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Place and Crime: Factors That Influence The Opportunity For Crime And How To Protect Yourself

Places are a major factor in the threat analysis efforts of police, community planners, and security companies. Indeed, every crime has to happen somewhere. So why do certain crimes tend to happen in certain places? What features about a place increase or decrease the opportunity for crime and how can we use this information to improve our personal safety?

As Sun Tzu famously said,

"Be where your enemy is not".

This sums up the idea that for an enemy to harm you, they must have access to you. Without the physical opportunity to harm you all the motive in the world amounts to nothing. If we apply this to modern security we consider where certain types of attackers are most likely to lurk in our daily lives. It asks us to put ourselves in the minds of the attacker who carefully considers where they are likely to find an opportunity for their specific crime, defined by one with the highest benefits and the lowest risks.

In answering this question we find that attacks and abductions happen most often along every day routes: walks to school, work, the grocery store, etc. These aren't paths we can simply avoid- and perhaps that's why they attract predators (who might reverse the strategy to say "Be where your victim is").

What is A Crime Opportunity?

Felson and Clarke created the concept of The Crime Triangle which is used to think about crime problems and identify potential solutions. The crime triangle asserts that for any crime to happen, a 1) motivated offender and a 2) suitable target must come together in 3) time and space, in the absence of capable guardians.

An opportunity for crime is simply the time and place where an offender has access to the target. Usually this requires a time and place with an absence of guardians (parents/teachers/other adults), but this isn't always the case. Every type of crime has it's own conditions for what constitutes a good opportunity. For example, the mass shooter often doesn't care about getting caught (sometimes wants to), where as the average child abuser dreads getting caught. This difference alone completely changes the crime calculation. To a mass shooter, the bigger the crowd the better. To the child abductor, the opposite is often true.

Felson and Clarke argue that crime can be prevented by reducing physical opportunities, primarily by increasing the risks to offenders. This is something that individuals like you and I can actually put into action for our own safety.

Factors That Influence Crime Opportunities and How To Protect Yourself

First, to recognize danger, you have to be able to see it

The first step to recognizing risk is being aware of your surroundings. This means allowing all of your senses to do their job: eyes, ears, smell, and intuition. The biggest culprit of robbing us of working senses are cell phones. Keeping off your phone is a pretty easy thing to do to unlock the power of your super senses; allowing you to detect danger signals and deter threats at the same time. Secondly, be very aware of when your senses AREN'T working. This includes anytime you're drinking, taking drugs, or even when you're in a highly emotional state. These states have the double consequence of making you appear to be an easier target to criminals while also reducing your ability to defend yourself. If you are in a state like this, always take extra safety precautions to help protect you when your senses can't.

To learn about how to be aware of your surroundings click here.

The Features That Influence Risk

RL Score

The Risk Level Score is a scale from 1-10, 1 being least risky for your safety and 10 being the most. Do your own RL calculations on your daily routes, identifying which locations are likely to be a higher risk to your safety. Eventually, identifying opportunity zones becomes second nature.

1. The Crowd (Present Capable Guardians)

For most predatory criminals like robbers, abductors, and child abusers, the presence of capable guardians is the biggest deterrent to their attack. Without knowing, the people around you provide a body guard service and deter criminals who have an interest in not going to jail. In general, being around other people is safer than being alone, so try to take popular routes instead of back end short cuts, and stick with buddies when possible.

The buddy system and sticking in groups is one of the best strategies for removing crime opportunities.

When the crowd becomes the target

For some types of crime a major crowd presents the opportunity. Crowds are a popular target for mass killers who aim to kill as many people as they can before getting caught or killing themselves. The pick-pocketer and sometimes the child abductor rely on the busyness and chaos of major crowds to provide cover and make it difficult for victims or parents to pinpoint where the threat came from. It is very easy for children to get separated from their parents in major crowds.

  • Tell your children that if they ever get lost and can't find you, to never go with anyone who says that they're trying to help. Instead, make a lot of noise and find a shop that has plenty of adults around and ask an employee for help. Children should know your phone number by heart. As a general rule, it is always safer for a child or woman to select the person that they will ask for help rather than to accept the help from someone who offers proactively. This might seem rude, but there's a much less chance that the person who didn't offer has ulterior motives than the person that does.

When the crowd becomes the threat

In great enough numbers, the people around you can actually become the threat. We saw this in full effect this year at the Travis Scott concert in Houston, where at least 10 people died as a result of being crushed by the crowd with no possibility of escape. When the crowd around you includes enough alert and sober (capable) people who could easily witness and intervene in an attack, that provides protection. When the crowd is so big that you have trouble moving, then the crowd becomes a risk and/or threat.

For our concert safety tips click here.

2. Visibility

Being able to see clearly in broad day light gives both the victim and bystanders a better ability to see an attack coming (if they are aware). This is not to say that crimes don't happen in broad day light, but that where you have the option, daylight is a better condition.

In fact, the most common time and place of child abduction is between 2-7 pm and on the walk to or from school. Broad daylight on a public path.

Why is this?

It's not that predators choose this opportunity because of its good visibility and presence of bystanders; it's because considering all the places a child goes, it's the place predators have the most access to kids with the least number guardians around to protect them. Other than a child's walk to school, children are either surrounded by classmates, teachers or parents. A child's walk to school might be the only time they are actually alone. This leaves the walk to and from school as the lowest risk opportunity for an attack. Have your child walk to school with someone. Teach them to be aware on their walk home and to walk confidently. Practice how to respond to unsolicited offers or requests (assertively say no and keep walking- never approach someone's car), and to make as much noise as possible if they are ever attacked.

Did You Know?
Verbal Ploys are the most common strategy used by abductors against middle school aged children, and physical attacks are most commonly used against elementary and high school aged children.
In a ten year study of attempted kidnappings, active resistance in the form of fighting, kicking, and yelling is the number one thing that children did to escape their would be abductors.

We should not think that because it's light outside, that it's safe to let down our guard and be distracted by our phones. Awareness is mandatory for personal safety at all times of day. But when you have the option, opt for routes and locations that provide good lighting. For example, park in a well lit spot above ground with people around, not in a dark underground garage that's nearly vacant. If you're going out for a walk, for shopping, or anything you can choose the timing of, it may be smarter to go when visibility is clear.

3. Remoteness

If you consider a remote locations distance from emergency services, poor cell service, and the lack of people around, you can easily see why remote locations are opportunity zones for crime.

As an example for remoteness I'd like to reference the Netflix show The Serpent, based on the true events of Sobhraj and his wife who targeted tourists to rob and kill. They once met a couple on the street, invited them to lunch, and generously offered them a drive to the popular tourist site atop a mountain. By the time they got there, they had already been drugged through their tea and were robbed and killed on that mountain.

If you are going somewhere remote like a beach or a camping trip, take precautions like bringing a friend, making sure you will have cell service and a charged phone, and always tell your parents or friend where you are going and who with. I don't recommend going on first dates with people in secluded locations like a 3 hours drive to some cliff. At the very least this could be awkward if you don't get along well, and at worst.. you can guess. When travelling, never accept drinks or drives from strangers no matter how nice they seem. It will always be safer to find a drive yourself or to order your own drink than it will be to accept one from a charming stranger who offers.

Cell Service

If you don't have cell service, you can't call for help and predators know that. This is often the case anywhere there is a major crowd, on subway lines, and in remote areas.

To learn our travel safety tips click here>

4. Behaviour

Behaviour is a product of person and place. -Felson & Clarke

The same person will act differently at work, at home, and on a date. Therefore the environment which a person is in has a significant influence on their behaviour. This is important when predicting the threats one might encounter at a given location.

If you are interested in crowd psychology I highly recommend the book "The Crowd" by Gustav Le Bon. Le Bon studied psychological crowds to understand why an individual in a crowd is capable of doing things that the same individual would never do alone. Crowds offer one the feeling of anonymity and a release from personal responsibility for their actions. People in crowds generate a feeling of invincible power, allowing them to yield to instincts which they would have kept under restraint if alone. Thus people in crowds can be irresponsible, unempathetic, destructive, and even murderous. Crowds do not have to be major, even 3-4 people grouped together can constitute a crowd.

This effect of crowd psychology is clear to see when analyzing the events of Travis Scott concert tragedy. Videos showed hundreds of people in trauma crying out for help and collapsing on the ground. Yet the crowd kept going, knowingly carrying on while people around them died of suffocation, trampling, and cardiac arrest. Accounts of the people at the event described how people were dark, emotionless, savage, and uncaring about anyone around them. Such is the effect of crowds. For self protection it is important to understand the consequences of crowds which are commonly formed at concerts, clubs, riots; all settings which have historically seen destruction, violence and murder.

Let's consider how behaviour may impact our safety in some common settings.

The Club Example

At a club there will be a huge crowd, crazy lighting and super loud music. Human behaviour might look like:

  • heavy drinking and drug use

  • dancing/ jumping/ singing/ mosh pit

  • flirting and sexual advances

  • violent outbursts

  • non-capable guardians

  • crowd mentality: people in big crowds can lack empathy

This information tells us that in this environment, we should stick with a friend, avoid being stuck in the middle of a crowd, watch our drinks carefully, and never drink so much that we can't protect ourselves in a bad situation. It is also wise to know where the exits are and to have your way home planned before leaving.

Subway Example

On a subway, we observe the opposite. We see people:

  • minding their business

  • listening to music, on their phone or reading a book

  • sleeping

On a subway it's wise to keep your wits about you and pay particular attention to outliers, anyone who's behaviour deviates from the baseline. This might look like:

  • someone paying too much attention to you

  • someone being too nice to you, asking you personal questions

  • people who doesn't respect personal boundaries and get too close

When someones behaviour falls outside of the baseline it tells us that we should pay more attention to that thing. For instance, if someone at a club is acting in a manner we would expect at a bus stop, being very quiet, un-social, looking at others, pacing; that would warrant increased attention. Often just considering how people act at a certain place will tell you all you need to know about the smart measures you should take to prepare for your visit.

5. Location

Every street, city, and country has its' own unique risks and threats which could be animal, environmental, or human in nature. Everyone knows of certain areas in their city which are high crime/gang related areas, and these locations should obviously be avoided or passed through with great awareness and logical precautions.

This is important to consider when traveling. Many people travel to a foreign destination but few adequately prepare for the local threats. Westerners often take our presumptions about safety with us, but the truth is that many tourist destinations we visit are significantly more dangerous than the neighbourhoods we live in.

For this example I'll give a personal story from my time in South Africa. In 2018 I volunteered teaching self defense for three weeks and then attended a coding bootcamp for a month. 99% of the students were American college students from Harvard and Yale. As brilliant as they were in academics, many had no common sense when it came to their own safety.

Teaching a group of women and children self defense in the township of Khayelitsha, South Africa

When I researched Cape Town prior to travel, it was dubbed the 'Murder Capital of the World'. The Canadian travel advisory website advised that should I be pulled over by a policeman, I should not stop but drive to a police station. That's how common it is to be mugged or assaulted by police imposters in South Africa. Without reading that, I would have likely pulled over immediately, rolled down the window, and said "hello officer!" Indeed, experienced criminals in South Africa know very well how to spot foreigners in rental cars, and know that we will have no ability to decipher between a fake or real police car. How often have you had to consider that question? That's why local crime research is so important.

On the first day all the students at the bootcamp had a safety briefing where we were told "do not go to these specific streets where robberies and shootings happen every single night, in fact on New Years Eve there was the most accounts of pick pocketing ever reported in one night". It seemed like reasonable safety advice to avoid the locations with the most crime. Yet on that first weekend dozens of college students went drinking at the clubs on those exact streets and dozens had a terrifying experience being robbed at gun point. They lost their credit cards, phones, and ID's. Thankfully no one got hurt.

The point of this story is to always do your own research about local risks and take the safety advice of locals seriously. Do not assume that your travel destination will be just as safe and predictable as your neighbourhood. Do not assume anything in fact, other than that you know nothing about where you're going and that you will stick out like a sore thumb to local criminals. Research common threats and crimes, common tactics, and take common sense precautions to avoid them.

Make A Plan

This is not an exhaustive list of what impacts risk; pretty much anything can make a setting more or less risky. But it is a great starting place to get you thinking about the things that deter criminals and hence increase safety. Most importantly consider these questions:

  1. are there people around to witness a crime?

  2. am I in a high crime environment or place?

  3. could someone easily get to me if I needed help?

  4. what are the common threats at this location?

These questions tell you what you should do to stay out of harms way and remove the opportunity for criminals to target you.

Use Your Intuition

The last (but not least) part of reducing the opportunity for crime is to listen to your intuition. Your safety is your own and your survival is best informed by no one else but you. This analysis can help your understanding of crime influences, but it's nothing compared to what you can do for yourself if you let your senses work for you and listen to your intuition.

No matter the setting, always use your own intuition and your own common sense. I don't care what any expert tells you- if something tells you that something isn't right about a person or place- that's the ONLY signal that you need to act on. You don't need any further explanation, validation or evidence. You don't even need logic. Instincts work well before your mind has a chance to put the pieces of the "why did I have that feeling" puzzle together. Thank the survival struggles of your ancestors for that. As Gavin De Becker says in his book The Gift of Fear, your intuition will always get two things right: it will always be based on something, and it will always have your best interest at heart."

Learn how to defend the most common attacks against women in our 20 class women's self defense course in Dallas Fort-Worth, Texas.

By Gemma Sheehan,

Founder of Girls Who Fight.

Girls Who Fight is a self defense and MMA program for women and girls in Dallas Fort-Worth, Texas.

Instagram: @girlswhofightinc

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