history of crime on the premises and condition of same may also be instructive.
"After hearing hours of testimony and examining all available
data on the subject of at-risk business and crime, this office has concluded
that convenience stores often pose an unnecessarily unsafe condition,
placing both employees and shoppers in needless jeopardy and exacting
a largely immeasurable cost to our society."
The implementation of Florida's Convenience Business Security Act is
a good example of shared responsibility in crime prevention. The law
recognizes the inherent danger convenience stores pose by nature of
their operation, and the potential collision of offender and victim
as part of routine activity theory and at a specific locale.
Requirements under the statute mandate crime reduction measures like
removing posters, advertisements and blockages from windows in order
to permit maximum visibility, the deployment of high quality digital
cameras, lighting that meets or exceeds recommended minimal guidelines,
"drop safes" which limit cash on hand and access to same (with
appropriate posted signage to that effect), training of store employees
in robbery prevention and response, and adequate staffing during particular
"at risk" hours.
Initially opposed by the convenience store industry, the results are
Armed robberies of convenience stores were reduced by 30%.
The principle responsibility for the prevention of crime can not as
a matter of practicality rest with law enforcement agencies. Collective
awareness by responsible business owners and the community they serve
are the single most important element in recognizing and responding
to the risks of crime.
Citizens' would do well to learn to "read the street" by increasing
awareness of their surroundings. When conducting mundane and "routine"
daily activity, exercise a new and heightened perspective about the
environment. Is the area clearly defined? Is the transition from "public"
to private space well established? Are rules of behavior defined? (e.g.:
posted signage re: speed limit/parking, hours of operation, etc.) Is
the property clean and free of litter and graffiti? Is it well lit?
Do you see people loitering? Are people practicing "avoidance behavior"?
Avoidance behavior is an indication that people do not feel safe in
a particular location- it is characterized by people taking short, rapid
steps with their heads down and shoulders raised, avoiding all eye contact.
It is perhaps ironic that in conducting the most common of chores, whether
it be at a grocery store, large discount mall, or other "routines"
where we may be paying the least attention or have an overdeveloped
since of familiarity, we may in fact be inadvertently headed on a collision
course with potential trouble.
By enhancing our awareness of our own vulnerability to crime, we make
not only ourselves, but our communities a better place to live.
"How now, a RAT? Dead, for a ducat, dead"
J. R. Roberts of J. R. Roberts Security Strategies, LLC has over 37
years of experience in security and crime prevention. Mr. Roberts has
served on multiple task forces for the cities of Atlanta and Savannah,
Georgia, regularly lectures on a variety of topics for private security
and law enforcement, and has been designated as an expert witness in
over 400 legal cases in 31 states.
By J. R. Roberts Google