Recognizing High Risk Settings & Removing the Opportunity for Crime

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 the opportunity for crime, and what features decrease crime opportunities? Most importantly, how can we use this information to improve our personal safety?

As Sun Tzu famously said,

"Be where your enemy is not".

This simple line sums up the idea that for an enemy to harm you, they essentially 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 thinking to modern day security we consider where certain types of attackers are most likely to lurk in our daily lives, and therefore what settings and places attacks are most likely to happen. It asks us to put ourselves in the minds of the attacker who carefully considers which location presents the best 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 that are quite mandatory in modern life: 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"). Becoming observant about the places you go and learning the risks inherent to them is the first step to reducing crime opportunities, but for the places we cannot avoid we must find solutions other than our absence that will rob the attacker of their opportunity.

So if I may add on to the great war strategist, I would say "Be where your enemy is not; and when you must leave your house, be as aware as the cat, as confident as the lion, and as prepared at the bear hibernating in winter." It might need some polishing, but you get the point.

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. At Girls Who Fight we look at violent attacks through this lens to answer the following questions:

  • how can we recognize crime opportunity zones?

  • what features increase or decrease the risk of a certain setting?

  • how can we boost our safety when we are in an opportunity zone?

How To Recognize Dangerous Settings & Crime Opportunity Zones

Any setting or situation could be the scene of some sort of crime- so it's not about labeling different places completely 'safe' or 'unsafe'. This could lead to a false sense of security, or to impractical avoidances. What we can do is understand what factors of a setting influence risk. For a more personalized approach, it's wise to consider what threats are present at the types of places you regularly go along with the paths you take to get there.

1. Be Aware

This might seem obvious, but the first step to recognizing dangerous settings is awareness of your surroundings. Your gut and your senses simply can't pick up on important signals if you're not aware. 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 ahead of 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 effect 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.

2. Know the Features That Impact Risk

The RL Score

The Risk Level Score is a scale from 1-10, 1 being least risky for your safety and 10 being the most. The risk level score should include a consideration of the opportunity level to potential attackers, whether or not there are capable guardians around, and take into account other relevant information. 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 it or requiring a paycheque, the people around you provide a body guard service and deter any 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 crimes a major crowd presents the opportunity. Major 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 relies 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, and it can take minutes or even hours to be reunited. This is a feature of major crowds that is understood well by abductors.

  • 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 as a target 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. Every parent needs to be well aware of this fact. 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 out 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 who they robbed and killed. 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 in 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, always consider where you're going, who with, and never accept drinks or drives from strangers. Just like I mentioned earlier, 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

Cell service is another point to consider under this heading. If you don't have it, 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

Felson and Clarke wrote:

behaviour is a product of person and place.

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 information when predicting what threats one might encounter at any 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. In a crowd, every sentiment and act is contagious to a degree that individuals readily sacrifice their personal interest to the collective interest, and whose acts and words can be easily directed. 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 large crowds can be irresponsible, unempathetic, destructive, and even murderous.

  • 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 very real effect of crowds. For self protection it is important to understand the consequences of large crowds which are commonly formed at concerts, protests, riots; all places where there have historically been vast 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 predictably look like:

  • heavy drinking and drug use

  • dancing/ jumping/ singing/ mosh pit

  • flirting and sexual advances

  • violent outbursts

  • non-capable guardians

  • crowd mentality: 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 always know where the exits are, and to have your way home planned before leaving. If you have been drinking, never wander off in the streets alone at night.

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

  • possibly sleeping

Subway behaviour is much more calm than clubbing behaviour. On a subway it is wise to keep your wits about you and pay particular attention to outliers. Outliers or anomaly's are anyone who's behaviour deviates from the baseline. Anomaly behaviour on a subway 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 a person on the subway is acting as we would expect someone to act at a club - dancing, shouting, drinking, and getting too close to you, that's a signal that they deserve more attention. If someone at a club is acting in a manner we would expect at a bus stop, perhaps being very quiet, un-social, looking at others, pacing; that would also warrant our 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.


Every street, city, and country presents 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 appropriate for the known types of crime.

This is also very important for people to consider when traveling. Most people from Canada and the USA will travel to a foreign destination for a vacation, but unfortunately very few adequately prepare for the local threats. Westerners often take our presumptions about safety with us, but the truth is that many of the tourist destinations we visit are significantly more dangerous than the neighbourhoods we live in.

For this example I will 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 absolutely no common sense when it came to street safety, something that many of us observe in our day to day lives.

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 had been dubbed the 'Murder Capital of the World'. The Canadian travel advisory website gave me lots of critical safety information about Cape Town like the advice 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?

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 where that much crime happens. Yet on that first weekend dozens of college students went drinking at the clubs on those exact high risk streets, and dozens had a terrifying experience being robbed at gun point. They lost their credit cards, phones, and even 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 at 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 the common threats and crimes, the local criminal tactics, and take common sense precautions to avoid them.

3. 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 as a consequence contribute to making you