With theft, nothing is certain, nothing ‘known’ until the act is over
As I am only too aware, I have rather tiresomely written quite a number of blogs and articles over the past year in order to argue the case that two major criminological theories: Crime Opportunity Theory and Routine Activity Theory are wrong. And that they are wrong because both theories are based on the premise that the characteristics of a criminal opportunity are certain. Yet, as I argue (e.g: see Sutton 2012a
), only once a crime has been unsuccessfully attempted, or successfully completed, are its offender and guardianship characteristics certain. Only then does the opportunity relinquish all its uncertainty. Up until that point, offenders are rolling the dice. They might think those dice are loaded in their favour, sometimes they might think the opposite and still attempt the crime. But they never ‘know’ how the dice might bounce and land. Therefore, the Routine Activity Theory notion of ‘opportunity’ cannot be a cause of crime (as Crime Opportunity Theorists claim) and is not – at least according to any dictionary definition or rational understanding of the meaning of the word – an opportunity at all. For the purposes of the blog, as I have done elsewhere, I will refer to it hereafter as a ratortunity.
So be it, but how might this new knowledge that ratortunity cannot be a cause of crime configure the way we actually tackle crime any differently? To answer that question I have taken the following text from my latest article on Best Thinking (Sutton 2012b), which is based upon two incidences of ram-raiding of my neighbour’s garage this year.
My Neighbour’s Garage: a specific and real-life example of disconfirming evidence for ratortunity as a cause of crime
My Neighbour's Garage
In January 2012 my neighbour’s garage was broken into and two top-of-the-range bicycles were stolen with a total value of £6,000. The thieves gained entry through an up-and-over steel door that had a lock at the top and two deadlocks at the bottom. They drove a motor vehicle through the door so that it buckled the door sufficiently to gain entry. The break-in followed an episode where a team of convicted offenders had been on ‘community pay-back’ sweeping up leaves on our road, which is in a desirable leafy Nottingham suburb, and conservation area that is characterized by large Victorian and Edwardian houses. My neighbour said that at least two of the young men sweeping up leaves had made cat calls to her and shouted comments about her having a nice bike, while she was putting it into her garage. The break-in happened a week later. It may have been a coincidence, of course. But for the purposes of the forthcoming thought experiment, below, let us assume that it was one or more of these convicted offenders who stole the bikes.
The January break-in was the first time that any of our garages had been broken into in the 11 years that I have lived in my current home. That said, I did have a petrol hedge cutter stolen from my own garage one night when I forget to lock the door because I had returned home late from visiting my son's home many miles away and was rather tired.
Folowing the break-in, my neighbours had their garage door replaced within a brand new, stronger one set in a steel (rather than wooden frame). Last night it was broken into again using the same method as before, whereby a car was driven into the door to buckle it off the runners set in to the steel frame to gain entry. Only this time the garage had been completely empty.
A thought experiment
It intrigues me to imagine the two most prominent proponents of the ratortunity notion of crime causality, Professor Marcus Felson and Professor Ronald Clarke, walking past our garages every day for the past decade and remaking each day on passing that the reason they have not been broken into in an entire decade is because the level of guardianship (locks and steel doors) protecting the suitable targets inside has provided a level of guardianship that is greater than the abilities of offenders. Professor Clarke remarks to Felson: "Of course the fact that on the one occasion Sutton forgot to lock his own garage door resulted in him being victimized proves that opportunity makes the thief."
I imagine them then on the morning after that night in January. The two professors stop by the buckled steel door and remark now that the reason for the break-in is that the capabilities of offenders was greater than the level of guardianship, and that that was the most important cause of the theft. Felson and Clarke have no need to inquire about why offenders were so motivated that they resorted to using a car to ram-raid a domestic garage, because their infinitely variable explanation for crime is, being post-hoc and a truism, always right.
Then, between February and May the two eminent professors walk past my neighbour's new steel framed garage door each day and both are satisfied that the level of capable guardianship, increased as it is, proves their Crime Opportunity Theory, because the garage has not been broken into since the last time.
Continuing the thought experiment, I imagine now Clarke and Felson standing and looking at the newly buckled new garage door in this morning in June armed with the knowledge that this time nothing was stolen. This time there was not even a suitable target inside the garage to complete their RAT crime triangle. But in my thought experiment this presents no problem for our eminent professors: “You see,” says Professor Felson, “the door itself is the suitable target for the crimes of attempted theft and criminal damage. Our theory is irrefutable. Because the weaker door provides incapable guardianship when in the presence of the more capable offender who is armed with a motor vehicle. On this occasion also, as always, our own RAT notion of opportunity is the cause of the crime. It matters not that nothing was actually stolen. because our explanation still works perfectly well.”
But the sensible, rational and useful lesson to be had from the saga of my neighbour’s garage is that Felson and Clarke's explanation for crime is next to useless because the offenders – even in the first break in - could not absolutely know in advance (a) that the door was incapable of resisting their ram-raiding or (b) that the garage actually contained the valuable bicycles they had spotted the week before, or anything else of value. In the second break-in (assuming they are indeed the same offenders as before) the offenders would have “hoped” that new bicycles (perhaps bought following a successful nsurance claim) were in the garage - or else some other thing worth stealing would be found inside – but they could not have known that for sure – as is perfectly demonstrated by the fact that their hopes of finding new loot were as dashed-in as the door they ruined for no return.
Repeat victimization: Proposing The PEC-TAP-PEC Hypothesis
The story, to date, of the repeat victimization of my neighbour’s garage proves that ratortunities do not exist in advance of the successful completion of a crime.
In terms of understanding something useful for repeat victimisation, now that we can demonstrate that ratortunity cannot be a cause of crime we can think clearly enough to hypothesise that the same offenders would not break into the garage a third time unless they once again actually saw that it contained something expensive. And we can hypothesise that those who broke into the garage on the second occasion perceived a reasonable likelihood that the garage would contain expensive bikes once again.
If, when my neighbour’s garage door is replaced for a second time, the garage remains empty (as I suspect it will because their bikes were in fact not insured when stolen and my neighbour's drive a company car, which they park on the road) and is then ram-raided a third time, that would provide disconfirming evidence for what we might here name the Perception, Expectation, Contingency, Target Actually Present, Perception, Expectation Chain Hypothesis (PEC-TAP-PEC) for repeat victimisation that: If potential thieves see (perceive) P that a premises contains a suitable target, they will break into it immediately, or else later when the target may not be actually visible from outside the premises but they have a reasonable expectation E that it is still there - whether actually it is or not is contingent C on the behavior of the property owners and their agents (and in some cases other thieves who may have got there first) - and that if the target T is actually A present Pthen a repeat break-in is then likely to follow due to the offender’s perceiving P another reasonable expectation E that the stolen items have been replaced. Only when the suitable target items are not replaced and offenders break-in for no other reward, are caught while trying, are imprisoned, go straight, are incapacitated, or unable to gain entry, will the particular repeat victimisation chain C cease – or be less likely to continue.
Considering this hypothesis, even if it is indeed supported by evidence, it may appear futile because one might conclude that the only policy recommendation that could possibly flow from it being confirmed would be that people should be advised to not replace stolen items - or else to secure their premises with exceptionally expensive, tough and cumbersome target hardening measures and other forms of guardianship that would thwart the most motivated and otherwise capable offenders. However, from the property owners perspective, it shows that the chances of them being re-victimized - in terms of suffering both theft and property damage - would be less if they waited longer to replace items stolen earlier; and, moreover, if they were, anyway, by-chance re- burgled before previously stolen items, which they intended to replace promptly, were replaced. The telling question is this: So long as active offenders never again saw my neighbours storing any more expensive bicycles in their garage, would those bicycles be safer in the future than they would have been (had they been in the garage) the day before yesterday? And if the answer is yes, then that provides a clear research-informed policy recommendation to crack down on active offenders who are surfing areas for crime ‘opportunities’. And here by ‘opportunity’ I mean typical dictionary definitions of the word – not the irrational ratortunity notion. Moreover, there may be further findings from future research into how offenders perceive opportunities that would question the current practice of assigning convicted offenders on 'community pay-back' orders to residential areas, where they can legally loiter in order to better spy suitable targets. And finally, if research does not disconfirm the Pec-Tap-Pec hypotheses, there might be a need to reconsider the effectiveness of beat policing and other police work – not in terms of the numbers of offenders caught in the act of stealing but in terms of what serves best as an effective deterrent for those who are currently out walking and driving around our streets with criminal intent by purposively scouting for opportunities to steal.