B. Environment, Opportunity, and Theft
1. Routine Activities and Theft
There is a large amount of literature devoted to conceptualizing the relationship between criminal opportunity and theft. The dominant theoretical framework shaping this line of inquiry is routine activities theory (Cohen & Felson, 1979), which assumes that crime represents a convergence in time and space of motivated offenders, suitable targets, and a lack of effective guardianship (surveillance and protection) of persons and property. These key variables were later refined to incorporate dimensions of exposure (physical visibility), proximity (physical distance), and target attractiveness, and the guardianship variable was extended to account for security guards, bouncers, police presence, and so forth.
Research in this area implies that individual-level efforts to increase the security, surveillance, or guardianship provided should decrease theft victimization risk. Several measures of individual-level guardianship have been linked to burglary victimization, specifically. For example, type of residence (Coupe & Blake, 2006), household composition (Tseloni, Wittebrood, Farrell, & Pease, 2004), and certain leisure activities (Miethe & Meier, 1994; Mustaine & Tewksbury, 1998) are all highly correlated with theft outcomes. Research consistently demonstrates that younger, single persons who are renting, living in transitional neighborhoods, or engaging in nighttime leisure activities experience a substantially higher risk of theft victimization. Specifically, lifestyles that include dining out often and regularly frequenting bars, clubs, and taverns are all highly correlated with minor theft victimization (Anderson, Kavanaugh, Bachman, & Harrison, 2007; Mustaine & Tewksbury, 1998; Smith, Bowers, & Johnson, 2006). These lifestyle factors are also strong predictors of repeat theft victimization and repeated violent victimizations (Anderson et al., 2007; Wittebrood & Nieuwbeerta, 2000). Other research finds that older people are an increasingly attractive target population for various forms of theft, including residential burglary (Mawby & Jones, 2006) and petty theft (Harris & Benson, 1999).
Conversely, engaging in routine activities that provide protection of homes and vehicles (target hardening), including locking doors, installing alarms, and light timer devices, are negatively correlated with theft victimization (Miethe & Meier, 1994). Accordingly, successful theft reduction initiatives include hardening techniques that overlap with individual-level guardianship. These include improved street lighting (Painter & Farrington, 1998), the establishment of Neighborhood Watch groups (Forrester, Chatterton, & Pease, 1988), alarm systems (Hakim, Gaffney, Rengert, & Shachmurove, 1995), improved locks and doors (Tilley & Webb, 1994), ensuring possessions are out of view (Bromley & Cochran, 2002), and the gating of residential property (Bowers, Johnson, & Hirschfield, 2004).
2. Environmental Factors and Theft
Brantingham and Brantingham (1999) suggested that the selection of theft targets is largely dependent on an assessment of the immediate environment of the target. Essentially, this work makes a strong case for incorporating elements of social context in understanding theft. As such, more recent research has incorporated elements of neighborhood control, derived from social disorganization theory (Miethe & Meier, 1994; Wilcox, Madensen, & Tillyer, 2007), in an attempt to offer a more holistic model of theft that accounts for social context and the role of the physical environment. This work has found that environmental cues in neighborhoods extending beyond the specific target are, in fact, important considerations. Findings consistently indicate that all forms of theft tend to occur at higher rates in poor, socially isolated neighborhoods (Akins, 2003; Rice & Smith, 2002;Walsh &Taylor, 2007).
It is important to note that the role of “environment” in theft extends beyond a consideration of the neighborhood. More recent research has begun to conceptualize the role of the environment in broader terms. Other environmental factors such as the time of day, time of week, and season of the year (Bromley & Cochran, 2002; Coupe & Blake, 2006) all function to shape theft outcomes. Local or regional culture can play a role as well (Herzog, 2005; Painter & Farrington, 1998). For example, Burns (2000) found that the southern and western regions of the United States experience higher percentages of stolen trucks than the Midwestern and Northeastern regions. Burns (2000) suggests that this is because in these regions, trucks are recognized as ingrained artifacts of their respective cultures. Their attractiveness as targets has increased due to the fact that these vehicles are an integral part of their local culture. Proximity to major roads is another important environmental consideration shaping perceived opportunity for residential burglary (Rengert &Wasilchick, 2000) and especially for auto theft (Lu, 2006). With respect to commercial theft, research has found that it is typically clustered in areas with a large number of liquor licenses— namely, convenience stores, restaurants, and bars— indicating that land use is another important variable in structuring theft outcomes (Smith et al., 2006).
Predicting when and where theft crimes are most likely to occur is crucial for prioritizing police resources (Kane, 2006), and research indicates that theft is highly likely to be deterred by aggressive policing practices that target “hot spots” and certain neighborhoods. The potential deterrent effect, however, is further shaped by environmental factors. With respect to residential burglary, for example, research has found that (1) repeat victimization in general tends to occur in poorer areas; (2) houses located next to a previously victimized house are at a substantially higher risk relative to those located farther away, particularly within one week of an initial burglary; and (3) properties located on the same side of the street as a previously victimized house are at significantly greater risk compared with those opposite (Bowers at al., 2004).
The selection of theft targets is also conditioned by two additional factors related to accessibility: (1) proximity to the homes of the offenders and (2) proximity to the central business and entertainment districts (Bernasco & Nieuwbeerta, 2005; Bromley & Cochran, 2002). This is the case with both residential and auto burglaries (breaking into cars to steal stereos or possessions), as well as auto thefts. Installation of new security measures often fails to deter repeat victimization, suggesting target familiarity is an overriding priority for offenders and can sometimes negate the beneficial effects of target hardening and even police presence (Palmer, Holmes, & Hollon, 2002).