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Police Research Series
Paper 98
Opportunity Makes the Thief
Practical theory for crime prevention
Marcus Felson
Ronald V. Clarke
Editor: Barry Webb
Home Office
Policing and Reducing Crime Unit
Research, Development and Statistics Directorate
50 Queen Anne’s Gate
London SW1H 9AT
Crown Copyright 1998
First Published 1998
Policing and Reducing Crime Unit: Police Research Series
The Policing and Reducing Crime Unit (PRC Unit) was formed in 1998 as a result
of the merger of the Police Research Group (PRG) and the Research and Statistics
Directorate. The PRC Unit is now one part of the Research, Development and
Statistics Directorate of the Home Office. The PRC Unit carries out and
commissions research in the social and management sciences on policing and
crime reduction, broadening out the role that PRG played.
The PRC Unit has now combined PRG’s two main series into the Police Research
Series, continuing PRG’s earlier work. This will present research material on crime
prevention and detection as well as police management and organisation issues.
Research commissioned by PRG will appear as a PRC Unit publication.
Throughout the text there may be references to PRG and these now need to be
understood as relating to the PRC Unit.
ISBN 1-84082-159-0
Copies of this publication can be available in formats accessible to
the visually impaired on request.
Forewor d
Along with personal and social factors that are usually thought of as causes, this
report makes the case for seeing opportunity as a third principal cause of crime.
Combining the wisdom from several recent and converging opportunity theories,
this report is timely in view of the local crime and disorder strategies that will have
to be developed over the next few months. It improves our understanding of how
opportunities to commit crime contribute to criminal motivation, and provides a
perspective for developing workable solutions to prevent specific crime problems.
Director of Police Policy
Home Office
November 1998
We owe an intellectual debt of gratitude to many colleagues whose work has had a
mojor impact on our own.
Several scholars at the Home Office, or elsewhere in Great Britain have advanced
our thinking, including Derek Cornish, Paul Ekblom, Gloria Laycock, Pat Mayhew,
Ken Pease, Barry Poyner, Barry Webb and Nick Tilley.
We have also drawn from several Canadians, including Patricia Brantingham, Paul
Brantingham and Maurice Cusson. Americans include John Eck, Herman
Goldstein, C. Ray Jeffery, George Kelling, George Rengert, David Weisburd and
Diane Zahm.
We have also been influenced by the work of Johannes Knutsson and Eckart
Kuhlhorn in Sweden and Ross Homel in Australia. Many others have changed our
thinking in small ways and large.
Lastly, we would like to thank Wes Skogan, professor at Northwestern University
in Chicago for agreeing to referee this report.
The Authors
Marcus Felson is Professor at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice and
has served as professor at the University of Southern California and the University
of Illinois. He is best known as a criminological theorist, specifically as an
originator of routine activity theory. In recent years, he has turned his attention to
crime prevention. His most recent book is Crime and Everyday Life, of which the
second edition was published in 1998.
Ronald V. Clarke is Professor and Dean at the Rutgers University School of
Criminal Justice, posts he has held for more than ten years. He was previously
Head of the Home Research and Planning Unit where he played a significant part
in the development of situational crime prevention and in the launching of the
British Crime Survey. His most recent book is Situational Crime Prevention:
Successful Case Studies , of which the second edition was published in 1997.
Executive summar y
Crime theory can and should assist crime prevention. Recent “opportunity”
theories of crime have emphasized principles which are close to the real world, easy
to explain and teach, and ready to put into practice. They include the routine
activity approach, the rational choice perspective, and crime pattern theory. These
theories build on the old saying that “opportunity makes the thief.” They are
described in this publication, which argues that opportunity is a “root cause” of
crime, and illustrates how the theories assist thinking about crime prevention.
Ten principles of crime opportunity theory are presented in this publication:
1. Opportunities play a role in causing all crime , not just common property
crime. For example, studies of bars and pubs show how their design and
management plays an important role in generating violence or preventing it.
Studies of credit card and other frauds identify security loopholes that can be
blocked. Even sexual offenses and drug dealing are subject to opportunity
2. Crime opportunities are highly specific . The robbery of post offices depends
upon a different constellation of opportunities than for bank robberies or muggings
on the street. Theft of cars for joyriding has an entirely different pattern of
opportunity than theft of cars for their parts, and different again from car theft for
sale abroad. Crime opportunity theory helps sort out these differences, which need
to be understood if prevention is to be properly tailored to the crimes in question.
3. Crime opportunities are concentrated in time and space. Dramatic differences
are found from one address to another, even within a high crime area. Crime shifts
greatly by hour of day and day of the week, reflecting the opportunities to carry it
out. Routine activity theory and crime pattern theory are helpful in understanding
the concentration of crime opportunities at particular places and times.
4. Crime opportunities depend on everyday movements of activity . Offenders and
their targets shift according to the trips to work, school, and leisure settings. For
example, pickpockets seek crowds in the city centre and burglars visit suburbs in
the afternoon when residents are at work or school.
5. One crime produces opportunities for another . There are many ways in which
this can occur. For example, burglary tends to set up conditions for buying and
selling stolen goods and for credit card fraud. Pimping and prostitution can bring
assaults and robbery in their wake. A successful break-in may encourage the
offender to return at a later date. If a youth has his bike taken, he may feel justified
in stealing another one in replacement.
6. Some products offer more tempting crime opportunities. These opportunities
reflect particularly the value, inertia, visibility of, and access to potential crime
targets. For example, VCRs are high in value and low in inertia (they can easily be
carried), and are often left in visible and accessible locations. This helps explain
why they are so frequently taken by burglars.
7. Social and technological changes produce new crime opportunities. Any new
product goes through four stages: innovation, growth, mass marketing and
saturation. The middle two stages tend to produce the most theft. Thus when
laptop computers first came on the market, they were rather exotic machines
appealing to only a few consumers. As their price declined and more people began
to understand their uses, the market for them began to grow. At the same time,
they began to be at risk of theft. These risks remain high at present while they are
being heavily promoted and are much in demand. As their price reduces further,
and most people can afford them, their risks of theft will decline to levels more like
those of calculators and other everyday business aids.
8. Crime can be prevented by reducing opportunities. The opportunity-reducing
methods of situational crime prevention fit systematic patterns and rules which cut
across every walk of life, even though prevention methods must be tailored to each
situation. These methods derive from rational choice theory and aim, (i) to
increase the perceived effort of crime, (ii) to increase the perceived risks, (iii) to
reduce the anticipated rewards, and (iv) to remove excuses for crime. Thus
situational crime prevention is not just a collection of ad hoc methods, but is firmly
grounded in opportunity theory. There are approaching one hundred evaluated
examples of the successful implementation of situational crime prevention.
9. Reducing opportunities does not usually displace crime. Evaluations have
usually found little displacement following the implementation of situational
prevention. No studies have found displacement to be complete. This means that
each person or organization reducing crime can accomplish some real gain. Even
crime which is displaced can be directed away from the worst targets, times or
10. Focused opportunity reduction can produce wider declines in crime.
Prevention measures in one location can lead to a “diffusion of benefits” to nearby
times and places because offenders seem to overestimate the reach of the measures.
Moreover, there is good reason to believe that reductions in crime opportunity can
drive down larger crime rates for community and society.
Forewor d (iii)
Acknowledgements (iv)
Executive summar y (v)
List of boxes (viii)
A. Introduction 1
B. The New Opportunity Theories 4
1. The Routine Activity Approach 4
2. Crime Pattern Theory 6
3. The Rational Choice Perspective 7
C. Ten Principles of Opportunity and Crime 9
1. Opportunities play a role in causing all crime 9
2. Crime opportunities are highly specific 13
3. Crime opportunities are concentrated in time and space 14
4. Crime opportunities depend on everyday movements of activity 16
5. One crime produces opportunities for another 17
6. Some products offer more tempting crime opportunities 19
7. Social and technological changes produce new crime opportunities 22
8. Crime can be prevented by reducing opportunities 23
9. Reducing opportunities does not usually displace crime 25
10. Focused opportunity reduction can produce wider declines in crime 30
D. Conclusions 33
References 34
List of boxes
F i g u r e No. Caption Page
1. Experiments in temptation 2
2. Routine activity theory and the basic crime triangle 4
3. Ten principles of opportunity and crime 9
4. Routine Activity Theory and the Setup for a Fight 10
5. Suicide and opportunity 12/13
6. Stings can backfire to create opportunities for crime 15
7. Repeat victimization and crime opportunities 18
8. Van Dijk crime chains 19
9. Which lorries get stolen 21
10. Sixteen opportunity-reducing techniques of situational crime
prevention 25
11. Displacement should not be taken for granted 28
12. Helmet laws and the opportunity for motorcycle theft 29
13. Diffusion of benefits and CCTV in university car parks 31
A. Introduction
Criminological theory has long seemed irrelevant to those who have to deal with
o ffenders in the real world. This irrelevance stems partly from attributing the
causes of crime to distant factors, such as child-rearing practices, genetic makeup,
and psychological or social processes. These are mostly beyond the reach of
e v e ryday practice, and their combination is extremely complicated for those who
want to understand crime, much less do something about it. In this publication,
we shall show that understanding crime causation is not necessarily burd e n s o m e
and that this understanding is relevant to the routine prevention work undert a k e n
by police and others. In brief, we will argue that “opportunity makes the thief” is
much more than just an old saying and has important implications for crime
policy and practice.
Individual behavior is a product of an interaction between the person and the
setting. Most criminological theory pays attention only to the first, asking why
certain people might be more criminally inclined or less so. This neglects the
second, the important features of each setting that help to translate criminal
inclinations into action.
This preoccupation with criminal inclinations has produced a lop-sided picture of
the causes of crime, but this is being corrected in new work by environmental
criminologists, showing how some settings provide many more crime opportunities
than others. Yet critics often downplay opportunities or temptations as true causes
of crime. To show why this is mistaken we note that no crime can occur without
the physical opportunities to carry it out. Whatever one’s criminal inclinations, one
cannot commit a crime without overcoming its physical requirements. Since crime
opportunities are necessary conditions for crime to occur, this makes them causes in
a strong sense of the word. At the same time, many people from uncaring or broken
homes have never committed crimes, and many people from good families in
comfortable circumstances have become active offenders. No theory about
individuals can claim that it has found the necessary conditions for a person to
commit crime. To be sure, no single cause of crime is sufficient to guarantee its
occurrence; yet opportunity above all others is necessary and therefore has as much
or more claim to being a “root cause”.
To offer an example of our thinking, shoplifting not only varies across individuals
but also among stores. Any store that makes shoplifting easy causes more crime to
occur in two ways: by encouraging more people to participate in the crime and by
helping each shoplifter to be more efficient as a thief. On the other side of the coin,
s t o res that have thwarted shoplifting with careful design and management re d u c e
the problem by producing fewer thieves and cutting the efficiency of each off e n d e r.
Individual propensities towards crime and criminogenic features of settings, while
both important, are not equally simple to analyze. The usual approach –
discovering who has greater personal propensities towards crime and why – is a
more formidable task. Statistical analyses to unravel individual causes are highly
complicated and seem to go in circles. Articulate essays about the causes of crime
may persuade one group of readers but seem to make little headway in persuading
others. We see no immediate prospect of success in resolving the many
controversies about what causes individual crime propensities.
On the other hand, theories about how settings cause crime are more successful,
not only in gaining empirical verification but in reaching consensus. For example,
we know that large pubs with many drunken young males jostling one another
produce more fights. We know that the layout of certain parks or streets invites
prostitution and drug-dealing. We understand some of the design and management
principles that help to make public housing insecure or safe. Even when there is
room for controversy and refinement, theory about crime settings has thus far
escaped the state of intellectual warfare.
The theory of crime settings rests on a single principle: that easy or tempting
opportunities entice people into criminal action. This principle is found in each of
the new opportunity theories of crime, including the routine activity approach,
Box 1. Experiments in Temptation
The best way to establish a causal relationship is through an experiment, but it would be
unethical to create new opportunities for burglary or robbery, then sit back to see what
happens. But some researchers have undertaken experiments with more minor
transgressions. In the 1920s, as part of the famous “Character Education Inquiry”
undertaken in America, researchers gave schoolchildren the opportunity to cheat on
tests, to lie about cheating and to steal coins from puzzles used. What the researchers
discovered is that only a few children resisted all these temptations. Rather, most behaved
dishonestly some of the time, supporting the idea that opportunities cause crime.
In other experiments, researchers have scattered stamped and addressed letters in the
streets to see whether people would pick them up and post them. People were less likely
to post those letters they found containing money, showing their response to opportunity.
People were more likely to post letters addressed to males than females, indicating that a
person makes a considered decision whether to respond to temptation.
(1) H. Hartshorne and M.A. May. 1928. Studies in Deceit.New York: Macmillan
(2) David P. Farrington and Barry J. Knight. 1980. Stealing from a “lost” letter. Criminal
Justice and Behavior , Vol 7, Pages 423-436.
crime pattern theory and the rational choice perspective. Even though they differ
in orientation and purpose, they have many common assumptions. We shall draw
these out and explain how they lead to the inescapable conclusion that opportunity
is a cause of crime. In arguing this, we shall show that crime opportunities are at
least as important as individual factors and are far more tangible and immediately
relevant to everyday life. That is why such theories are readily understandable as
well as helpful for formulating practical crime control policies.
This publication is a direct response to those who criticise police and private-sector
crime prevention for “neglecting the root causes of crime”. This criticism
erroneously assumes that the earliest and most remote causes are most significant.
Instead, the more immediate causes are often more powerful in generating crime.
B. The New Opportunity Theories
A remarkable convergence of crime opportunity theories is in progress. Perhaps the
word “theory” is a bit grandiose, since so many loose ends remain to be tied.
Strictly speaking, it makes more sense to refer to them as “approaches,” since none
of them is a complete and formal theory. Indeed, each of the three examines crime
opportunities from a different direction and yet they arrive at the same place. We
discuss the features of the three approaches in turn.
1. The Routine Activity Approach
The routine activity approach started as an explanation of predatory crimes. It
assumed that for such crimes to occur there must be a convergence in time and
space of three minimal elements: a likely offender, a suitable target, and the
absence of a capable guardian against crime. The approach took the likely offender
as given and focused on the other elements. The guardian was not usually a police
officer or security guard but rather anybody whose presence or proximity would
discourage a crime from happening. Thus a housewife or doorman, a neighbour or
co-worker would tend, simply by being present, to serve as guardian. Guardianship
is often inadvertent, yet still has a powerful impact against crime. Most important,
when guardians are absent, a target is especially subject to the risk of criminal
Box 2. Routine Activity Theory and the Basic Crime Triangle
Source: Felson, Marcus. 1998. Crime and Everyday Life, Second edition. Thousand Oaks,
CA: Pine Forge Press.
The Chemistry for Crime
2 Capable Guardian
In the routine activity approach, the term target is preferred over victim, who
might be completely absent from the scene of the crime. Thus the owner of a TV is
normally away when a burglar takes it. The TV is the target and it is the absence of
the owner and other guardians that makes the theft easier. Targets of crime can be
a person or an object, whose position in space or time puts it at more or less risk of
criminal attack. Four main elements influence a target’s risk of criminal attack, as
summed by the acronym VIVA:
l Value
l Inertia
l Visibility
l Access
All four of these dimensions are considered from an offender’s viewpoint. Offenders
will only be interested in targets that they value, for whatever reason. Thus the
latest popular CD hit will be stolen more from record stores than a Beethoven CD
of roughly equal monetary value, since most offenders would like to have the
former but not the latter. Inertiais simply the weight of the item. Thus small
electronic goods are stolen more than weighty items, unless these latter are wheeled
or motorised to overcome their weight. Visibilityrefers to the exposure of theft
targets to offenders, as when someone flashes money in public or puts valuable
goods by the window. Accessrefers to street patterns, placement of goods near the
door, or other features of everyday life making it easy for offenders to get to targets.
For the usual predatory crime to occur, a likely offender must find a suitable target
in the absence of a capable guardian. This means that crime can increase without
more offenders if there are more targets, or if offenders can get to targets with no
guardians present. This also means that community life can change to produce
more crime opportunities without any increase in criminal motivation.
Using this thinking and a variety of data, the routine activity approach still offers
the best explanation for the rise in burglary in the United States and western
Europe during the 1960s and 1970s. Included in this explanation is the finding that
the best predictor of annual burglary rates is the weight of the smallest television
set sold each year. Another important component of the explanation is that far
more homes in this period were left unguarded in the day as more women entered
full-time paid work. In fact, the most general explanation of crime rate trends is an
indicator of the dispersion of activities away from family and household settings. As
people spend more time among strangers and away from their own homes, their risk
of personal and property victimization rises.
Although the routine activity approach begins with these ideas about minimal
elements of crime and activity patterns, it ends up emphasising changes in
technology and organization on a societal scale. Thus the spread of transistors and
plastics to everyday products of the 1960s generated vast increases in the volume of
lightweight durable goods that are easy to steal. The change in occupational
structure included a major growth of the female labor force and a dispersion of
women and their activities away from the safer setting of their homes. These are
structural changes in crime opportunity with dramatic impacts on society.
2. Crime Pattern Theor y
Local crime patterns can tell us much about how people interact with their
physical environment, producing more crime opportunity or less. Crime pattern
theory, a central component of environmental criminology, considers how people
and things involved in crime move about in space and time. Fitting well with the
routine activity approach, this theory has three main concepts: nodes, paths, and
edges. “Nodes”, which is a term from transportation, refers to where people travel
to and from. Such places not only can generate crime within, but also nearby. For
example a tough bar may generate more crime outside the premises than inside.
Thus the word “node” conveys a sense of movement and hence carries extra
meaning about crime opportunities.
Each offender searches for crime targets around personal activity nodes (such as
home, school and entertainment area) and the paths among them. In addition, the
paths that people take in their everyday activities are closely related to where they
fall victim to crime. This is why crime pattern theory pays so much attention to the
geographical distribution of crime and the daily rhythm of activity. For example, it
generates crime maps for different hours of the day and days of the week, linking
crime to commuter flows, school children being let out, bars closing, or any other
process that moves people among nodes and along paths.
The third concept of crime pattern theory, edges, refers to the boundaries of are a s
w h e re people live, work, shop or seek entertainment. Some crimes are more
likely to occur at the edges – such as racial attacks, robberies, or shoplifting –
because people from diff e rent neighbourh o ods who do not know each other come
together at edges. The distinction between insiders and outsiders helps
u n d e r s c o re the importance of edges, since insiders usually commit crimes closer
to their own neighbourh o ods, while outsiders find it safer to offend at the edges,
then to re t reat to their own areas. Most import a n t l y, crime pattern theorists and
other environmental criminologists have shown that the design and management
of town, city, and business areas can produce major shifts in crime rates. For
example, it is possible to reduce crime by calming traffic and orienting windows
so people can better supervise their own streets.
3. The Rational Choice Perspective
The rational choice perspective focuses upon the offender’s decision making. Its
main assumption is that offending is purposive behavior, designed to benefit the
offender in some way. Offenders have goals when they commit crimes, even if these
goals are short sighted and take into account only a few benefits and risks at a time.
These constraints on thinking limit an offender’s rationality. It is also limited by
the amount of time and effort that offenders can give to the decision and by the
quality of the information available to them. They rarely have a full picture of all
the various costs and benefits of the crime.
To understand crime choices, one must always analyze highly specific categories
of offence. The reason for this specificity is that offences have such diff e re n t
purposes and and are influenced by very diff e rent situational factors. For example,
car thieves are of several diff e rent kinds, including joyriders, people stealing
components or things left in the car, those stealing cars for resale or to dismantle
for spare parts, those wanting a car to use for another crime, and those simply
wanting to drive home. This is not to say that those who commit one type of car
theft never commit another; it merely states that car theft for one purpose is
quite diff e rent from car theft for an entirely diff e rent purpose and must be
analysed accord i n g l y.
Each of these offenders has to make a different calculus. Joyriders may pick a car
with good acceleration that is fun to drive, while parts “choppers” may pick an
older car whose parts may be valuable for resale. Those stealing a car for resale
might pick a luxury car though not one so exotic as to draw immediate police
attention. In choosing a vehicle for use in another crime, an offender will probably
consider its performance and reliability. Those simply wanting to drive home may
pick the car most convenient to steal.
Rational choice theorising in criminology is really quite down to earth, trying to see
the world from the offender’s perspective. It seeks to understand how the offender
makes crime choices, driven by a particular motive within a specific setting, which
offers the opportunities to satisfy that motive. Rational choice theory has an image
of the offender who thinks before he acts, even if only for a moment, taking into
account some benefits and costs in committing the offence. To be sure, the
offender’s calculus is mostly based on that which is most evident and immediate,
while neglecting the more remote costs and benefits of crime or its avoidance. That
is why the usual offender pays rather less attention to eventual punishment or the
long-term impact of drugs than to the immediate or proximate pleasures offered by
the offence, or the risks that someone will thwart it on the spot.
This perspective has given rise to interviews asking each offender concrete
questions about specific crimes, what he wanted, thought about, and did. For
example, researchers have taken burglars around in cars, asking them specifically
why they would pick one street and not another, one house and not another, one
time and not another. Other researchers have gone around with shoplifters to see
what items they would have selected, how this is affected by shelf placement, and
how they think about their specific illegal tasks. Indeed, modus operandi is a
central concern of rational choice theory in criminology. This theory and research
is closely linked to situational crime prevention, which is explicitly designed to
reduce crime opportunities. Indeed, if withdrawing the opportunity causes crime to
go down, it becomes impossible to deny that providing more criminal opportunity
causes crime to go up.
Now that we have presented the three main theories of crime opportunity, it
should be evident that they do more than overlap – they have many of the same
assumptions. Each one treats crime opportunity as generating crime and each pays
close attention to what offenders actually do in the course of a crime. The three
theories of crime opportunity can be put in order according to where they give
most attention, ranging from the larger society (routine activities) to the local area
(crime pattern theory) to the individual (rational choice). Together they tell us
that the society and locality can change crime opportunity, while the individual
offender makes decisions in response to these changes. Altering the volume of
crime opportunities at any level will produce a change in criminal outcomes. Town
planning, defensible space architecture, problem oriented policing, situational
prevention – all of these offer methods for reducing crime opportunities. None of
these methods is the focus of the current publication but any success they might
have serves as a demonstration of our basic theoretical point, that opportunity is a
cause of crime.
C. Ten Principles of Opportunity and Crime
We have already stated the general principle of this publication, that opportunity
causes crime. This has generated ten sub-principles of crime opportunity. We
devote a section to each and offer illustrations within each section.
1. Opportunities play a role in causing all crime.
Many of the early examples linking opportunity to crime dealt with theft and
burglary. As a result, some observers mistakenly concluded that opportunity applies
only to the more common property offences. We believe that opportunity has an
important part to play in every class of offence, including violence.
Home Office research has already demonstrated how to reduce the opportunity for
robbing post offices, and other research has applied similar principles to
convenience stores and banks. A greater challenge is to explain why people get
into foolish fights and attack others with no apparent gain. Why would such
violent offences reflect crime opportunities? Theorists for many years explained
such violence as irrational and expressive, hence not influenced by decisions or
opportunities. More recently, theorists have begun to argue that all violence
involves some sort of decision. Fights are not as senseless as they may seem later or
to people not involved. To understand we need to look at the offender’s viewpoint
and to focus on the moment of the offence and just before it. At that time, the
violent person may have a grievance and the attack may be made to remedy a
perceived injustice. Or the offender may wish to preserve self esteem after a
perceived insult. For example, someone in a pub goes to the toilet and comes back
to find his chair taken. The person who took it has made him look weak in front of
others. Having had too much to drink, he impolitely asks for his chair back and
gets an equally impolite response. This escalates into a fight. Although the
outcome may seem silly later, it makes sense at the time to those involved.
Box 3. Ten Principles of Opportunity and Crime
1. Opportunities play a role in causing all crime
2. Crime opportunities are highly specific
3. Crime opportunities are concentrated in time and space
4. Crime opportunities depend on everyday movements
5. One crime produces opportunities for another
6. Some products offer more tempting crime opportunities
7. Social and technological changes produce new crime opportunities
8. Opportunities for crime can be reduced
9. Reducing opportunities does not usually displace crime
10. Focussed opportunity reduction can produce wider declines in crime
Studies of bars and pubs have shown that their design and management can lead to
violence or its absence. Violent opportunities in pubs increase when they are larg e r
in size; are dominated by young males; have clienteles that do not know each other;
make it difficult to avoid jostling others; and have untrained and inexperienced bar
s t a ff. Liquor policy can have a major impact on the opportunity for violence within
pubs and in the area outside. Happy hours, late closing, pub concentration and bar
hopping – all of these have an impact on the opportunity for violence.
The structure of conflicts has been studied not only in barroom settings but also in
the laboratory, where researchers have shown that a young male insulting another
in front of an audience will tend to receive back an insulting or aggressive response.
Changing the composition of persons present – such as increasing the number of
middle-aged persons and females – leads to less risk of an aggressive response. Other
research confirms the commonsense notion that bigger people are more likely to
hit little people, and that larger numbers of offenders are more likely to attack
smaller numbers. In short, violence is strongly influenced by opportunity.
Box 4. Routine Activity Theory and the Setup for a Fight
Source: Felson, Marcus. 1998. Crime and Everyday Life, Second edition. Thousand Oaks,
CA: Pine Forge Press.
The Chemistry for Crime
Troublemakers Likely combatants
Peacemakers Audience
The same is also true of sexual offences. The opportunities that give rise to burglary
may put occupants at risk of sexual assault, often unplanned. Children are most
likely to be abused by adults who have access to them through everyday roles, and
these adults need times and settings where guardians will not interfere with their
crimes. Domestic violence also depends upon privacy, in particular, the absence of
other family members or neighbours who might prevent the assault. Obscene and
threatening phone calls depend upon telephone access and the ability of the caller
to hide his own identity. Caller identification devices in the United States have
removed much of this opportunity with demonstrated success.
The comparison of the United States to other nations underscores the role of guns
as facilitators of homicide and aggravated assault. Homicide rates in the United
States are many times higher than in Britain and other European nations. This is
not because the United States is a more criminal society. If it were, rates for other
crimes such as car theft and burglary would also be higher when, in fact, they are
lower than in Britain and some other countries in Europe. Rather, the much higher
homicide rates of the United States result from the widespread availability of
handguns, which means that the opportunity to carry out a quick but deadly attack
is much greater, even when the victim is stronger than the attacker.
Drug dealing and vice also depend upon opportunity. For example, drug sellers in
the United States seek apartment buildings that have no building manager on the
premises. Through redesign, management and patrol, drug markets have been
driven out of parks and shopping malls. Street prostitution has been controlled in
some settings through traffic routing to interfere with kerb crawling. Minor design
changes within Manhattan’s commuter bus terminal have taken away the
opportunity for male prostitutes, telephone fraudsters who sell illicit phone calls,
and hustlers who offer to carry people’s luggage and then mug them.
The significance of opportunity for fraud and white collar crime is beginning to be
studied. Tax forms making it easy to comply thereby avoid a need to threaten people
with punishment. Researchers have shown that easy check cashing makes for easy
check fraud. In Sweden it has been found that the opportunity for cheating the
g o v e rnment when claiming housing allowances can be reduced by linking diff e re n t
computers containing information about people’s stated income. This fact has been
publicised so that claimants re p o rt consistent information. The phone fraud at the
Manhattan bus terminal, mentioned above, was removed by programming the
telephones not to call outside the New York Metropolitan Area. Refund fraud in
s t o res has been reduced in Australia by setting up and enforcing better rules for
re t u rning goods. Employee reimbursement fraud is limited by requiring original
receipts and setting per diem rules. Multiple signatories and independent auditors
help prevent larger frauds from organizations. Even construction racketeering can be
l o w e red by changing the rules for letting out bids and checking on them.
In sum, the myth that opportunity is a cause only of theft and other common pro p e rt y
crimes is rapidly being dispelled as environmental criminologists complete their studies
into ever-widening categories of crime. Indeed, as every detective knows, opport u n i t y
plays a part in even the most carefully planned and deeply motivated offences of
murder. There is no class of crime in which opportunity does not play a role.
Box 5. Suicide and Opportunity
In common with many serious crimes, suicide is usually seen to be a deeply motivated
act, only committed by very unhappy or disturbed people. However, a strong and
surprising opportunity component appears in gas suicide trends in this country during
the 1960s and 1970s.
As can be seen from the table, in 1958 almost half the 5298 people who killed themselves
in England and Wales did so by domestic gas, which contained high levels of carbon
monoxide and was highly lethal. Most commonly, they would put their head in the gas
oven or would lie down by a gas fire having blocked up any gaps under doors or around
windows. Death would often come quite quickly, sometimes in as little as twenty minutes.
Total Suicides by Percent of
Year Suicides Domestic Gas Total
1958 5,298 2,637 49.8
1959 5,207 2,594 49.8
1960 5,112 2,499 48.9
1961 5,200 2,379 45.8
1962 5,588 2,469 44.2
1963 5,714 2,368 41,4
1964 5,566 2,088 37.5
1965 5,161 1,702 33.0
1966 4,994 1,593 31.9
1967 4,711 1,336 28.4
1968 4,584 988 21.6
1969 4,326 790 18.3
1970 3,940 511 13.0
1971 3,945 346 8.8
1972 3,770 197 5.2
1973 3,823 143 3.7
1974 3,899 50 1.3
1975 3,693 23 .6
1976 3,816 14 .4
1977 3,944 8 .2
2. Crime opportunities are highly specific
We do not believe in a single crime opportunity factor applying to all crimes.
Indeed, our point is exactly the opposite. Crime opportunities are highly specific to
each offence and offender subset. As a rule, crime analysts should not define the
offence in legal terms, since that is not usually what the offender considers when
making a decision about a crime. Thus, an offender may walk down a street of
bungalows looking for something to steal, leaving it open whether to take from the
garden, the drive, the carport or the house itself. Even when committing a burglary,
one offender may be interested mainly in cash, while others are seeking electronic
goods, and still others jewellery. Among the latter, some use what they have stolen
themselves, others sell it to an acquaintance, others find second-hand stores, and
yet others go to the pub or flea market to offload the stolen goods. As discussed
Box 5. Suicide and Opportunity (continued)
During the 1960s, domestic gas became less lethal because it began to be manufactured
from oil rather than from coal, and the proportion of those killing themselves with gas
began to decline. In 1968, when a second major change occurred in the gas supply only
just over 20 percent of suicides involved domestic gas. This second major change was the
replacement of manufactured gas by natural gas from the recently discovered North Sea
fields. Natural gas is free of carbon monoxide and is almost impossible to use for suicide.
By the mid-1970s when natural gas had been introduced throughout most of the country,
less than one percent of suicides were by domestic gas.
This finding has been confirmed in other countries where natural gas has replaced
manufactured gas. What is deeply surprising is that suicides did not displace wholesale to
other methods. Between 1968 and 1975, total suicides dropped by about one third from
5298 to 3693. This was during a time of much economic uncertainty when one might
have expected suicides to increase and, indeed, was generally increasing in other
European countries.
Why did people not turn to other methods instead? Why did they not overdose on
sleeping pills, shoot or hang themselves, jump out of high buildings, or put their heads on
the railway tracks? It seems that all these methods have disadvantages not possessed by
gas. Overdoses require the necessary number of pills to be collected and, in any case, are a
much less lethal than poisoning by coal gas. Not everyone has a gun, and these result in
blood and disfigurement. Hanging oneself or jumping out of a tall building might require
much courage and resolution. Clambering onto the railway may not be easy for everyone,
especially older people. Domestic gas, on the other hand, is piped into most people homes
and is readily available, bloodless, painless and lethal. It is easy to understand why it was
the method of choice in Britain for so many years. Nor is it so surprising that when the
opportunity to use it was removed, the overall suicide rate declined.
Source: Ronald V. Clarke and Pat Mayhew. The British gas suicide story and its
implications for prevention. In Michael Tonry and Norval Morris (eds.), 1988. Crime and
Justice: A Review of Research , Vol. 10. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
earlier, several types of car thieves commit exactly the same legal offence but with
very different goals in mind and hence different modus operandi. This is not to say
that offenders are pure specialists, since they may go looking for crime
opportunities and take whichever ones come up. Even those who have one thing in
mind one day may shift their attention on another day.
In general, the opportunity for crime must be evaluated for very specific categories
of offence. Thus robbery of post offices, banks, people on the streets or in the
stairwells of council housing, are all different crimes from the standpoint of crime
opportunity theory. Their modus operandi will differ, along with the methods for
reducing the opportunity. Even within these categories, smaller opportunity
categories are needed. Thus the “inside-job” bank robbery must be distinguished
from more common “stick ups”. To be sure, some opportunity principles may fit all
crimes. But even these need to be applied taking into account the specific setting
and modus operandi.
Because offences diff e r, reductions in opportunity are also highly specific. Removing
one crime opportunity may have no impact on another. For example, employing
attendants to collect money at the exit of a multi-story car park may succeed in
reducing the opportunity to steal a car. But this may have little effect on stealing
goods left in cars parked on the higher levels. Devices that prevent stealing the car
itself do not necessarily prevent breaking the window and taking the radio. Locks
that prevent burg l a ry have no impact on thefts of goods left outside in the back yard .
3. Crime opportunities are concentrated in time and space.
Just because people and property are scattered throughout the city does not mean
that crime opportunities are equally distributed; quite the contrary, for the
following reasons:
l Many people and things are not suitable targets for criminal attack.
l Many locations are unfavorable for crime to occur.
l A given location may be ideal for crime at one time but unfavorable for crime
at another.
l Those who would discourage crime from happening, such as homeowners,
concierges, receptionists, or security guards, cannot be everywhere.
l Nor can the most likely offenders be everywhere.
Indeed, the spatial and temporal distribution of people and things is highly uneven
and sets the stage for crime to occur at particular times and places. This helps
explain why a community bustling with activity does not necessarily generate
crime everywhere and at every time. A street robber might be able to attack a
weaker victim at daytime or dusk if he can find a moment when others are absent.
But for attacking a stronger victim he might need a darker time and a more
aggressive mode of attack. A residential burglar can find abandoned residential
streets in the day and kick a door in, but at night he will have to be more quiet.
R e s e a rchers have recently begun to study crime “hot spots,” namely addre s s e s
which draw many more calls for police service than others. Hot spots can drive
up a local crime rate. Even though most people and places in the area are larg e l y
f ree from crime, their reputation is tarnished by the near-by hot spots. Removing
one or two drug houses or badly-run pubs can thus change the whole complexion
of a neighbourh o od.
The term “hot spots” should not seduce us too readily. It neglects the crime on the
paths leading to and from the places in question, as well as the negative side effects
of crime in an area. To help explain these patterns, environmental criminologists
talk about “crime generators” and “crime attractors”. A crime generator produces
crime on the spot and perhaps spews it out to nearby areas. A crime attractor brings
people in who would not have gone there in the first place. Thus if a drug market
or shady pub first serves local people, it serves to generate crime that might not
have occurred. As outsiders hear about it and decide to go there, it becomes a
crime attractor. We can add a third concept, the crime detractor. This refers to a
location that discourages offenders and offending. A stable business, the presence of
middle aged women, mixes of activities, or easy natural surveillance can have such
a positive consequence. We might see the metropolitan environment as a
patchwork of crime generators, crime attractors, crime detractors, and neutral areas.
Box 6. Stings can Backfire to Create Opportunites for Crime
Police in the United States have in various places opened up storefront fences and then
arrested offenders who come there to sell stolen goods. But the results are sometimes
unexpected as shown in a study of one sting that targeted car thieves. Researchers
mapped car thefts by proximity to the sting location. Their findings indicate, at a
minimum, that the sting pulled crime to its vicinity like a magnet pulls iron filings. Thus
living near a sting can expose one to crime, rather than protecting one. If this fact were
widely known, police would receive much less approval than they currently do when the
results of a sting operation are reported in the press. The more interesting interpretation
of the results of the study is far worse: that the sting increased crime opportunities and
that it resulted in more thefts simply because thieves had a ready market for the vehicles.
Source: Robert Langworthy and James LeBeau. 1992. The spatial evolution of a sting
clientele. Journal of Criminal Justice , Vol 20, Pages 541-552
4. Crime opportunities depend on everyday movements of activity
If vendors of snacks and drinks seek crowds, so do pickpockets, luggage thieves, and
bag snatchers. Other offenders pay closer attention to the absence of people. For
example, the flow of people to work generates a counter flow of burglars to
residential areas, taking advantage of their absence. The flow of workers home at
night and on weekends produces a counter flow a few hours later of commercial
and industrial burglars to take advantage of the situation. Those who use the
Underground for trips to crime go to places they know using the lines they know,
finding targets along the way or at the familiar destinations.
Changes in transportation lines can have a major impact on crime opportunities.
Thus new roads or railway lines establish new crime risks in areas they touch, while
closing down crime opportunities in areas they cut off. Pathways to and from school
are essential features of crime opportunity in an area. If such pathways are not
constructed or planned, youths will find their own routes, sometimes with
significant consequences for crime.
Everyday movement patterns help us understand crime generators and crime
attractors, discussed above. Such nodes generate movements, just as movements
influence the nodes themselves. But movement patterns relevant to crime cannot
be understood by taking nodes one at a time. People move among nodes and that is
why their location with respect to one another is so important. The crucial
question to ask is which activities and settings are adjacent and which ones are
separate. Thus putting a secondary school next to a shopping area creates
shoplifting, vandalism, and truancy. Adjacent schools may generate fights, if ages
are the same, and bullying if ages are different.
Crime pattern theorists have described offender movements in terms of a basic
search pattern. Starting with a triangle, they consider offenders going from home to
work to recreation. Around each of these three nodes and along each of these three
paths, offenders look around for crime opportunities. They may find these a little
way off the path, but they usually do not go far beyond the area they know. This
basic pattern of movement has been elaborated by environmental criminologists to
include additional nodes, such as schools, recreation areas, and the like, with the
extra paths among them. However, most offenders (like other citizens) do not
know every inch of town and do not search everywhere.
These principles have been used to map the locations of serial offences, then
calculating where the offender probably lives and works. This “geographic
profiling” has helped to narrow down the range of likely suspects, leading to an
arrest. It shows that highly unusual crime can follow very routine patterns.
5. One crime produces opportunities for another
Having embarked upon one crime, the offender can unwittingly be drawn into
others simply because of the opportunities that unfold in the course of
committing the act. The best example comes from a burg l a ry, which can generate
several types of crime on the spot, including a weapons charge, an assault or a
sexual attack inside the home. A burg l a ry also generates such crimes as selling
and receiving stolen goods or the fraudulent use of stolen credit cards. Finally,
when more than one offender is involved, their conflicts over splitting up the
loot can readily lead to violence.
Pimping and prostitution also set in motion a variety of other problems. These
often lead to one party stealing from, robbing or assaulting the other, or selling
illegal drugs. What if a prostitute’s customer refuses to pay or if the two disagree on
what he owes? This may lead to an attack. Prostitution can also involve trading sex
for drugs or stolen goods, or repaying pimps or landlords with sex. Those engaging
in illegal activities, no matter how small, immediately compromise their positions
and may be impelled towards additional offences. Any offence can involve violence
among the illegal parties, as they cannot go to a civil court and ask the judge to
resolve their differences.
Any surreptitious crime puts people in danger of some further illegal act. Even
something so small as a traffic violation may lead the guilty party to speed away
to avoid detection, then to be chased by police, then to be charged with re s i s t i n g
a rrest, etc. Small traffic violations can lead to “road rage” involving assaults,
homicides or dangerous dueling with vehicles. Not only can more minor crimes
lead to major ones, but the reverse is also true. Rapists may rob their victims.
Those who provide illegal gambling services to others may bet illegally
themselves. Those who sell larger packages of illegal drugs may use some
In addition, some minor offences provide camouflage for those that are more
serious. Loitering, streetwalking, illegal vending, and minor drug selling can all
hide pickpocketing, serious drug sales, and setting people up for robbery. Many laws
are aimed to attack earlier links in the chain of criminal events, drug paraphernalia
or burglary tools. Even loitering and trespassing laws can be interpreted, in part, as
removing pre-criminal conditions.
In sum, individual offenders might dig themselves deeper into crime in at least
eight ways:
1. Blowing illegal gains on drugs or prostitutes.
2. Repeating the offence later against the same victim or target.
3. Spending time with co-offenders, who lead them into more crime.
4. Spending time with dangerous people, who then victimise them.
5. Spending more time in dangerous settings at dangerous hours.
6. Provoking others to attack them.
7. Developing expensive drug dependencies, leading to criminal acts.
8. Impairing judgment through substance abuse, then taking more risks.
Box 7. Repeat Victimization and Crime Opportunities
The Police Research Group has sponsored studies of repeat victimization, not only adding
understanding about crime, but also fostering crime prevention. Professor Ken Pease and
associates have shown that persons and businesses victimised once have an extra risk of
falling victim to crime again. By focusing preventive efforts on those victimised a first
time, they have shown that scarce resources have their most impact in preventing
subsequent crime. Repeat victimization can be closely linked to crime opportunity for
several reasons:
l The most opportune targets for crime attract multiple attacks.
l Offenders successful the first time go back again because they anticipate another
l Offenders know what is there and what they missed the first time.
l Offenders give time for the victim to replace what they stole and then return to take
the replacements.
l In a violent offence, the offender has learned who cannot resist and who can be
attacked again.
In sum, the most opportune targets at the outset become even more opportune after they
were first victimised. This unhappy circumstance has a positive side: efforts to prevent
crime also have the best chance to succeed when focused on these cases. This growing
area of knowledge and experience has been applied to burglary, robbery, theft, domestic
violence, and commercial theft, among other offences. Like most of the studies discussed
in this publication, many of the basic insights began in Britain but have since been
confirmed and extended in many other countries.
S o u rce: Graham Farrell and Ken Pease. 1994. Once Bitten, Twice Bitten: Repeat
Victimization and its Implications for Pr e v e n t i o n .Crime Prevention Unit Paper 46. London:
Home Off i c e
In each of these ways, one crime produces the opportunity for the individual to
commit another. But the process of compounding crime opportunities occurs also
for local areas. Sometimes minor crime simply adds up, and its impact is focused in
a harmful way. For example, painting one piece of graffiti probably will not lead
directly to rape, murder, and kidnapping. On the other hand, hundreds of pieces of
graffiti within a very small area could help destroy social control and contribute to
more serious crime later. This “broken windows” theory contends that the
proliferation of minor crime can serve to destroy a neighbourhood. Perceiving that
social controls have broken down, criminals from outside move in to take control.
6. Some products offer more tempting crime opportunities
When Willie Sutton, the notorious criminal, was asked why he robbed banks, he is
said to have answered, “That’s where the money is”. Cash is a very convenient object
of theft, since it has high value per pound and is generally convertible. Yet new,
marked, or consecutively numbered bank notes reduce the opportunity for theft.
The VIVA model stated earlier offers a starting point for evaluating which things
make better crime targets. For example, videocassette players have made good
t a rgets because they are high in value and low in inertia, that is, they have high
Box 8. Van Dijk Crime Chains
A basic principle of crime opportunity is that crime itself breeds crime. One way this
happens is that one person victimises another who then victimises a third person, and
so on. We call this a Van Dijk chain, named after the Dutch criminologist who has
studied victimization and helped formulate crime opportunity theory. Van Dijk noticed
a typical pattern in the theft of bicycles. The victim of a bike theft would steal a bike
f rom someone else to replace it. That victim would in turn steal a bike from another
o w n e r, and so on. Thus a single bicycle theft would have a multiplier effect, leading to
several additional bicycle thefts. Van Dijk chains could apply to the theft of any items
with these four attributes:
l widely owned
l necessary for daily use
l easily taken
l sufficiently expensive
A similar pattern probably applied to hand calculators within schools, until their price
dropped and computers replaced them. Perhaps personal computer thefts today can be
partly explained with Van Dijk chains.
Source: Jan van Dijk. 1994. Understanding crime rates: On interactions between raional
choices of victims and offenders. British Journal of Criminology , Vol 34, Pages 105-121.
value per pound. They are also highly visible and accessible. Numerous other
examples exist of such “hot products”, consumer items that seem particularly at
risk of theft:
l Research in many countries, including recent Home Office work, has shown that
particular models of car are at much greater risk of theft than others.
l The cars most at risk of theft vary with the precise nature of the offence. Thus a
few years ago the cars most taken for joyriding in the United States were
“macho” American-built vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Camaro, with plenty of
acceleration. Those most likely to be stripped of parts were European cars such as
Volkswagen Cabriolets with good radios easily interchanged between different
models. Those most likely to be stolen for resale were very expensive models
such as Porsche and Mercedes.(The increased popularity in America of high
priced “sport utility vehicles”, such as the Toyota Land Cruiser or the Range
Rover, has changed these patterns in recent years)
l A recent Home Office study has shown that livestock carriers have the highest
rates of theft of any commercial vehicles (SEE BOX).
l Lorries carrying cigarettes and liquor were most likely to be hijacked in the past,
but electronic goods are now also frequently targeted.
l Studies in the retail industry, both of employee theft and shoplifting, have
consistently shown that certain items are much more likely to be stolen than
others. For example, a Home Office project of a few years ago showed that
“popular” records and tapes were much more likely to be stolen from the HMV
store in Oxford Street than classical recordings.
l Residential burglars usually seek cash, jewellery and electronic goods (and guns
in America). As discussed above, the increase in lightweight electronic goods in
peoples’ homes has been held partly responsible for the substantial increase of
residential burglary in America during the 1970s.
l Cellular telephones, poorly-designed ticket machines on the London
Underground, and aluminium cash compartments on public phones have all
generated small crime waves.
This brief list suggests that hot products might help to explain patterns for many
kinds of theft, as well as crime waves or increases in crime. These products might
also help explain repeat victimization, as in cases where someone with a particular
model of car has it repeatedly stolen or when shops carrying goods attractive to
thieves are repeatedly burgled.
While we may know which products are hot, we know little about why they are
hot. Studies are needed to understand why particular product brands attract more
theft than other brands. For example, why are some brands of sneakers so much
more likely to be stolen than other brands which sell equally well? Stuidies are also
needed to elucidate the criminogenic properties of whole classes of products, such
as cellular phones.
Such research will have many implications for prevention, some of which will have
to do with design changes, either undertaken voluntarily by manufacturers or
mandated by government. For example, security-coded radios have greatly reduced
theft from high risk cars (i.e. those with good radios that could easily be removed
and fitted in other cars). If consumers knew the different risks of theft attached to
particular items, they would begin to demand that hot products have more built-in
security. An example would be security coding for video cassette players. In
addition, businesses would be encouraged to make detailed studies of their losses so
as to focus improved security on high risk items rather than to disperse it across all
product lines without much benefit. Research on hot products will also assist police
efforts to undermine fencing operations.
Box 9. Which Lorries get Stolen
Crime opportunity theories can be directly applied to analyzing crime problems. An
excellent example comes from a Police Research Group study of theft of heavy goods
vehicles, in which the theft rates per 1,000 lorries of various types were calculated. Lorries
parked in industrial estates accounted for over half of the thefts. By contrast, less than
one per cent were stolen from supervised lorry parks. Thefts were mainly at night or on
weekends, when supervision was low. Smaller companies, apparently less able to
supervise, were more vulnerable to risk of HGV theft. Construction vehicles, scattered
over many sights, were very frequently stolen. Lorries for carrying livestock also had ver y
high risk. Many of these were private horse boxes. These tended to be older and relatively
low in value. Their vulnerability may have been due to their value on the second hand
market since few private owners would want to spend much money on such a specialised
Source: Rick Brown. 1995. The Nature and Extent of Heavy Goods Vehicle Theft . Crime
Detection and Prevention Series. Paper 66. London: Home Office Police Research Group
7. Social and technological changes produce new crime opportunities
Technology frequently works to produce new products, but many of these are not
especially suitable for theft, since they have no mass market or are too difficult to
use. Other products become targets for theft. Even these often go through a life
cycle and may become no longer attractive to thieves. In general, mass-produced
consumer goods pass through a life cycle of four stages:
1. Innovation Stage.
2. Growth Stage
3. Mass Market Stage
4. Saturation Stage
In the i n n o v a t i o nstage, the product is sold to a special group of consumers. It may
be expensive, difficult to use, relatively heavy and awkward. That explains why
the early computers were not likely to be stolen. Even the early home video
cassette players were not supported by a wide selection of available movies fro m
nearby video stores. So why steal them? In the g ro w t hstage, products becomes
easier to use, cheaper to buy, lighter and less awkward to carry. More people know
how to use them and want one, and thefts there f o re accelerate. That is just what
happened as the desk computer became more popular and as video cassette players
and CD players gained ground. In the mass marketstage, the product gains furt h e r
in appeal. More units are sold and theft becomes endemic. By the s a t u r a t i o ns t a g e ,
most people who really want the product have it, and thefts decline. For example,

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