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date: 20 April 2018

The Theory and Practice of Situational Crime Prevention

Summary and Keywords

Situational crime prevention is radically different from other forms of crime prevention as it seeks only to reduce opportunities for crime, not bring about lasting change in criminal or delinquent dispositions. Proceeding from an analysis of the circumstances giving rise to very specific kinds of crime and disorder, it introduces discrete managerial and environmental modifications to change the opportunity structure for those crimes to occur—not just the immediate physical and social settings in which the crimes occur, but also the wider societal arrangements that make the crimes possible. It is therefore focused on the settings for crime, not on delinquents or criminals. Rather than punishing them or seeking to eliminate criminal dispositions through improvement of society or its institutions, it tries to make criminal action less attractive. It does this in five main ways: (1) by increasing the difficulties of crime, (2) by increasing the immediate risks of getting caught, (3) by reducing the rewards of offending, (4) by removing excuses for offending, and (5) by reducing temptations and provocations. It accomplishes these ends by employing an action research methodology to identify design and management changes that can be introduced with minimum social and economic costs. Central to this enterprise is not the criminal justice system but a host of public and private organizations and agencies—schools, hospitals, transit systems, shops and malls, manufacturing businesses and phone companies, local parks and entertainment facilities, pubs and parking lots—whose products, services, and operations spawn opportunities for a vast range of different crimes. Some criminologists believe that the efforts that these organizations and agencies have made in the past 20 or 30 years to protect themselves from crime are responsible for the recorded crime drops in many countries.

Situational crime prevention rests on a sound foundation of criminological theories—routine activity theory, crime pattern theory, and the rational choice perspective—all of which hold that opportunity plays a part in every form of crime or disorder. There is therefore no form of crime that cannot be addressed by situational crime prevention. To date, more than 250 evaluated successes of situational crime prevention have been reported, covering an increasingly wide array of crimes including terrorism and organized crimes. Many of the studies have found little evidence that situational interventions have resulted in the “displacement” of crime to other places, times, targets, methods, or forms of crime. Indeed, it is commonly found that the benefits of situational crime prevention diffuse beyond the immediately targeted crimes. Despite these successes, situational crime prevention continues to attract much criticism for its supposed social and ethical costs.

Keywords: crime drop, crime opportunity theory, crime science, environmental criminology, displacement, designing out crime, problem-oriented policing, suicide, terrorism

Situational crime prevention (SCP) is the science of reducing opportunities for crime. It focuses on highly specific forms of crime or disorder and analyzes their underlying “opportunity structures”—both the immediate physical and social settings in which the crimes occur and the wider societal arrangements that make the crimes possible. It then seeks to identify design and management changes that will disrupt the opportunities that facilitate these crimes with fewest economic and social costs. The changes are intended to discourage potential offenders by increasing the difficulty or the risks of crime, making it less rewarding or excusable and reducing temptations or provocations.

In its short history SCP has developed a complex set of theoretical premises, described numerous tools and concepts to assist its application, and undertaken extensive empirical evaluation of its operations. This is why it is a science, but it is also an art because its practical applications demand problem-solving and other skills that go well beyond the guidance embodied in its science. Practitioners seeking to implement SCP must therefore draw on their professional skills and experience at every stage of the project.

Conceived in the 1970s by the Home Office Research Unit, the British government’s criminological department, SCP offered a solution to what were then ever-increasing rates of street crime and a widespread policy challenge to the rehabilitative ideal, encapsulated by the term “nothing works.” Even so, SCP was not well received. Its message that crime could be prevented by reducing opportunities (Clarke, 1980) was dismissed by many criminologists as simplistic, while deviancy theorists labeled it a crude example of “administrative criminology,” intended to serve the government’s purpose of managing crime rather than confronting the societal ills at its roots.

Since those early days, SCP has developed in tandem with the broader field of environmental criminology (sometimes called crime science) and is now an integral component of that field. It has expanded the definition of the causes of crime by emphasizing not its distant but its immediate determinants. It has contributed to the analysis of offender decision-making and has re-oriented the interviewing of offenders to ask not why they might have become criminal, but how they accomplish their crimes. It has assisted in identifying specific forms of crime concentration and has shown how these might be targeted in the interests of crime prevention.

Most important of all, SCP has constantly reminded criminologists of their generally neglected role of seeking to reduce crime. Consistent with this, it has routinely undertaken empirical evaluations of the effects of its interventions, the results of which have provided SCP with an unrivaled record of success in preventing a wide variety of specific forms of crime. Beginning with street crimes, such as vandalism, car thefts, and burglary, which fueled its origins, the crimes addressed by situational prevention have expanded to include many forms of robbery, violence, and fraud, as well as everyday offenses of speeding, drunk driving, shoplifting, and employee theft. Some unexpected successes have also been reported in dealing with child sexual abuse, identity theft, aircraft hijackings, and terrorist suicide bombings. This expansion of SCP’s applications has led to the identification of many new ways of reducing opportunities for crime and to ways of evaluating its effectiveness. These contributions to criminological knowledge are constantly being developed and refined, and, if ever it were simplistic, SCP is far from that now (

The term “situational crime prevention” is sometimes used broadly to refer to any attempt to reduce opportunities for crime. This will be avoided here and instead, the term will be discussed in its narrow meaning, as discussed in the criminological literature. This account will cover its theoretical premises, the principles governing its applications, its effectiveness as measured by empirical evaluations, the social and ethical criticisms that have been made of it, and, finally, challenges to its future.

The Theory of Situational Crime Prevention

In this section the background to the origins of SCP in the Home Office Research Unit are described. This is followed by an account of the development of a broader base of theory that now underpins SCP. The section concludes by summarizing the theoretical premises that guide SCP.

The Origins of SCP

The original formulation of SCP, based on social learning theory (Bandura, 1976; Mischel, 1968), had grown out of an extensive Home Office research program conducted in the 1960s and early 1970s on the effectiveness of residential treatments for delinquency (Sinclair & Clarke, 1982). Initially, this program sought to identify the characteristics of delinquents who were likely to be reconvicted after treatment and paid limited attention to the treatment process itself. Later, the program sought to relate particular aspects of treatment both to the chances of reconviction and to institutional misbehavior. The main findings of the research can be summarized as follows:

  1. 1. The best (but weak) predictors of reconviction are pretreatment delinquency, current family environment and, to a lesser extent, delinquency during treatment.

  2. 2. Different forms of treatment vary little in their long-term effectiveness in preventing reconviction.

  3. 3. Large differences occur in misbehavior during treatment (as measured by offending or absconding) related to differences in institutional regimes and environments.

The first two findings contributed to the “nothing works” (Martinson, 1974) doctrine of the era, but the three findings together were understood by the Home Office team to suggest that delinquency is mainly a response to a current living situation (e.g., the family or an institution), which provides the stimuli and opportunities for offending as well as its reinforcement. In so far as the situation remains unchanged, delinquency itself is likely to persist. Some transfer of learning is possible from one environment to another, but the general unpredictability of delinquency is a function of changing environmental pressures that make a delinquent response more or less likely. The influence of the environment also helps to account for the ineffectiveness of treatment: though willing conformity or compliance may be found among those under treatment, the contemporary environment reasserts its power on release.

This formulation of the determinants of delinquency influenced the direction of a subsequent program of Home Office research, begun in the mid-1970s, to find a more effective means of reducing delinquency (Clarke & Cornish, 1982). Instead of seeking to alter delinquent “dispositions,” this new program of research explored the potential for altering situations to reduce the opportunities for delinquency and crime. Support for these aims was provided by studies that had recently been published in the United States on “crime prevention through environmental design” (Jeffery, 1971) and on “defensible space” designs (Newman, 1972), both of which were premised on opportunity reduction.

The results of the research were pulled together in a Home Office publication, Crime as Opportunity (Mayhew, Clarke, Sturman, & Hough, 1976), which sought to establish that opportunity has a powerful role in crime. By the time the policy implications of these results had been translated into the concept of situational prevention (Clarke, 1980), the social learning theory underlying the research had been abandoned in favor of the assertion, emanating from deviancy theory, that “a social theory must have reference to men's teleology—their purposes, their beliefs and the context in which they act out these purposes and beliefs… . Thus men rob banks because they believe they may enrich themselves, not because something biologically propels them through the door …” (Taylor, Walton, & Young, 1973, p. 61). Accordingly, a basic “choice” model for SCP was proposed consisting of:

(i) the offender’s motives; (ii) his mood; (iii) his moral judgments regarding the act in question and the “techniques of neutralization” open to him … ; (iv) the extent of his crime knowledge and perception of criminal opportunities; (v) his assessment of the risks of being caught as well as the likely consequences; and finally, as well as of a different order, (vi) whether he has been drinking.

(Clarke, 1980, p. 138)

A Broader Base of Theory

Clarke and Cornish decided to develop this basic “choice” model into a full-fledged model of criminal decision-making, the rational choice perspective (Clarke & Cornish, 1985; Cornish & Clarke, 1986). This formulation was much influenced by Herbert Simon’s (1955, 1978) conception of “bounded” rationality and was informed by Cornish’s (1978) discussion of the determinants of gambling. The rational choice perspective, together with routine activity theory (Cohen & Felson, 1979; Felson, 2002) and crime pattern theory (Brantingham & Brantingham, 1993), became one of the three main theories of environmental criminology (Wortley & Townsley, 2017).1 Diverging from the focus on the offender of most current criminology, environmental criminology focuses on the criminal event and the role of opportunity in crime. Apart from its constituent theories, environmental criminology encompasses a range of practical applications designed to reduce or prevent crime, including defensible space, crime prevention through environmental design, problem-oriented policing, and SCP. Of these, SCP is the most highly developed.

At first, the straightforward concepts derived from rational choice of increasing the effort of crime, increasing its risks, and reducing its rewards were the preventive mechanisms most emphasized in SCP. Later, however, Clarke and Homel (1997) added a fourth preventive mechanism—removing excuses—and later still a further change was made in response to Wortley’s criticism that SCP was unduly preoccupied with opportunity variables that offenders take advantage of when deciding to commit crime and had neglected other situational forces within the crime setting that serve to motivate offenders to commit crime. He called these forces “precipitators,” of which he identified four types—prompts, pressures, permissions, and provocations. In response to Wortley’s critique, made in a series of carefully argued papers (2001) and in his book, Situational Prison Control (Wortley, 2002), Cornish and Clarke (2003) added a fifth preventive mechanism—reduce provocations.

The Theoretical Premises of SCP

Rather than provide a full description of the theories supporting SCP, the premises they share are summarized below.

Crime Is the Outcome of the Interaction Between Dispositions and Situations

In the first description of SCP, Clarke (1980) criticized what he called the dispositional bias of most contemporary criminology, which seemed to assume that all that was needed to explain the occurrence of crime was to understand why some individuals or groups were predisposed to commit crime as a result of disadvantaged heredity, upbringing, or social status. In Clarke’s view, this ignored the powerful effect of situational forces, particularly of opportunity, at the point of committing crime. Hirschi and Gottfredson (1986) sharpened Clarke’s criticism by distinguishing between theories of criminality (or dispositional theories) and theories of crime. These latter theories, which explained the occurrence of crime, gave due weight to the opportunity and the other situational forces that Clarke believed to be so important.

In a more recent article, Clarke (2012) held Sutherland’s influential textbook responsible for criminology’s dispositional bias. Sutherland, a sociologist, was apparently unaware of the writings of contemporary social psychologists who argued that any behavior, such as crime, was the outcome of an interaction between the organism, in this case the offender, and the organism’s immediate environment (Lewin, 1936). To put this more concretely, crime results from the interplay of criminal motivation and crime opportunities. A criminal disposition can only lead to crime when circumstances permit it, while a criminal opportunity will result in crime only if perceived and acted upon. Still more recently, Clarke (2016) has employed another social psychological concept in accusing theoretical criminologists of wholesale commission of the “fundamental attribution error,” the pervasive human habit of overstating the role of the person and underestimating the role of the situation in explaining people’s behavior (Nisbett & Ross, 1980).

Establishing that situations and dispositions both contribute to crime was done not simply to contrast SCP with most other criminology but to make the case that situations have a greater role in prevention. As the record shows, it is much easier to modify features of the immediate setting to prevent crime than to change the long-standing influences on criminal dispositions.

Opportunity Is a Cause of Crime

While the title of Crime as Opportunity (Mayhew et al., 1976) invited readers to see opportunity as a cause of crime, this claim was avoided in the publication as well as for many years later in related publications. As Clarke (2012) explains, to have made such a claim would have offended the criminological (and wider social science) convention of the day that held that social science can only establish correlation, not causation. There were two reasons for caution. First, the relevant evidence to support the claim could in fact be interpreted as much in favor of correlation as causation. Second, in making such a claim it would be necessary to engage in formidable philosophical discussion beyond the province of government researchers.

Over the years, the position began to change, in particular because some helpful theoretical work on causation began to appear after the publication of Crime as Opportunity. Felson cut through the prevarications about free will and determinism in the original formulation of the rational choice perspective by declaring that: “People make choices, but they cannot choose the choices available to them” (Felson, 1986, p. 119). Ekblom (1994) made a useful distinction between near and far causes of crime, with the rider that, as a near cause, opportunity has a more powerful and immediate effect on crime than criminal dispositions formed many years distant. (Distinguishing between near and far causes provided a solution to Barbara Wootton’s problem of infinitely regressive causes, which had much influenced the Home Office researcher’s earlier reluctance to engage with the problem of cause). Tilley reinforced Ekblom’s position by insisting that the mechanisms through which a cause was supposed to exert its effect should always be clearly specified (see Tilley & Laycock, 2002), which again favored opportunities over dispositions because the causal mechanisms of situation and opportunities were so much shorter and easier to chart. Following a different line of argument, though one that endorsed the practical value of focusing on reducing crime opportunities, James Q. Wilson (1975) stated that if criminologists persisted in framing theories in terms of “causes” that could not be changed (e.g., maternal deprivation or relative deprivation), they would be consigned to policy irrelevance.

Apart from these theoretical arguments there had been a considerable accumulation of reports showing sometimes quite sudden and considerable declines in crime following the application of SCP. Spurred by these successes, Gloria Laycock, then Head of the Police Research Group in the Home Office, commissioned Felson and Clarke (1998), both of whom at the time were working in America, to write a report for the Home Office entitled Opportunity Makes the Thief. This title implied a much stronger causal role of opportunity in crime than claimed in earlier Home Office publications. Laycock believed that the existence of this new publication, and the substantial evidence it reviewed, would be valuable in persuading reluctant policymakers and practitioners to back SCP projects.

Felson and Clarke’s (1998) assertions about the important role of opportunity in causing crime relied heavily on research on homicide and suicide. Homicide is usually thought to be driven by strong motivation, but opportunity explains why the risk of being murdered in the United States is four to five times greater than in the United Kingdom (see Table 1; P. M. Mayhew, personal communication, November 22, 2015). This difference is due to the widespread availability in the United States of guns, particularly handguns—a situational cause of homicide—and is not due any greater criminal inclination in the U.S. population. In fact, rates of burglary, car theft, and several other important categories of crime are lower in the United States than in the United Kingdom (Farrington, Langan, & Tonry, 2004).

Table 1. Gun and Non-Gun Homicides in England and Wales and in the United States, 2009–2013

No. of Homicides

Annual Rate (Per 1 Million Population)


Type of Murder

England and Walesa

United Statesb

England and Walesc

United Statesd

England and Wales:United States

All gun
























Notes: (a) Figures for England and Wales relate to the year April 2009 to March 2010, etc.

(b) Annual average population for mid-year 2009–2013: United States, 311.59 million; England and Wales, 56.12 million.

(c) Figures for England and Wales relate to offenses currently recorded as homicide in which firearms were reported to have been used.

(d) Figures for the United States involve some extrapolation from homicides for which weapon was known.

Sources: England and Wales, Home Office (2009/10 and 2010/11); Office of National Statistics (2011/12—2013/14); United States Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Like homicide, suicide is commonly thought to be committed only by desperately motivated people, but there is conclusive proof that situational factors play an important causal role in suicide (Clarke & Lester, 1989). The most important evidence comes from a study of suicide in England and Wales between 1958 and 1977 (Clarke & Mayhew, 1988). During this period the detoxification of the gas supplied to people’s homes brought about a reduction of one quarter in the number of suicides. In 1958 almost exactly half of the 5,298 people who committed suicide poisoned themselves with gas—to use the common expression of the day, they put their heads in the oven. Changes in the manufacturing process for gas in the 1960s substantially reduced the amount of carbon monoxide in the domestic gas supply, and in the 1970s carbon monoxide was completely removed when manufactured gas was replaced by natural gas from the North Sea. As a result, in 1976, only 0.4% of the 3,816 suicides used domestic gas (see Table 2). This demonstrates that the ready availability of a lethal means of suicide that has significant advantages over other methods of killing oneself (gas required little preparation, older people could readily use it, and it involved no pain, blood, or disfigurement) can lead more people to kill themselves than would otherwise be the case.

Table 2. Suicides in England and Wales 1958–1976 (Alternate Years)


All Methods

By Domestic Gas

% by Gas









































Source: Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (1958–1977).

Crime Is Always a Choice

Offenders always seek to benefit themselves by crime even if the choice is heavily “bounded” by limitations of information, by emotion, by drugs or alcohol, and by a host of other factors that result in offenders making less-than-optimal decisions. This is the theory of “bounded rationality” (Simon, 1955, 1978) that underpins behavioral economics and many other social sciences (Kahneman, 2003), including environmental criminology. It implies that most offenders are much the same as everybody else. Even those few offenders whose motivations are clearly pathological—serial murderers, for example—show considerable evidence of “rationality” in their planning and efforts to avoid capture.

A Crime-Specific Focus Is Fundamental to Understanding the Role of Situational Factors in Crime

A focus on dispositions, supported by evidence that persistent offenders commit a variety of different crimes, has allowed traditional criminology to neglect the very important differences among crimes. Thus, the dependent variable in much criminological research has been “crime” or “delinquency.” This ignores the subjective experience of offenders, who commit rape for very different reasons than they do burglary or stealing cars. It also ignores the decisions they make in committing these crimes: how to achieve their objectives in the simplest, easiest, and least risky ways. These decisions are largely driven by the features of the situation—features that offenders perceive and evaluate—which vary greatly from crime to crime. In fact, in making distinctions between crimes, it is not enough to rely on broad legal definitions such as burglary and auto theft, since these categories include within them quite different forms of crime. This is illustrated by research undertaken by Poyner and Webb (1991), who found that residential burglaries committed in the suburbs of a British city were quite different from those committed in the city center; furthermore, these two kinds of burglaries required different preventive solutions. Thus, city center burglaries were committed by offenders on foot, looking for cash and jewelry. Because most of the housing was built in terraces (“row houses” in America), the burglars gained entry through the front door or windows. Poyner and Webb (1991) suggested that these burglaries could be prevented by improving security and surveillance at the front of the houses. Suburban burglars, on the other hand, used cars and were looking for electronic goods such as videocassette players and TVs. They were more likely to enter the back of the house than the front. They needed cars to get to the suburbs and to transport the stolen goods. The cars had to be parked near to the house, but not so close as to attract attention. Poyner and Webb's (1991) preventive suggestions for these burglaries included better surveillance of parking places and improved security at the back of houses. In addition, they suggested that the police should crack down on fencing of stolen goods, particularly electronic items—a tactic that would have little effect on the inner-city burglars who were primarily targeting cash and jewelry.

Crime Is Heavily Concentrated

Opportunities for crime are not uniformly distributed over time and space. They follow the distribution and routine movements of populations, and they are heavily restricted by formal and informal security. However, there are still many situations in which opportunities for crime are easy and tempting. This results in the concentration of crime at particular places (“hot spots”; Sherman, Gartin, & Buerger, 1989), on particular people (“repeat victims”; Farrell & Pease, 1993), on particular products (“hot products”; Clarke, 1999), and at particular establishments, premises, and facilities (“risky facilities”; Eck, Clarke, & Guerette, 2007). Focusing on crime concentrations enables those designing situational interventions to obtain the greatest preventive benefits from their actions rather than spreading interventions where they are not needed.

Crime Can Be Reduced (Sometimes Immediately and Dramatically) by Situational Changes

Every form of crime, however serious, can be reduced by increasing its difficulties and risks, by reducing its rewards, and by removing its provocations and excuses (Cornish & Clarke, 2003). As argued above, there is little doubt, for example, that stringent gun controls are responsible for the much lower rate of homicide in the United Kingdom than in the United States. In fact, it is often easier to change the situations giving rise to crime than to prevent the development of criminal tendencies (or, using Ekblom’s [1994] distinction, it is easier to change the near rather than the distant causes of crime). In addition, situational changes can result in immediate reductions in crime, whereas attempts to prevent the development of dispositions might take many years to bear fruit, if they ever do.

It is often argued, however, that environmental crime prevention cannot work because it does not seek to change deep-seated motivations. However, SCP pays close attention to the many common motives and situational inducements driving offenders’ decisions that can often be inferred from the circumstances of the crime (see Table 3). Though a fuller understanding of such motives can often assist situational prevention, this is not always the case. For example, traffic engineers wanting to stop commuters speeding on a stretch of road do not need to mount detailed studies of the causes for speeding. All they need to do is introduce speed bumps and, as long as they do this carefully with full awareness of other nearby routes that drivers might take instead, speeding will be reduced. This may seem a trivial example, but the same point can be made about some measures introduced in the United States in the 1980s to reduce random homicides. These measures consisted of tamper-proof packaging for all medicines and foods in response to an outbreak of deaths resulting from the purchase of painkillers laced with cyanide. The murderers were never caught, and their motives remain obscure, but a straightforward if sweeping opportunity-reducing initiative eliminated future occurrences (Clarke & Newman, 2005).

Table 3. Common Motives for Crime

To obtain money or goods

To gain access to services

To gain pleasure from intoxication

To obtain sexual gratification

To obtain excitement, fun, or thrills

To relieve boredom

To achieve peer approval, admiration, and status

To prove toughness and bravery

To show off or gain attention

To reduce tension due to anger, anxiety, or frustration

To escape or avoid aversive situations

To make someone suffer or become frightened

To gain compliance with orders or wishes

To assert dominance or control

To hurt an enemy

To avenge an insult or gain revenge for harm

Applying SCP in Practice

In addition to making the case for situational prevention, the theory discussed above informs the following principles to guide situational prevention projects.

  1. 1. Try to change the “near,” situational causes of crime, rather than the “distant” dispositional causes: Changing near causes is more likely to succeed in reducing crime because the link between cause and effect is more direct. It will also achieve a more immediate effect on crime than efforts to change “distant” causes such as upbringing or psychological disadvantage. Changing distant causes can only bring crime-prevention benefits in the future, whereas reducing opportunities can result in immediate reductions in crime.

  2. 2. Focus on very specific categories of crime: A situational prevention project will only succeed when it is focused on a highly specific category of crime, such as juvenile joyriding, rather than some broader category of crime such as “juvenile delinquency” or car thefts. This is because the opportunity structures for any specific category of crime are quite different from those of another, even ones that seem similar. It may also be committed for different motives, by different offenders with quite different resources and skills.

  3. 3. Understand how the crime is committed: We have seen that Poyner and Webb (1991) made useful suggestions for preventing the two different forms of burglary they studied in a British city when they understood how these were committed and what goods were being sought. Notice that they did not spend time researching why the burglars wanted to steal goods. It was enough to know that there are always some individuals who will steal things from other people’s homes.

    In seeking to understand how a specific form of crime is committed, it is important to adopt the offender’s perspective—seeing the task from the offender’s point of view. Sometimes interviews with offenders to ask them about their methods can be helpful, as long as the interviews concentrate on modus operandi and do not stray into more general questions about the offender’s background (Decker, 2005). When interviews cannot be undertaken, an alternative is to “think thief” (Ekblom, 2012). This means putting oneself in the shoes of the offender and thinking through in detail the decisions that must be made to complete the crime.

  4. 4. Recognize that committing a crime is often a process that extends over time: Seeking to understand how a crime is committed reveals another important fact for prevention—committing a crime is not a simple matter of snatching a bag or pocketing goods in a store. Rather, it consists of a “script,” a linked series of steps, each of which involves decisions by the offender (Cornish, 1994; Leclerc, 2017). To take the example of shoplifting, offenders have to decide which stores to hit, which goods to steal, how to take these goods without being seen, how to conceal them, how to escape from the store without being caught, how to sell them, what price to ask, to whom to sell them, and how to avoid the goods being traced back to them. For some crimes, of course—take the example of theft of cars for export—the process is much longer and more complicated. The important point is that understanding how a crime is committed helps in finding points of intervention to make the crime more difficult, risky, or less rewarding. And the more detailed the understanding of the process, the richer and more diverse will be the possibilities for intervention.

  5. 5. Use an action-research model: Situational prevention belongs to a family of similar preventive approaches deriving from environmental criminology, including Design Against Crime (DAC; Ekblom, 2017a) and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED; Armitage, 2017). The main difference between situational prevention and these two approaches is that situational prevention seeks to eliminate existing problems, whereas DAC and CPTED seek to eliminate anticipated problems in new designs on the basis of past experience with similar designs. In fact, the problem-solving methodology of situational prevention is shared by another preventive approach, problem-oriented policing (see below). In both cases, the problem-solving methodology is a form of “action research” in which the problem is studied, hypotheses about the main determinants are developed, a range of solutions are identified and studied, the chosen measures are put into place, and the results are then evaluated.

  6. 6. Consider a variety of solutions: The following section of this paper will discuss the final stage of the action research model—evaluation of situational prevention. This section deals with the choice of preventive solutions. As mentioned, a detailed understanding of the sequential steps involved in committing the crime will yield many possible points of intervention. Generally speaking, a situational prevention project is more effective when it adopts a package of measures, each of which is directed to a particular point of the process of committing the crime. This is illustrated by the discussion above of Poyner and Webb’s (1991) recommendations to stop suburban burglaries. To assist the process of selecting solutions, researchers have classified the many different ways that exist to reduce crime opportunities (see Smith & Clarke, 2012). The latest classification (Table 4) shows 25 crime inhibitors grouped under the 5 main SCP mechanisms: increase the effort, increase the risks, reduce the rewards, reduce provocations, and remove excuses. Fuller descriptions of the crime inhibitors can be found in Clarke and Eck (2005).

Table 4: The Five Situational Crime Prevention Mechanisms and Twenty-Five Crime Inhibitors

I. Increase the Effort

II. Increase the Immediate Risks

III. Reduce the Rewards

IV. Reduce Provocations

V. Remove Excuses

1. Target harden

6. Extend guardianship

11. Conceal targets

16. Reduce frustrations and stress

21. Set rules

  • Steering column locks

  • Ignition immobilizers

  • Anti-robbery screens

  • Tamper-proof packaging

  • Go out in group at night

  • Leave signs of occupancy

  • Carry cell phone

  • Off-street parking

  • Gender-neutral phonebooks

  • Unmarked armored trucks

  • Efficient lines

  • Polite service

  • Expanded seating

  • Soothing music/muted lights

  • Rental agreements

  • Harassment codes

  • Hotel registration

2. Control access to facilities

7. Assist natural surveillance

12. Remove targets

17. Avoid disputes

22. Post Instructions

  • Entry phones

  • Electronic card access

  • Baggage screening

  • Improved street lighting

  • Defensible space design

  • Support whistleblowers

  • Removable car radio

  • Women’s shelters

  • Pre-paid payphone cards

  • Separate seating for rival soccer fans

  • Reduce crowding in bars

  • Fixed cab fees

  • “No Parking”

  • “Private Property”

  • “Extinguish camp fires”

3. Screen Exits

8. Reduce anonymity

13. Identify property

18. Reduce temptation and arousal

23. Alert conscience

  • Ticket needed for exit

  • Export documents

  • Electronic merchandise tags

  • Taxi driver IDs

  • “How’s my driving?” decals

  • School uniforms

  • Property marking

  • Vehicle licensing

  • Parts marking

  • Cattle branding

  • Control on violent pornography

  • Enforce good behavior on field

  • Prohibit racial slurs

  • Roadside speed displays

  • “Shoplifting is stealing”

  • Signatures for customs declarations

4. Deflect offenders

9. Use place managers

14. Deflect offenders

19. Neutralize peer pressure

24. Assist compliance

  • Street closures

  • Separate bathrooms for women

  • Disperse pubs

  • CCTV for double-deck buses

  • Two clerks for convenience stores

  • Reward vigilance

  • Monitor pawn shops

  • Control on classified ads

  • License street vendors

  • “Idiots drink and drive”

  • “It’s OK to say No”

  • Disperse school troublemakers

  • Easy library checkout

  • Public lavatories

  • Little receptacles

5. Control tools/weapons

10. Strengthen formal surveillance

15. Deny benefits

20. Control tools/weapons

25. Control drugs and alcohol

  • “Smart” guns

  • Restrict spray paint sales to kids

  • Toughened beer class

  • Red light cameras

  • Burglar alarms

  • Security guards

  • Ink merchandise tags

  • Graffiti cleaning

  • Disabling stolen cell phones

  • Rapid repair of vandalism

  • V-chips in TVs

  • Censor modus operandi details

  • Breathalyzers in bars

  • Server intervention programs

  • Alcohol-free events

Source: Adapted from Clarke and Eck (2003); and Cornish and Clarke (2003).

The Effectiveness of SCP

From its very beginnings SCP’s effectiveness was questioned on the dispositional grounds that it does not reduce crime but merely “displaces” it to some other place, time, method, target, or to a different form of crime altogether (Reppetto, 1976): given their disposition, if thwarted in the commission of one crime, offenders will simply commit another instead. Even the authors of Crime as Opportunity (Mayhew et al., 1976) dealt cautiously with this topic and reported evidence of displacement in the two empirical studies they undertook. In the years since that early publication, a great deal more has been learned about displacement, which can no longer be seen as the “Achilles heel” of SCP. An account of this accumulation of knowledge is given below.


With hindsight, it can be said that the displacement thesis was always overblown. Displacement is credible for some crimes, but not for all. Thus, it is highly unlikely that shoppers prevented from shoplifting at their local supermarket by new security measures would shop instead at some more distant store where they could continue to steal or would turn to mugging senior citizens. Shoplifting is easier to rationalize and much less risky than mugging. In fact, almost by definition, any instance of escalation is costlier for offenders. Some of them may be prepared to make more difficult rationalizations or run additional risks, but they will be in a minority. In fact, there are few documented cases of escalation in the literature. Ekblom (1987) found some evidence of increased use of firearms by robbers following the introduction of anti-bandit screens in London post offices, but these attacks were less successful than ones with sledgehammers or baseball bats and resulted in no more harm to postal workers. A few years ago, the police and others claimed that improved vehicle security, which had made it more difficult to steal unattended cars, had resulted in increased numbers of “carjackings.” In fact, carjackings might have increased, but the number of vehicles stolen by these means is a tiny fraction of the reduced number of car thefts by other means. (This might also be true of thefts and burglaries to obtain car keys, also said to be a consequence of improved vehicle security.) Any calculation of increased harm resulting from improved vehicle security would have to take account of these differences in the number of incidents. It is also possible that carjackings might have increased anyway, irrespective of improved security. Organized offenders can accomplish them quickly and might more easily obtain a high-value car by this method than by trying to find one left unattended on the street.

Developments in situational prevention theory have further undermined claims about the inevitability of displacement and the risks of escalation. If opportunity increases the amount of crime and crime can result from a variety of situational precipitators, there is every reason to believe that reducing these opportunities and inducements will result in real reductions in crime. In fact, this is the message of the empirical research. Thus, Guerette (2009) reported that in 206 SCP studies undertaken from 1970 to 2007, the authors of 154 (75%) concluded that the intervention was effective. Guerette and Bowers (2009) reported evidence relating to displacement from 102 evaluations of situational focused crime-prevention projects which involved analysis of 574 separate observations relating to potential effects of interventions on levels of crime at other times and places. Of these observations, displacement was reported only 26% of the time. When displacement did occur, it was generally observed at lower levels in comparison to the crime-reduction savings made in the intervention areas. In a systematic evidence review, Johnson, Bowers, and Guerette (2012) focused on 13 studies in which sufficient information was available for the quantitative calculation of effect sizes. Results suggested that geographic displacement was by no means inevitable for this type of intervention. It was rarely the case that crime increased in the potential displacement areas following intervention.

Most analyses of displacement have considered only the spatial or geographic variety described by Reppetto (1976), though there is some research on his other varieties. For example, Clarke, Kemper, and Wyckoff (2001) reported a study of method displacement to another kind of cell phone fraud, subscription fraud, when U.S. cell phone companies introduced a series of measures to bring an end to a crime wave of cell phone cloning in the 1990s. The lower line in Figure 1 shows the numbers of “subscription frauds” reported during the rise and fall of cloning. Second to cloning, these were the most common kind of cell phone fraud during the period. They involved obtaining telephone service through the provision of a false name and/or address. These frauds increased throughout the period, in line with increases in cell phone use and apparently quite independently of cloning frauds. Always at a relatively low level, they showed little sign of increasing to compensate for the reduction in cloning that began in 1996, probably because such subscription fraud would be difficult to reproduce on a wide scale and would therefore not be attractive to criminal groups. On the other hand, cloned phones were “mass-produced” by criminals who had learned how to acquire hundreds of legitimate phone numbers and program them into stolen phones.

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Figure 1. Semi-annual Cell Phone Fraud Losses, United States, June 1992–December 1999 (From Clarke, Kemper, & Wykoff, 2001).

While this study clearly shows that there was little if any displacement to other forms of cell phone fraud, it illustrates an inherent weakness of research on displacement—it is nearly impossible to prove conclusively that displacement has not occurred. According to Barr and Pease (1990, p. 293):

If, in truth, displacement is complete, some displaced crime will probably fall outside the areas and types of crime being studied or be so dispersed as to be masked by background variation… . The wider the scope of the study in terms of types of crimes and places, the thinner the patina of displaced crime could be spread across them; thus disappearing into the realm of measurement error.

Thus, in the cloning example above, it is possible that the offenders involved might have turned to fraud not involving cell phones; it is also possible, however, that many of them were not exclusively dependent on crime for a living. It might have been a sideline for them, or merely a way of making money for a time. When cloning was closed down, they might have had to make do with reduced income—as we all must from time to time—or they might have turned their energies to legitimate ways of making money. Such positive outcomes from the application of situational prevention become conceivable once freed from dispositional assumptions about crime.

Diffusion of Benefits, Anticipatory Benefits, and Adaptation

Another possible outcome of situational prevention is diffusion of benefits. Sometimes described as the reverse of displacement, the term refers to the fact that SCP can often bring about reductions in crime beyond the immediate focus of the measures introduced (Clarke & Weisburd, 1994). This greatly enhances the practical appeal of situational prevention, as the phenomenon is quite general (see examples in Table 5). In Guerette and Bower’s (2009) review, diffusion of benefits was found in 39 of the 102 studies. The explanation for diffusion seems to be that potential offenders often know that new preventive measures have been introduced, but they are unsure of the precise scope of these measures or the extent to which they might be affected by them.

Table 5. Evaluated Examples of Diffusion of Benefits

Security added to houses that had been repeatedly burglarized in Kirkholt reduced burglaries for the whole of the estate, not just for those houses given additional protection (Pease, 1991).

When street lighting was improved in a large housing estate in Dudley, crime declined in both that estate and a nearby one where the lighting was not changed (Painter & Farrington 1997).

When “red light” cameras were installed at some traffic lights in Strathclyde, fewer people “ran the lights” not only at these locations, but also at other nearby traffic lights (Scottish Office Central Research Unit, 1995).

CCTV cameras installed to monitor car parks at the University of Surrey reduced car crime as much in one not covered by the cameras as in the three that were covered (Poyner, 1991).

As expected, electronic tagging of books in a University of Wisconsin library resulted in reduced book thefts. However, thefts of videocassettes and other materials that had not been tagged also declined (Scherdin, 1986).

When a New Jersey electronics retailer introduced a daily counting regime of valuable merchandise in the warehouse, employee thefts of these items plummeted—but thefts also plummeted of items not repeatedly counted (Masuda, 1992).

When vehicle tracking systems were introduced in six large U.S. cities, rates of theft declined citywide, not just for car owners who purchased the tracking devices (Ayres & Levitt, 1998).

Widespread ownership of burglar alarms in an affluent community near Philadelphia resulted in reduced burglary rates for the community at large (Hakim et al., 1995).

Apart from displacement and diffusion, two other important consequences of SCP interventions have been identified in the literature. The first is “anticipatory benefits,” whereby publicity about new measures and preparations for their introduction results in decreases in crime immediately before the measures are actually implemented. Smith et al. (2002) found that 22 (40%) out of 52 SCP studies that allowed the identification of anticipatory benefits did indeed show evidence of such benefits. The second of these consequences is “adaptation” (Ekblom, 2017b), which refers to the fact that the offender population sometimes discovers vulnerabilities after preventive measures have been in place for some time. This differs from displacement in that offenders who discover these vulnerabilities are not the same ones whose crimes were originally targeted by the SCP measures.

One well-documented example of adaptation is found in the work of Levi and colleagues (Levi, Bissel, & Richardson, 1991; Levi & Handley, 1998) on the prevention of credit card fraud. They have shown how a partnership between the police, the Home Office, and the banks led to successful action in the mid-1990s to reduce credit card frauds. The measures included new lower limits for retailers seeking authorization of transactions and tightened procedures for mailing new credit cards to customers. These measures succeeded in reducing fraud losses, but Figure 2 shows that these have climbed again in recent years. This is due principally to the growth in “card not present” frauds (including Internet, telephone, and mail order sales) and some increase in counterfeiting of cards (the latter was reduced by the introduction of chip-and-pin technology in the United Kingdom beginning in 2006). These patterns of increase and decrease in frauds illustrate offender adaptation rather than displacement because it is highly unlikely that many of those offenders using simple thefts of cards to commit frauds in the 1980s graduated more than 20 years later to counterfeiting of cards.

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Figure 2. Annual Fraud Losses on U.K.-Issued Credit Cards (Data from Financial Fraud Action UK’s “Fraud the Facts 2016” Report).

Evaluations of SCP

By now, SCP has accumulated a considerable record of success, with many dozens of evaluated case studies. Table 6 illustrates the variety and scope of initiatives using SCP, which studies have found to be successful.2

Table 6. Scope and Range of Successful SCP Projects

Responsible drinking practices in Australia

Street closures to prevent drive-by shootings in Los Angeles

Video cameras in housing for retired persons

Anti-cloning measures for U.S cell phones

Alley gates to reduce burglaries in Liverpool

Airline baggage and passenger screening

Cash reduction in U.S. convenience stores

Anti-robbery screens in London post offices

Automated checking of income by applicants for housing subsidies in Sweden

Systematic cleaning of graffiti on New York City subway cars

Electronic and ink tags on merchandise in U.S. clothing stores

Speed cameras and random breath tests in Australia

Exact change and drop safes on U.S. buses to prevent robbery of bus drivers

Safes with time locks to prevent betting shop robberies in Australia

Removal of gas and electric coin meters from council houses in England to prevent burglary

Most of the evaluations of SCP have been quasi-experimental, making use of before-and-after comparisons or simple time series designs with or without controls. These are weak evaluation designs according to the “what works” Maryland criteria (Sherman et al., 1999), and situational prevention is frequently criticized for its lack of randomized controlled trials, the supposed “gold standard” of evaluation. In fact, it is difficult to assign situational interventions randomly. An important reason is that many, if not most of these interventions are implemented by businesses and local authorities, which typically would not accord a high priority to evaluation when introducing new measures. Most would see evaluation as an academic luxury because they would not commit to the considerable costs and inconvenience of introducing situational measures if they did not “know” these to be effective. They would also generally choose to focus the measures where they might be expected to have the greatest effect rather than in places dictated by random assignment. Thus, all the usual difficulties of obtaining their cooperation and consent to an evaluation would be significantly increased by the randomization requirement.

Even when it is possible to use random assignment, it would rarely be possible to do so under the “double-blind” conditions that make these designs so useful in evaluating new drugs. (Double-blind studies control for the “halo” effects of a new treatment by ensuring that the clinicians and those treated do not know who has received the drug and who the placebo.) Situational interventions are much harder to conceal. For example, in a study where improved street lighting was randomly allocated between different neighborhoods, this would be immediately obvious to those who received the improved lighting and to those that did not. An additional difficulty of using random assignment in evaluating situational prevention is that it is not immediately clear how this could be combined with designs that permit the comprehensive study of displacement, diffusion of benefits, anticipatory benefits, and adaptation.

There are two other, perhaps more important, reasons why random allocation could never serve routinely as the preferred evaluative strategy for situational prevention—the much greater cost of prospectively undertaking random allocation studies compared with retrospective quasi-experimental designs and the huge number of “treatments” that need to be evaluated. For example, just one of the 25 crime inhibitors, “identifying property,” includes police property marking programs, Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN), vehicle license plates and identifying documents, cattle branding, RFID tags for manufactured goods, RFID tags for children, pets and livestock, and many other specific measures. There would never be enough research money or qualified researchers to undertake the volume of work required to evaluate all these measures, even if using only quasi-experimental designs. The prospect of relying exclusively on randomized evaluations rapidly fades when one adds the need to study the effects of the measures in combination, their effects in different kinds of settings, and the need to undertake replications of individual studies.

“Cliff Edge” Studies

Fortunately, the drops in crime achieved by situational prevention are often so precipitous that there can be no doubt the interventions have been effective. Ross (2013) has called these “cliff edge” effects, of which there are two main kinds:

“Crime drop” studies are those of an ongoing high crime rate that suddenly falls after an intervention. One clear example is Clarke and Mayhew’s (1988) study showing that a substantial drop in the overall numbers of suicides in England and Wales resulted from the progressively reduced toxic content of domestic gas supplied to people’s homes.

“Crime wave” studies examine a specific form of crime that quickly rises and then drops precipitously after the intervention. The most striking examples of these studies concern measures to reduce terrorism, the first of which was the introduction in the early 1970s of passenger and baggage screening measures to reduce a sudden spike in aircraft hijackings (Clarke & Newman, 2006). These measures led immediately to a precipitate drop in the number of hijackings, first for American airliners and then for those belonging to other countries. Furthermore, there was no evidence of any displacement to bombings of airliners (Table 7). Consistent with Nagin and Weisburd (2013), the evaluation required no detailed statistical treatment of the data since the intervention’s effect was clearly evident in a simple time series. After the intervention, hijackings returned to previously low levels, especially when taking account of the vast increase in hijacking opportunities resulting from expansion of air travel. This pattern of success was broken only by the 9/11 terrorist attacks when, through a process of adaptation, the hijackers discovered new ways to defeat the passenger-screening measures introduced in the early 1970s.

Table 7. Airliner Hijackings and Sabotage Bombings, 1961–2003


Number of Years

Mean Hijackings Per Year

Mean Sabotage Bombings Per Year












































Source: Clarke & Newman (2006).

The second “crime wave” terrorism study was an evaluation of the West Bank barrier that the Israeli government began to construct in 2003 to prevent suicide bombing attacks (Perry, Apel, Newman, & Clarke, 2016). Figure 3 shows that after a rapid increase in 2000–2002 during the Second Intifada, suicide bombings abruptly began to decline in 2003 when only 26% of the barrier had been completed. Further declines in suicide bombings occurred during 2004–2007, when they had been all but eliminated, with only 88% of the barrier completed. The study also showed widespread declines in other kinds of terrorist attacks committed both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories against Israeli targets, attesting to very high diffusion of benefits.

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Figure 3. Suicide Bombings in Israel, 1999–2011, and the Percentage Completed of the West Bank Barrier (Adapted from Perry, Apel, Newman, & Clarke, 2016).

Future Evaluation Needs

Perhaps the most pressing need is to promote alternatives to the Maryland “what works” criteria (Sherman et al., 1999) for evaluating SCP. These criteria, advocating randomized controlled trials (RCTs), have been successfully marketed as the only basis for evidence-based policymaking in criminal justice, and because very few RCTs have been undertaken of SCP interventions, the Maryland criteria seriously disadvantage SCP. At best, SCP interventions are rated as “promising,” which takes no account of the powerful “cliff edge” findings mentioned above. This is not merely academically indefensible. The more serious problem is that by relying on the Maryland criteria, policymakers and practitioners are deprived of information about SCP interventions that would help them judge how, when, and where to implement these interventions in dealing with troublesome crime problems.

In fact, two evaluation frameworks that provide alternatives to the Maryland criteria have been proposed, both of which would provide much richer and more helpful information about the internal validity of SCP interventions. The first of these is a framework making use of “crime signatures” (Eck & Madensen, 2009), which, based on changes in crime patterns, indicates changes in the opportunity structures of specific crimes being addressed in SCP. This framework has been used in evaluations of the security hypothesis (see below). The second alternative evaluation framework, EMMIE (Johnson, Tilley, & Bowers, 2015), which is based on realist evaluation principles (Pawson & Tilley, 1997), focuses on the mechanisms through which interventions achieve their effects. EMMIE is being used by a consortium of universities led by University College London in collaboration with the U.K. College of Policing to undertake systematic reviews of SCP interventions (see, e.g., the systematic review of studies on alley-gating; Sidebottom et al., 2017). Wider use of these evaluation frameworks will undoubtedly strengthen confidence in the ability of SCP to reduce crime problems and will also provide helpful advice on implementing SCP to policymakers and practitioners.

A second pressing evaluation need is to undertake longer follow-up studies so as to learn more about possible attrition of benefits resulting from criminal adaptation (Ekblom, 2017a; Ekblom & Tilley, 2000) or implementation “fatigue.” A third need is to undertake more cost-benefit studies of SCP, of which there have been too few in the past.3

Finally, rather than attempting to evaluate every variant of SCP, evaluations should be used strategically to strengthen the theory and practice of situational prevention. Improved theory will help policymakers and practitioners make informed choices about how to proceed when dealing with a new crime problem. They would be helped in particular by improved knowledge about (1) which kinds of crimes are least susceptible to situational prevention, (2) which of the 25 crime inhibitors are most effective and under which conditions, (3) how to predict displacement and capitalize on diffusion of benefits, and (4) how to increase the sustainability of SCP measures.

Allied Preventive Approaches

As mentioned, support for the development of SCP was drawn from the existence of two other preventive approaches founded on reducing opportunities for crime and disorder: C. Ray Jeffery’s (1971) crime prevention through environmental design and Oscar Newman’s (1972) defensible space. Since then, many other opportunity-reducing approaches have been developed, formulated for particular constituencies of users (Clarke, 2010). Space does not allow all these to be discussed here, and the discussion below is focused on two approaches most closely linked with SCP: problem-oriented policing and designing out crime from products.

Problem-Oriented Policing

The first article on problem-oriented policing (Goldstein, 1979) was published almost at the same time as the first publication on SCP (Clarke, 1980), but their origins were quite different. SCP originated in criminological theory, whereas problem-oriented policing was rooted in organizational theory. It emerged from a body of research that called into question the value of conventional policing strategies in achieving police objectives. In Goldstein’s (1979) view, this crisis in policing was the result of undue focus on the “means” of policing (random patrol, fast response, and detective work) to the expense of the “ends” of policing. He redefined these ends, stating that the function of policing is to address “problems” that the public brings to police attention. His prescription was that police become scientific—that they identify problems, subject them to careful analysis, engage in a broad search for potential solutions, and then determine if the implemented solutions reduced the problem (Scott & Goldstein, 2012). This prescription, essentially the same action–research process adopted by SCP, was later formulated by Eck and Spelman (1987) as the SARA (Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment) model.

Largely because of their different origins, on different sides of the Atlantic, the two approaches evolved independently for many years. However, today the link between them

is taken for granted by those involved in crime prevention. The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing contains educational materials on Situational Crime Prevention (as well as other environmental criminology/crime sciences theories), and Ronald V. Clarke is one of the co-directors of the center. Most of the finalists for either the Goldstein Awards for Problem-Solving Excellence and the UK’s Tilley Awards for Problem-Solving Excellence contain elements of Situational Crime Prevention. Not surprisingly, problem-solving training often has a hefty dose of Situational Crime Prevention. The two crime analysis manuals for police devote a large proportion of the content to rational choice and Situational Crime Prevention… .The annual Environmental Criminology and Crime Analysis conference routinely has papers on Problem-Oriented Policing. And the series Crime Prevention Studies … contains many papers on Problem-Oriented Policing, including 2 of the 26 volumes explicitly devoted to Problem-Oriented Policing.

(Eck & Madensen, 2012, p. 80)

Herman Goldstein played a large part in engineering this link, which was facilitated by Clarke’s move to the United States in 1984. The two had met previously and were aware of each other’s work, but in 1995 Goldstein began a deliberate effort to involve Clarke in problem-oriented policing when he invited him to attend the annual problem-oriented policing conference in San Diego. Soon after in 1997, he facilitated the award of a National Institute of Justice visiting fellowship to Clarke to allow him to examine whether the quality of problem-oriented policing projects could be improved by an infusion of SCP and related criminological concepts. In addition, Goldstein encouraged the Police Executive Research Forum to appoint Clarke as chair of the Herman Goldstein Awards for Excellence in Policing. For his part, Clarke welcomed the attention that Goldstein gave to SCP, which had been met with only limited interest among criminologists in the United States. He also recognized that, while Goldstein was disappointed with the take-up of problem-oriented policing, it was nevertheless being pursued enthusiastically by some large police forces, and he thought that these might also be open to making use of SCP’s experience of analysis and assessment in improving their projects. In other words, problem-oriented policing might be the vehicle for putting SCP into practice in the United States.

Clarke and Goldstein’s most extensive collaboration took place in 1999–2001, when the chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, Police Department (CMPD) secured funding from the U.S. Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (“COPS Office”) to appoint Goldstein as a loosely defined “professor in residence” (Scott & Goldstein, 2012). To assist the CMPD in its ambitious problem-oriented policing efforts, Goldstein brought in Clarke—again with the support of the COPS Office—to sharpen the analytical rigor of the CMPD’s problem-solving efforts, especially with regard to evaluation. The most tangible result of this investment was reports on the police response to two large crime problems: thefts from construction sites (Clarke & Goldstein, 2002) and thefts from vehicles in parking facilities (Clarke & Goldstein, 2003). It is from these beginnings that the links between SCP and problem-oriented policing described above by Eck and Madensen (2012) flowered so fruitfully in the first decades of the 21st century.

Designing Out Crime From Products

The first major project developed by the Home Office research team that produced Crime as Opportunity (Mayhew et al., 1976) was an attempt to validate Oscar Newman’s (1972) prescriptions for designing out crime from the built environment—in this case to explore whether vandalism on council housing estates ( “public housing projects” in American terms) was related to features of their design (Wilson, 1978). As the findings were disappointing, this project was not succeeded by others concerned with the design of the physical environment. However, contemporaneously with this project, a brief paper entitled “A Crime-Free Car?” was published by Paul Ekblom (1979) in the Home Office Research Bulletin. This was the first paper by SCP researchers on designing out crime from products. The topic was revisited intermittently during the ensuing years, culminating in Paul Ekblom’s (2017a) extensive effort to engage directly with the world of design professionals, which involved his moving from the Design Against Crime Centre in the Home Office to take up a post at Central St Martin’s School of Art. Leaving aside Ekblom’s work with designers, the work on designing out crime from products can be summarized under two headings: improving vehicle security and crime-proofing products.

Improving Vehicle Security

Ekblom’s (1979) paper on the crime-free car sank almost without a trace, but the idea was resuscitated when the Home Office Crime Prevention Unit undertook a study (Southall & Ekblom, 1985) on the feasibility of installing security devices during manufacture instead of relying on post-sale devices installed by car owners. Again, this was ignored by policymakers and academics, even though the British Crime Survey and various academic studies (e.g., Clarke & Harris, 1992) continued to document the large contribution that car theft made to recorded crime in Britain. It was also ignored by the car manufacturers, whose general position was that improved vehicle security would not cut car theft and the public were not interested in paying for it. Their job was to build cars that people could afford; it was not their job, but that of the police and the criminal justice system, to deter crime.

In fact, little more was done to improve vehicle security until the Home Office Crime Prevention Unit, headed by Gloria Laycock, commissioned the first Car Theft Index (Houghton, 1992), which documented wide variability in the theft rates of different makes and models of cars. As Laycock reports, the effect of publishing the Car Theft Index was dramatic:

The most senior government officer in the Home Office, the Home Secretary of the day, invited the major manufacturers into the Home Office to be presented with the results. There was a great deal of media interest with extensive press and TV coverage. As a result, the security of vehicles became much more of a marketing issue than it had been until then, and the manufacturers began to incorporate more sophisticated security, such as deadlocks and engine immobilisers, into the design of the more economical, and thus more numerous cars in production.

(Laycock, 2004, pp. 36–37)

The awakening of purchasers’ interest in car security, combined with pressure from insurers and consumer organizations, ensured that the importance of vehicle security has never receded, with a European Union Directive in 1995 mandating that electronic immobilizers should be fitted to all new vehicles. The positive benefits of improvements in vehicle security have been documented in a wide variety of studies, including Farrell, Tseloni, and Tilley (2011) and van Ours and Vollard (2016).

Crime-Proofing Products

Products play two important roles in crime. Guns, telephones, and credit cards can serve as tools to aid the commission of crimes such as violence and fraud, and products can be the targets of crimes such as theft, counterfeiting, and vandalism. Criminologists took little interest in either role until Cohen and Felson (1979) summarized the attributes of target vulnerability in their classic account of routine activity theory. They defined suitable targets for crime in terms of their value, inertia, visibility, and accessibility, which they encapsulated in the acronym VIVA. VIVA was described in a single paragraph and was not meant to be definitive. Furthermore, it included any kind of crime and all targets of crime—people as well as objects.

Some 20 years later, Clarke (1999) built on VIVA to develop CRAVED (Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable, and Disposable), a model intended specifically for theft. Clarke’s purpose was to explain why theft was heavily concentrated on a relatively few “hot products” that, once identified, might be capable of being modified to reduce their vulnerability to theft. He defined products broadly to include not just manufactured goods but also food, animals, and works of art. In subsequent research, CRAVED has been found helpful in explaining various forms of theft, including bag thefts in licensed premises (Smith, Bowers, & Johnson, 2006), domestic burglaries (Wellsmith & Burrell, 2005), and timber thefts in the Appalachians (Baker, 2003). It has also been found useful in studies that have analyzed theft of livestock in Malawi (Sidebottom, 2012), poaching of parrot species in Mexico (Pires & Clarke, 2012), and illegally fished species worldwide (Petrossian & Clarke, 2014). It has also inspired more specific theft models such as IN SAFE HANDS (cell phone security features; Whitehead et al., 2008) and AT CUT PRICES (theft of fast moving consumer goods; Gill & Clarke, 2012).

In response to increased academic interest in designing out crime for products, two edited volumes of Crime Prevention Studies collected various studies on the topic. Volume 18 in the series (Clarke & Newman, 2005a) focused on broad reviews and policy issues. Thus, Clarke and Newman’s (2005b) own chapter in the volume reported that manufacturers and retailers had modified many hundreds of products to protect themselves from theft but not to protect consumers who bought their products. Clarke and Newman went on to examine the ways in which governments could persuade manufacturers through taxes and incentives to pay more attention to protecting their customers from theft of goods that they had purchased. Volume 27 in the series (Ekblom, 2012) also dealt with general issues concerning crime-proofing of products (e.g., the growth of academic centers dealing with the topic), but notably several chapters described the development and evaluation of research-led attempts to crime-proof everyday products. These included clips for tables in bars and restaurants to prevent handbag thefts, redesigned supermarket trolleys to prevent bag theft, improved packaging to reduce counterfeiting, and more secure bike stands. The academic work on hot products also had some influence on policy, specifically on design-oriented aspects of the UK Foresight Programme (DTI, 2000), which in turn inspired a European-funded, international study (Project MARC; Armitage & Pease, 2008) exploring the practicalities of crime-proofing domestic electronic products at the design stage.

While much of the work on designing out crime from products is of specialized interest, two concepts deserve wider dissemination. The first is Clarke and Felson’s (1998) four-stage process of product development and related theft, which drew on earlier work by Pease (1997). In the first, innovation stage the product is sold to a group of early adopters. It may be expensive, difficult to use, relatively heavy, and awkward. That explains why the early computers were not likely to be stolen. In the second, growth stage products become easier to use, cheaper to buy, lighter, and less awkward to carry. More people learn how to use them and come to want one, and thefts therefore accelerate. That is what happened as the desk computer morphed into the laptop. In the third, mass market stage the product becomes more widely appealing, more units are sold, and theft becomes endemic. By the fourth, saturation stage most people who really want the product have it, and thefts decline. For example, hand calculators, once prized possessions, now sell for a few dollars and are mostly safe on your desk with the door open. A fifth, refinement stage might be added to Clarke and Felson’s list. This is when manufacturers make successive improvements to particular hot products such as cell phones and portable computers in a process documented by Gordon (2016) of continued refinement of the telephone, the automobile, computers, and other modern inventions. These refined products are bought by affluent consumers who want the convenience or prestige of owning them. At the same time, however, thieves who cannot afford to purchase these products steal them, producing mini-crime waves, such as followed the introduction of the iPhone.

“Elegant security” is a related, second concept deserving wider dissemination. Of more recent origin (Tilley, Farrell, & Clarke, 2015), it refers to the progressive but gradual improvements that have been made in the quality of the security for cars and homes. Early research showed little relationship between car theft and burglary and the numbers of homes and cars protected by security devices, but recent research has found a much stronger relationship (e.g., Tseloni et al., 2017). Tilley et al. (2015) demonstrate that this was due to an increase not in the quantity of security but in its quality. They suggest that the role of quality was easy to overlook when studying car theft because the new security devices that increased in quantity were also of higher quality. For household security, the picture was even more complex because many of the better-quality devices went by the same names as before—door and window locks in particular. The quality of newer replacement locks and windows, partly driven by double glazing and home insulation efforts, was less easy to measure directly. The wider importance of the concept of elegant security is that it captures the continuing efforts being made to distance security from its harsh early connotations of alarms, guard dogs, and barbed wire and which provided a vehicle for criticizing SCP.

Social and Ethical Criticisms of SCP

The supposed embrace of harsh and ugly security is just one of the many social and ethical criticisms made of SCP, which have often been framed in terms of “Big Brother” surveillance and the infringement of civil liberties. These criticisms have ignored the fact that an essential stage of an SCP project is to undertake a careful assessment of the social and ethical costs of any proposed situational intervention so as to avoid implementing interventions where the anticipated costs are incommensurate with the expected benefits.

The criticisms have been compounded by fears that SCP detracted from criminology’s mission of tackling the “root causes” of crime and preventing the development of delinquency. While not spelled out in detail in SCP’s early years, the criticisms were commonly discussed informally. In fact, the first in-depth critique of SCPs social and ethical limitations was contained in a collection of papers edited by von Hirsch, Garland, and Wakefield (2000). As it turned out, this critique was mostly rather benign, but since then critiques of SCP have burgeoned, mostly for its roots in “administrative criminology” and for ignoring the important causes of crime and the political context in which crime reduction sits (e.g., Hayward & Young, 2004; Hope, 2006; Huisman & van Erp, 2013; Tierney, 2009). Farrell (2010) comprehensively refuted one strongly worded critique (Hayward, 2007), and Knepper (2009, p. 16) argued that “situational crime prevention contributes more to social welfare than sceptics allow and its advocates (may) believe. In seeking to reduce criminal victimisation in council housing, it has spotlighted the crime effects of non-crime policies and improved the welfare state. In seeking to reduce criminal victimisation on public transport, it has enhanced the welfare state.” Finally, both Hough (2014) and Mayhew (2016) have mounted strong defenses of administrative criminology.

Despite their persistence, these attacks have not slowed SCP’s progress or its worldwide impact. Table 8 provides a summary of the criticisms with rebuttals.

Table 8. Common Social and Ethical Criticisms of SCP



Diverts attention from the root causes of crime.

Benefits society by achieving immediate reductions in crime. In any case, it is not known how to prevent crime by addressing root causes.

It is a conservative, managerial approach to crime.

Promises no more than it can deliver. It requires that solutions be economic and socially acceptable.

Ignores the need to punish offenders.

Increasing the severity of punishment does not prevent crime and results in severe social costs.

Punishes the law-abiding, not offenders, by restrictions on freedom.

Some freedoms should be restricted—speeding, driving and drinking, etc.

Serves the interests of the rich and neglects the poor.

Provides as much protection to the poor as to the rich, e.g., through defensible space planning for public housing, securing public transport, and addressing street crime.

Focuses too much on crime in the streets and ignores crime in the suites.

Originally true—in response to public fears—but no longer the case.

Promotes social exclusion.

Some private policing might have this result, but all situational prevention requires social costs—including social exclusion—to be assessed.

Displaces crime from rich to poor.

Even in those few cases when situational measures can only be afforded by the wealthy (e.g., vehicle tracking devices), they can result in diffusion of benefits to the less wealthy.

Leads offenders to escalate, to commit worse crimes.

This ignores the moral calculus engaged in by all offenders.

Encourages Big Brother surveillance and infringes the privacy of citizens.

The democratic process protects society from these dangers, and CCTV in particular has been widely accepted by citizens.

Makes life restrictive and inconvenient.

People are willing to endure inconvenience and small infringements of liberty when these protect them from crime and terrorism.

Degrades the environment through ugly target hardening.

Some of the most effective target hardening, such as the electronic vehicle immobilizer, is “invisible.” Good design can usually achieve the same target-hardening benefits as ugly design.

Blames the victim.

It empowers victims by providing them with information about crime risks and how to avoid them.

Promotes a “fortress society” in which fearful citizens barricade themselves at home and work to avoid crime victimization.

Media reporting of crime, not situational prevention, is the main cause of increased fear. Situational prevention helps remove the cause of these fears, and some situational measures such as improved lighting, defensible space design, and neighborhood watch promote social intercourse.

Source: Clarke (2010).

Conclusion: Two Futures for SCP

There can be no doubt that SCP has achieved many successes in reducing highly specific categories of crime, and it might seem that these successes guarantee its future. However, a case could be made that the successes owe more to the unique historical conditions under which they were achieved than to the inherent effectiveness of the approach. This pessimistic portrayal of the future of SCP is examined in the section immediately below, which is followed by a more optimistic assessment in a section on the “security hypothesis” and the crime drop.

Conditions That Favored SCP’s Development

Most SCP projects have been undertaken in stable democracies where systems of formal and informal social control are well established,4 and it is not known how successful SCP might be where these controls are absent or less well established.5 Second, because SCP was initially developed to deal with traditional street crimes, most of its successes have been gained in respect of these crimes, which could be easier to prevent than the more complex frauds and organized crimes that SCP has now begun to address. Third, most SCP successes have resulted from increasing the risks and the difficulties of crime, the earliest of its preventive mechanisms to be identified. Many fewer successes have attended efforts to modify the more recently identified mechanisms of removing excuses and reducing provocations. It could be that these kinds of interventions are more limited in their applications and possibly also less effective. Finally, the great majority of SCP’s successes to date consist of reductions in targeted crimes rather than their elimination. These reductions have been widely cited as demonstrations of SCP’s effectiveness without asking why the reductions were not more complete. It might be that crucial elements of the opportunity structures for these crimes were not identified or, more troubling for SCP, were not open to manipulation.

If the special circumstances of its early years have favored SCP, its successes could be much harder to win in the future than they have been to date. Added to this is the distinct possibility that government funding and support for crime prevention, situational or not, which has been strong in the past because it seemed to offer a solution to high crime rates, might begin to wane now that crime rates have fallen so markedly in most Westernized countries (van Dijk, van Soomeren, & de Waard, 2017).

The “Security Hypothesis” and the Crime Drop

On the other hand, if the “security hypothesis” (Farrell, Tilley, & Tseloni, 2014) becomes accepted as the explanation for the widespread drop in crime, this could herald an even stronger role than before for SCP. The security hypothesis postulates that the main cause of the crime drop is that a huge investment in security has been made in the past 20 or 30 years by thousands of private and public organizations to protect themselves from crime. This has involved every sector of modern society—shops, banks, schools, colleges, hospitals, offices, transport systems, the airline industry, fast food restaurants, credit card companies, motels, and any other business or organization that is open to some form of criminal exploitation, which as a matter of fact is all of them. This enormous phenomenon has largely escaped the attention of governments and of most academics, though everybody has complained that their lives have become more inconvenient and difficult as a result.

So, what explains this avalanche of security? It is surely not because these businesses and organizations are trying to prevent children from growing up to be delinquent. Nor are they are trying to make society safer from crime. It is because they know from experience that they get only limited help from the authorities when they become victims of crime and, if they are to become more efficient and reduce their costs due to this victimization, they must make themselves less vulnerable to crime. To do so they must make crime more difficult and risky, less tempting, and less rewarding. In other words, they have arrived at the same solutions advocated by situational prevention, but in implementing them they have not been burdened by the need to demonstrate the solutions work; they can abandon them if they do not. They have not had to worry about displacement as long as it is to some other agency or entity. They probably care little about diffusion of benefits, if they have even heard of it, except in so far as it might benefit their competitors. Finally, they have not been obliged to spend time defending their common-sense actions against a phalanx of social critics. What matters to them is the bottom line of profitability.

If this argument is substantiated, it is likely to bring about a permanent change in crime control policy—a change that can only reinforce the role of SCP.

Further Readings

Clarke, R. V. (Ed.). (1997). Situational crime prevention: Successful case studies (2d ed.). Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.Find this resource:

Clarke, R. V., & Bowers, K. (2017). Seven misconceptions of situational crime prevention. In N. Tilley & A. Sidebottom (Eds.), Handbook of crime prevention and community safety (2d ed., pp. 109–142). Abington, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

Clarke, R. V., & Eck, J. (2003). Become a problem-solving crime analyst—in 55 steps. London: Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science, UCL.Find this resource:

Clarke, R. V., & Mayhew, P. (1988). The British Gas suicide story and its criminological implications. In M. Tonry (Eds.), An Annual Review of Research (pp. 79–116). Crime and Justice 10. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Clarke, R. V., & Newman, G. R. (2006). Outsmarting the terrorists. New York: Praeger.Find this resource:

Cornish, D. B., & Clarke, R. V. (Eds.). (1986). The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending. New York: Springer-Verlag. (Republished in 2014 by Transaction Publishers.)Find this resource:

Farrell, G. (2010). Situational crime prevention and its discontents: Rational choice and harm reduction versus “cultural criminology.” Social Policy and Administration, 44(1), 40–66.Find this resource:

Farrell, G., & Pease, K. (1993). Once bitten, twice bitten: Repeat victimisation and its implications for crime prevention. Crime Prevention Unit Series, Paper 46. Police Research Group. London: Home Office.Find this resource:

Farrell, G., Tilley, N., & Tseloni, A. (2014). Why the crime drop? Crime and Justice, 43(1), 421–490.Find this resource:

Felson, M., & Eckert, M. A. (2016). Crime and everyday life (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Felson, M., & Clarke. R. V. (1998). Opportunity makes the thief: Practical theory for crime prevention. Police Research Series, Paper 98. London: Home Office.Find this resource:

Guerette, R. T., & Bowers, K. J. (2009). Assessing the extent of crime displacement and diffusion of benefits: A review of situational crime prevention evaluations. Criminology, 47(4), 1331–1368.Find this resource:

Mayhew, P. M., Clarke, R. V., Sturman, A., & Hough, J. M. (1976). Crime as opportunity. Home Office Research Study No 34. London: HMSO.Find this resource:

Tilley, N., & Farrell, G. (Eds.). (2012). The reasoning criminologist: Essays in honour of Ronald V. Clarke. Crime Science Series. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

von Hirsch, A., Garland, D., & Wakefield, A. (Eds.). (2000). Ethical and social issues in situational crime prevention. Oxford: Hart Publications.Find this resource:

Wortley, R., & Townsley, M. (Eds.). (2017). Environmental criminology and crime analysis (2d ed.). Routledge: London.Find this resource:


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Clarke, R. V., & Mayhew, P. (1988). The British Gas suicide story and its criminological implications. In M. Tonry (Eds.), An Annual Review of Research (Vol. 10, pp. 79–116). Crime and Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

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Clarke, R. V., & Newman, G. R. (2006). Outsmarting the terrorists. New York: Praeger Publishers.Find this resource:

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Cornish, D. B., & Clarke, R. V. (2003). Opportunities, precipitators and criminal decisions. In M. J. Smith & D. B. Cornish (Eds.), Theory for Practice in Situational Crime Prevention (pp. 41–96). Crime Prevention Studies 16. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.Find this resource:

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(1.) While all three theories are concerned with the role of opportunity in crime, they operate at different levels of explanation, they deal with different questions, and they are complementary, not competitive. Thus, routine activity theory is a “macro” theory that deals with broad societal changes that lead to the increase or reduction of specific kinds of crime opportunities; crime pattern theory is a “meso” or intermediate theory, operating at a city or neighborhood level, that deals with the ways offenders discover crime opportunities in the course of their daily lives; and the rational choice perspective is a “micro” theory that deals with the decisions that offenders must make in committing crimes (Felson & Clarke, 1998).

(2.) For a fuller list of 240 case studies see the website of the Center for Problem-oriented Policing[]. Not every situational prevention project is successful (how could this be otherwise?). Clarke (1997) provides a list of 10 or more such projects, Grabosky (1996) provides additional examples of failure, Hope and Murphy (1983) explain the many failures of a project to prevent school vandalism, and there are undoubtedly many other failures that were never published. Those reported, however, fall into three main categories: (1) improper implementation of agreed interventions, (2) uncritical implementation of measures that have worked in one setting in other settings, but which differ in crucial respects from the original setting, and (3) implementation of measures without a careful study of their appropriateness for the problems being addressed. In the language of evaluation research, these are all implementation failures, not theory failures because they do not call into question the basic assumptions and approach of situational prevention (Knutsson & Clarke, 2006).

(3.) One notable cost-benefit evaluation is Bowers et al.’s (2004) study of the effects on residential burglary of installing 3,178 keyed gates to restrict access to the lanes at the back of terraced housing in Liverpool. Burglary declined by 37% in the first year alone after installation without significant displacement to terraced housing in nearby areas. The cost-benefit ratio of installing the gates (taking account of their installation costs, victim costs, and police and criminal justice costs) was calculated as £1.86 saved for every £ spent.

(4.) Formal social controls have the purpose of defining, punishing, and deterring crime and are exerted principally through the law and the criminal justice system. Informal social controls seek to induce conformity through people's routine supervision of each other's behavior, reinforced by rule making, admonition, and censure.

(5.) This has particular relevance for recent ventures to undertake SCP in developing countries (Natarajan, 2016).