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Crime Opportunity Theory: The Most Practical Approach to Effective Prevention

On my quest to discover measures for practical assault prevention, I have found no approach more suitable than The Crime Opportunity Theory. This is compared to The Psychological Approach which is focused on personal factors that may make someone more or less criminal (childhood, genetics, experiences), and The Societal Approach which is focused on the societal factors that influence a persons criminality (climate, government, culture).

The purpose of theories, in general, is to be useful in improving real life. All three approaches have the potential to improve real life, but only The Opportunity Approach presents a method for every day individuals (not scientists or policy makers) to do so. Because even if we completely understood the psychological and societal factors that contribute to criminality, it couldn't help one prevent, predict, or defend a real attack.

If I'm being attacked, the offenders motives, justifications, or psycho-social circumstances are completely irrelevant to me; and I have absolutely no control over them.

So why would I focus on them at all? And what does help us make decisions for good safety outcomes? Crime Opportunity Theory considers the physical criteria necessary for crime to occur, and teaches us how to recognize and even change them for better safety outcomes. It also helps when we understand the trifecta of crime. For a crime to occur, three things must come together at the same time:

- A motivated offender

- A suitable target

- An opportunity (access to the target and lack of guardians)

Each part of the equation is important, but there are only two over which I have any control: myself as a potential target, and the physical and environmental conditions that enable a motivated offender to take action. Unfortunately, there has never been a time without motivated offenders; and no science, technology, or politician has ever figured out how to eliminate them. What's more, is that we really never know who in our lives a motivated offender could be. It's extremely difficult to predict (even for scientists), and more often than not they come disguised as friends or family. So if motivated offenders are a given, and we can't accurately recognize them, we are forced to focus on the other two elements: ourselves and our surroundings.

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own” -Bruce Lee

First I will lay out the arguments of the Opportunity Approach, and then I will explain how we can use this information to take control of our personal safety.

The Arguments For Opportunity Theory: How Does Opportunity Influence Crime?

1. Regardless of a persons inclinations, no crime can occur without the physical opportunities to carry it out.

E.g. Perhaps my bike was stolen, my father was a professional bike thief, and I have all the assumed psycho-social indicators of an at-risk bike robber. If I cannot find a bike, it is physically impossible for me to steal one. Now let’s say that there are many bikes around, but I cannot find the right time and place to steal one without getting caught; then there is no opportunity to steal a bike, even if one is present.

The physical requirements (bike present), as well as the characteristics of the time and place (won't get caught) play a more immediate and important role in my ability to commit the crime than any personal factors. Due to this, one can increase crime without increasing the number of motivated offenders just by making crime easier to commit, and one can reduce crime without decreasing the number of motivated offenders by making crime more difficult to commit. The motivated offenders are already there; what they need is the chance to get away with the crime they want to commit.

2. Criminals are rational actors who weigh the perceived costs and benefits of their actions.

Rational Choice Theory is focused on the offender's decision making. It assumes that criminals are rational actors who weigh perceived benefits with the costs and risks of committing a crime. These calculations are often based on what is most evident and immediate rather than long term. They are limited to the calculations they can make in a short window of opportunity. Of course, some abductions are more premeditated than others. For example, if an offender has a specific target and studies their routine to determine their vulnerabilities. On the other hand totally random attacks can happen without any prior analysis or rationality. However, most abductions involve some level of rational cost/benefit analysis before and during the crime.

E.g. Bullies pick on smaller people, gangs attack smaller gangs, and armies attack smaller armies (most often). Domestic violence and child abuse are largely reliant on privacy, because offenders need a time and place where other adults won't intervene. These examples highlight the presence of rational thinking for both victim selection and the timing and setting of an attack.

The Rational Actor Theory has lead to great research which improves our understanding of how criminals make decisions. Researchers have driven around burglars and asked how they select streets, houses, and times of day for break-ins. The same has been done with shoplifters, bank robbers, and fraudsters. In a major Ontario study researchers tried to identify how violent offenders select victims, and found that when given a variety of potential targets, the offenders mostly choose the same one. Their research showed that the most important indicator of victim selection was the way the target walks. These studies greatly inform our understanding of how we can make ourselves a non-target to motivated offenders.

We've all heard the stories about criminal hackers who get employed by companies and governments to help them spot their own vulnerabilities. Rational Actor Theory is a down to earth approach that tries to understand the world from the offenders perspective in order to protect ourselves from them.

"One need not destroy one's enemy. One need only destroy his willingness to engage" -Sun Tzu

3. Some settings provide more crime opportunities than others.

Easy opportunities entice motivated attackers into criminal action, while opportunities with greater risks deter criminal action. Individual behaviour is a product of a person and the setting they're in, so each setting influences the type of behaviour and people they attract.

4. Crimes are concentrated in time and space, and depend on everyday movements.

Crime rates are concentrated in certain countries, neighbourhoods, streets, buildings, and at certain times of day. Crime Pattern Theory considers how people and things involved in crime move about in time and space. The paths people take in their everyday lives are closely related to where they fall victim to crime (Felson & Carke). This is why crime maps reflect commuter flows, school dismissal, bar closings, and other processes that move people along paths. This is also reflected by the fact that a child is most likely to be abducted on their way to or from school.

Opportunity Theory Put Into Practice: Examples of Successful Prevention

If easy opportunities enable crime, that means removing opportunities can disable it, or at the very least displace it. Here are some examples of how opportunity reduction has reduced crime in the real world.

  • Retail stores have thwarted shoplifting with careful design and management, reducing thieves and making it more risky for each offender.

  • The environmental design of a town or city can reduce crime rates. This is called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Decreasing traffic, orienting windows to the street, increasing lighting and visibility, and reducing areas that are blocked from security cameras or natural public surveillance all decrease a locations opportunities for drug dealing and violent attacks.

  • Britain was able to reduce overall suicide rates by lowering the carbon monoxide in domestic gas. In the 1950's, poisoning by gas inhalation was the leading means of suicide in the UK. When natural gas, almost free of carbon monoxide, replaced domestic gas made from coal, suicides by gas poisoning went from 49% of overall suicides to .2%, and overall suicide rates declined by about one third. It seems that the availability and painlessness of gas poisoning contributed to turning people's thoughts into action, where other methods didn't. This study has been replicated in other countries as well.

How Can I Use This Information For My Own Self Defense Strategy?

Our goal with this information is simple.

1. Avoid high risk crime settings

2. Make ourselves a high risk target

3. If attacked, do everything we can to imbalance the risk-benefit ratio for the attacker.

This is what prevention comes down to; and they're the only elements that we have any control over.

"Be where your enemy is not" -Sun Tzu

What makes a setting high risk for an attack?

The presence of guardians is the factor that most deters violent attacks. Guardians are not only parents, police officers, or security guards, but anybody whose presence or proximity would put an attacker at risk of getting caught. Guardianship is often inadvertent, unknowingly provided by passers-by. There are other important features of a setting that influence risk, here they are:

1. Crowd.

The fewer people around, the lower the risk for the attacker and the higher the risk for the target. *This is true for most settings and paths, but can work in reverse in a major crowd like at a concert, which presents unique crime opportunities.

2. Visibility & Weather Conditions.

If it's dark it's more difficult for bystanders to see what's happening. If it's stormy it's more difficult for them to hear calls for help.

3. Cell service.

Without cell service no one has a chance at calling the police or emergency.

4. Remoteness.

The more remote or secluded a location is, the harder it is for emergency services to reach in the event of a crime or emergency.

5. Geographic Location

High crime areas and known gang neighbourhoods are more dangerous places to be, as well as foreign destinations where you are less aware of risks and dangers and stand out more to criminals.

6. Physical Location

Events like concerts and bars present unique threats and crime opportunities that must be considered.

7. Behaviour.

What are people doing at the location? Drugs and alcohol can increase aggression and impulsiveness on the part of motivated offenders, and impair the awareness and defenses of both targets and bystanders.

What You Can Do About It

All seven factors contribute to a settings risk level (RL). Try to observe these elements on your daily routes, giving each setting an overall RL score from 1 to 10. For example:

RL Score: 1

-A classroom in a safe neighbourhood with lots of people around

-At home with your family

RL score: 10

-A dark underground parking garage at 3 am with no people around and poor cell service

-Walking around in a dangerous neighbourhood at night by yourself

RL score: 5

-Walking home from school or work in broad day light

*Please note that the RL is dependant on the type of crime you are considering. In our scenario we are focused on the risk of a violent attack or abduction. Considering bullying or property theft would produce different scores.

When you learn to apply the RL on a daily basis, you start to see where you are more susceptible to an attack if you cross paths with a motivated attacker. This allows you to either avoid the setting by taking a different route, or take other measures to boost your safety. These measures could include walking with a friend or group, removing headphones and distractions to enhance situational awareness, walking as confidently as possible to look like a 'difficult' target, or even simply texting or calling someone to tell them where you'll be. To learn more about what you can do to make yourself into a High Risk Target, click here.

I hope you enjoyed this article! If you're interested in self defense and street safety, take a look around our blog and website to find helpful information and courses! Don't forget to follow us on Instagram and Facebook, where we share tons of great personal safety tips. Stay vigilant out there ladies!



Opportunity Makes the Thief, Felson and Clarke, 1998


Girls Who Fight Self Defense Programs:

Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of

Girls Who Fight. Our mission is to help women and girls lead safe and confident lives.

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