Security Consulting

The Merging of Situational and Social Crime Prevention Theories


This article outlines two different, but converging theories, which will benefit a respective security program. Security is often considered an easy practice without any depth, which is far from the case. Regardless the project, whether it is the planning a new building or the design for a global event such as the FIFA World Cup being held in Qatar in 2022, steps need to be introduced through the entire project to help minimize security vulnerabilities and threats over the entire life of the project. The obvious “blocking and tackling” is paramount in the deterrence and response; however, there are components to anticipate criminal vulnerabilities and threats, which are becoming increasingly important in a security program.

One component to the cost-effective management of these security concerns is rooted in Crime Prevention, which has two main theories. Recently, in my opinion, these theories and approaches have merged into a common and predominant philosophy.

Situational crime prevention minimizes crime by challenging the situation of criminal act(s). This is done by directly focusing on the area where malicious activities have taken place or could take place. The aim of this approach is to reduce the opportunity for criminal activity by increasing the rationalized and perceived risk of being caught. The risk of being caught is internally weighted by the aggressor compared to the value of the asset being targeted. If the risk of being caught appears high, or the reward does not justify the risk involved, the offender may choose not to commit the crime or more likely select an easier target.

From a controls/design perspective, many look at the application of controls through the use of overt technology. Although technology is one type of control, the sooner a security practitioner is involved in the project, the easier it is to understand and correct the vulnerabilities that could be exploited. A complete security program would embrace technology but additional evaluate the physical/architectural components of the project. Properly implemented, physical and architectural enhancements can greatly enhance the perception of security. It additionally can aid in the rationalized risk vs. reward mentality by the aggressor while increasing the potential of an offender being apprehended. The secondary benefit to the situational crime theory is that security, properly implemented, can avoid the perceptions of a “fortress”, thereby being more welcoming to people who will use the area.

The second predominant crime prevention approach is the theory of Social Crime Prevention. This theory differs from Situational Crime prevention because it does not address the physical environment where the crime may be committed. Instead, Social Crime Prevention aims to target the social aspects, or the root causes of criminality, such as precipitating factors, for crimes to occur including socio economic status, the family unit, lack of gang awareness programs, etc... this process takes longer and therefore is more expensive. However, if successful, it can reduce the overall crime rate, reducing the cost of other crime prevention solutions.

A very prominent approach to the management of crime is via Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Essentially, CPTED falls under Situational Crime prevention and is a philosophy that focuses on the physical environment. The key strategies that make up CPTED are natural surveillance, natural access control, natural reinforcement, maintenance and activity support.

The blending of situational and social crime theories becomes evident in the following examples: The maintenance aspect of CPTED promotes a sense of ownership of the area. Legitimate users in an area with maintenance become more vigilant to challenge anyone they feel does not belong there. Additionally, potential offenders will realize additional perceived risk when operating in areas with maintenance. The influence of Social Crime Theory on CPTED, can be seen in the application of Homeowner’s associations, which have by-laws and minimum building and maintenance standards. The homeowner’s association is a social control, which enforces norms aimed at conditioning individuals in upkeep, maintenance, etc.; and therefore indirectly benefits crime prevention and CPTED strategies.

Another component of CPTED is activity support, which can be achieved in a number of ways. For example, empty lots may promote loitering, which could lead to vandalism. These lots, under an activity support strategy, could be converted into a children’s playground or park. Activity support will encourage people to occupy these areas and provide witness potential that otherwise would have not been present. Comparably, Social Crime prevention comes into effect through programs such as a unified Neighborhood Watch Program, outreach or gang counseling center.
Together, these two programs, meld into a ‘Community Crime Prevention’ concept, which is a multi--tiered approach for addressing the root causes to criminal activity.

Situational Crime prevention also aims to increase the perceived risk to the potential offender. Mentioned previously, if the individual believes the risk is too high they may not commit the crime. Adding additional lighting, is an example, how an environment can be easily and quickly changed to increase the risk of being caught compared to the reward. Additional lighting increases the risk of being caught; because the witness potential would be greater, than under the cover of darkness. However, Social Crime prevention theory can be the root cause for the perceived risk of an aggressor being caught. Specifically, the risk, and hence deterrence, is further increased if the individual, contemplating a malevolent act has a personal bond, social standing with that community or area. When people have ties with an area, or feel themselves as valued members in society, then they are unlikely to commit an offense (because of the risk of the perception in the community). Individuals that do not feel valued will be more likely to commit a crime as they feel no bond with society, therefore, do not hold the same values and norms as others who have that bond. Thusly, the conditioning of the community, the norms they live by and the perception of social standing comingled with effective witnesses, are a greater deterrent to individuals who may not have a strong bond.

Situational techniques, until now, have not overlapped into social methods of crime prevention. The utilization of social theories in conjunction with situational theories promotes social cohesion. This strengthens the argument that although both approaches are used to obtain a successful solution, security practitioners may use Situational Crime prevention techniques first to establish a prevention plan, because it’s easier. Although the situational methods are the primary approaches used, it is important not to overlook the importance, application and overlap of Social Crime prevention methods as they can enhance the overall goal of minimizing malevolent acts.

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