IV. Complementary Theories, Perspectives, and Applications
Routine activities theory is closely linked to and shares similar assumptions with several other theories and perspectives that are collectively referred to as environmental criminology. Unlike traditional criminology, environmental criminology has focused primarily on the proximate environmental and situational factors that facilitate or prevent criminal events. While not discounting individual differences in motivation to commit crime, the primary focus of this area of theory and research has been on understanding the opportunity structures that produce temporal and spatial patterns of crime. In addition to routine activities theory, environmental criminology encompasses the rational choice perspective (e.g., Clarke & Cornish, 1985), situational crime prevention (Cornish & Clarke, 2003), and crime pattern theory (P. J. Brantingham & Brantingham, 1981, 1993; P. L. Brantingham & Brantingham, 1995). Each of these four theories/perspectives provides a unique contribution to the understanding of the criminal event. Their shared assumptions make them complementary, rather than competing, explanations of crime. In addition, a policing approach called problem-oriented policing draws heavily from routine activities theory to help understand and interrupt the opportunity structures that produce specific crime problems.
The theories and perspectives reviewed here all point to opportunity blocking for prevention. Environmental criminology and other criminological theories make different predictions about how offenders will respond to blocked opportunities. Displacement and diffusion of benefits, described later, are two possible offender adaptations to blocked criminal opportunities for crime.
A. The Rational Choice Perspective
Whereas routine activities theory describes the necessary elements of a criminal event and the controllers who can disrupt that event, the rational choice perspective addresses the processes by which offenders make decisions. Clarke and Cornish (1985) argued that the decision to offend actually comprises two important decision points: (1) an involvement decision and (2) an event decision. The involvement decision refers to an individual’s recognition of his or her readiness to commit a crime (Clarke & Cornish, 1985). The offender has contemplated this form of crime and other potential options for meeting his or her needs and concluded that he or she would commit this type of crime under certain circumstances. This involvement decision process, according to Clarke and Cornish, is influenced by the individual’s prior learning and experiences. The second decision point— the event decision—is highly influenced by situational factors. Situations, however, are not perceived the same way by all people; instead, the person views them through the lens of previous experience and assesses them using his or her information-processing abilities (Clarke & Cornish, 1985). At times, the information used to make decisions is inaccurate, with judgment being clouded by situational changes, drugs, and/or alcohol. Although this model describes involvement and event decisions as two discrete choices, in reality the two may happen almost simultaneously.
Over time, the involvement decision continues to be shaped by experience. Positive reinforcement from criminal events can lead to increased frequency of offending. The individual’s personal circumstances might change to further reflect his or readiness to commit crime. For example, Clarke and Cornish (1985) pointed to increased professionalism in offending, changes in lifestyle, and changes in network of peers and associates as personal conditions that change over time to solidify one’s continual involvement decision. Conversely, an offender may choose to desist in response to reevaluating alternatives to crime. This decision could be influenced by an aversive experience during a criminal event, a change to one’s personal circumstances, or changes in the larger opportunity context (Clarke & Cornish, 1985). Both the involvement and event decisions can be viewed as rational in that they are shaped by the effort, risks, rewards, and excuses associated with the behavior.
B. Situational Crime Prevention
Situational crime prevention is grounded in the rational choice perspective in that it manipulates one or more elements to change the opportunities for crime and in turn change the decision making of potential offenders. In terms of routine activities theory, situational crime prevention can be viewed as the mechanisms by which controllers (i.e., guardians, place managers, and handlers) discourage crime. Over the past few decades, researchers and criminal justice practitioners alike have used the techniques of situational crime prevention to understand crime problems, develop interventions, and evaluate the effectiveness of those interventions. Situational crime prevention was designed to address highly specific forms of crime by systematically manipulating or managing the immediate environment in as permanent a way as possible, with the purpose of reducing opportunities for crime as perceived by a wide range of offenders (Clarke, 1997). Situational crime prevention techniques focus on effectively altering opportunity structures of a particular crime by increasing the efforts, increasing the risks, reducing the rewards, reducing provocations, and removing excuses (Cornish & Clarke, 2003). On its face, situational crime prevention techniques change the event decision by altering the offender’s perceptions of a specific criminal opportunity. However, it should be noted that an offender’s experience during a criminal event directly affects his or her continual involvement decision over time. Blocked opportunities not only prevent an impending criminal event but might also nudge the offender in the direction of abandoning crime.
C. Crime Pattern Theory
Crime pattern theory provides a framework of environmental characteristics, offender perceptions, and offender movements to explain the spatially patterned nature of crime. It is compatible with routine activities theory because it describes the process by which offenders search for or come across suitable targets. P. J. Brantingham and Brantingham (1981) began with the premise that there are individuals who are motivated to commit crime. As these individuals engage in their target selection process, the environment emits cues that indicate the cultural, legal, economic, political, temporal, and spatial characteristics/features of the area. These elements of the environmental backcloth are then perceived by the offender, and he or she interprets the area as being either favorable or unfavorable for crime. Over time, offenders will form templates of these cues on which they will rely to interpret the environment during target selection.
P. J. Brantingham and Brantingham (1993) argued that one common way offenders encounter their targets is through overlapping or shared activity spaces; in other words, offenders come across their targets during the course of their own routine activities, and therefore the locations of these activities, as well as the routes traveled to these locations, will determine the patterning of crime across space. Brantingham and Brantingham referred to the offender’s home, work, school, and places of recreation as nodes. The routes traveled between these nodes are referred to as the paths of the offender. Finally, edges are those physical and mental barriers along the locations of where people live, work, or play. The offender is most likely to search for and/or encounter targets at the nodes, along paths, and at the edges, with the exception of a buffer zone around each node that the offender avoids out of fear of being recognized. Brantingham and Brantingham argued that crime events will thus be clustered along major nodes and paths of activity, as well as constrained by edges of landscapes. The spatial patterns of crime will reflect these two features: the environmental backcloth and the heavily patterned activity paths, nodes, and edges. In addition, Brantingham and Brantingham noted that some places have particularly high levels of crime because of the characteristics of the activity and people associated with it. Specifically, they suggested that some places are crime generators, in that people travel to these locations for reasons other than crime, but the routine activities at these places provide criminal opportunities. Conversely, other places are crime attractors in that their characteristics draw offenders there for the purpose of committing crimes.
D. Problem-Oriented Policing and Problem Analysis
Police agencies use routine activities theory as part of problem-oriented policing. In addition, researchers, city planners, nonprofit organizations, and private citizens follow the same problem analysis process used in problem-oriented policing to understand and prevent crime problems. Problem-oriented policing (Goldstein, 1979) is a proactive policing approach that focuses on systematically addressing problems that produce numerous crime incidents and calls for service to the police, instead of reacting to and treating each call for service in isolation. The problem, rather than the individual crime incident, becomes the unit of work for the police. Problems are a form of crime pattern. Within problem-oriented policing, police work to define, understand, and prevent problems that generate numerous crime incidents and citizen calls to the police.
Problem-oriented policing is implemented through the use of the SARA process—Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment. The police scan crime data and calls for service to identify crime patterns that are produced by a problem. A problem should be narrowly defined; that is, instead of broadly identifying a “theft problem,” it is important to be specific and identify the problem as “theft of shoes from unsecured lockers at the roller rink during after-school hours.” The police then analyze the problem to understand its characteristics and causes. The crime triangle depicted in Figure 1 is often used to organize the analysis; police collect information on all sides of the triangle, not just on offenders. On the basis of this analysis, the police develop responses to prevent future crimes. These responses go beyond traditional police tools of arrest and citation to include less traditional tools that may help disrupt the causes of the problem. These less traditional approaches involve one or more of the three types of controllers discussed earlier. Finally, police assess the overall impact of the response and alter the process accordingly, depending on the results.
It is during the SARA process that routine activities theory can be applied for prevention. Problem-oriented policing complements research that indicates that crime is not randomly distributed (e.g., Eck, Clarke, & Guerette, 2007); instead, some people are repeatedly victimized, some places are repeatedly the sites of crime, and some people repeatedly offend. Eck (2001) suggested that not only does routine activities theory describe the six elements of a crime event but also that specific types of repeat crime and disorder problems can be connected to these elements. Using the terms wolf, duck, and den, problems of repeat victimization, repeat places, and repeat offending can be seen as a function of both the routine activities of potential offenders, victims, and/or places as well as the absence or ineffectiveness of potential handlers, guardians, and/or managers. This in turn sheds light on what steps should be taken to prevent future crimes stemming from the same problem. A “wolf ” problem reflects the repeated actions of an offender or group of offenders, with absent or ineffective handlers. A “duck” problem is one in which the same individual or group is repeatedly victimized; this repeat victimization can be attributed to both the routine activities and characteristics of the victims as well as the absence of capable guardians. A “den” problem is one in which a place is both attractive to targets and offenders while also having weak or absent place managers. The repeat-place problem in which an apartment building is consistently the site of police calls for service might indicate that place managers, such as the landlord or building manager, need to be encouraged or coerced to take control of the problem. In other words, using routine activities theory during problem analysis reveals the absent or ineffective controller who needs to be empowered or held responsible. Furthermore, it might also reveal the activity patterns that systematically produce the opportunity for the crime and suggest points of intervention.
E. Displacement and Diffusion of Benefits
One common concern when implementing opportunity blocking crime prevention strategies is that crime will simply be displaced. In other words, a particular crime event that appears to be prevented is inevitably displaced to another time, place, and/or victim. Different theories of crime make different predictions about the likelihood of displacement in response to blocked criminal opportunities (Clarke, 1997). Traditional criminological theories of offenders suggest that displacement is inevitable when an opportunity for crime is blocked. This prediction is consistent with the assumptions that (a) only offenders matter because (b) crime opportunities are infinite and evenly spread across time, space, and people. These theories suggest that motivated offenders will adapt and simply move on to another available opportunity. Conversely, opportunity theories such as routine activities theory suggest that displacement is possible, but only to the extent that other available criminal opportunities have similar rewards without an increase in costs to the offender (Clarke, 1997). This prediction is consistent with routine activities theory’s focus on opportunity. Opportunities are not assumed to be infinite and equally gratifying to the offender. The likelihood of displacement, therefore, is tied to the relative costs and benefits of alternative crime opportunities. If an offender is unaware of alternative crime opportunities or these alternatives are very unattractive (i.e., they are difficult, risky, or less rewarding), then displacement is unlikely.
There is another possible offender adaptation to crime prevention strategies. Not only might displacement not occur, but also it is possible that the gains from a strategy might extend beyond those crimes that were directly targeted by the strategy. One explanation for this diffusion of benefits is that offenders, uncertain of the actual scope of a particular strategy, refrain from offending in situations beyond the scope of the strategy (Clarke & Weisburd, 1994). Opportunity theories, such as routine activities theory, predict that there may be a diffusion of benefits in response to opportunity blocking if other crimes share similar opportunity structures with those crimes targeted by the strategy. Conversely, dispositional theories of crime generally cannot account for diffusion of benefits.
Environmental criminologists have dedicated considerable attention to the issue of displacement, producing a body of research on displacement that suggests that displacement is not inevitable, nor is it complete when it does occur. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that there is sometimes a diffusion of benefits in response to crime prevention strategies. Hesseling (1994) reviewed 55 published articles and reports suggesting that displacement does not appear to be inevitable. When it does occur, it tends to be limited. Of the 55 studies Hesseling reviewed, 22 found no sign of displacement. Six of these studies reported some diffusion of benefits to crimes beyond those directly targeted. Of the 33 studies that reported displacement, no study found complete displacement. The displacement that did occur generally reflected a shift in time, place, target, or tactic for the offender.