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The Crime Triangle: A Framework for Violence Prevention Strategies

The Crime Triangle, sometimes referred to as the problem analysis triangle, was developed by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson in their 1998 book named "Crime and Every Day Life."

They state that predatory crime occurs when a likely offender and suitable target come together in time and place, without a capable guardian present.

The triangle provides a way to think about crime problems and identify solutions. Strategies to prevent crime are developed by considering if one or more elements can be altered or completely removed from the equation. In this post, we'll discuss how we can do so with a goal of protecting ourselves from violent crime.

Rational Choice Theory

The Crime Triangle assumes that criminals are rational actors who make calculated decisions about targets and opportunities, selecting for variables that lower their risk. Crime isn't usually a random act but the final stage of a process of calculations lasting anywhere from years to seconds. Understanding the basis on which these calculations are made is critical to our prevention and defensive strategy. Our goal is to flip the risk/reward equation in our favor by communicating that we are difficult targets.

Each type of crime has a different suitable target and opportunity. For example:

  • a kidnapper may target women and children when no one is around to intervene.

  • a mass murderer may have defined or undefined targets and their ideal opportunity is often a large crowd.

  • a mugger targets valuable items when they are left unaccompanied by their owners.

Violence prevention is understanding what the enemy needs to execute their attack and denying it at every angle. One of the greatest advantages criminals have is the imbalance of calculations made between them and their victims. Criminals spend their lives thinking about victim and opportunity selection while the average person spends little time considering their defenses against them. It is imperative to understand attacks from the perspective of the criminal and to make calculations of our own.

The Offender

Since we can't remove or alter this element, strategies revolve around recognizing predatory signals/behaviours. 'Stranger danger' fails to prepare us for criminals who are often charming, manipulative, and someone the victim already knows. We must learn to identify predatory tactics so we can recognize them from anyone. The key to detecting these signals is being aware of your surroundings and listening to your intuition. Here are some danger signals that should give us a red flag, from Gavin de Beckers book The Gift of Fear.

1. Refusing to Accept the Word No

Anyone who refuses to hear the word no is trying to control you. Once you've already said no and someone keeps pushing, ask yourself "why is this person trying to control me?" instead of assuming good intent.

Learn more about danger signals here>

2. Charm and Niceness

All warfare is based on deception. Criminals understand the importance of pleasant appearances and almost always seem like a nice person in the beginning.

"Niceness is not a credential for good intent." -Gavin De Becker

3. Loansharking/ Putting You in Their Debt

Loansharking is when a person does something for you to make you feel like you owe them. Human traffickers often manipulate their victims into thinking that they owe the trafficker money, services, or a relationship, and that they can't leave until the debt is paid off. The strategy can be as simple as offering help to make you feel obligated to be nice back. Loansharking is meant to exploit your sense of fairness and make it hard for you to 'turn them down'.

4. Inappropriate Messages/Behaviour

Social media gives predators immediate, anonymous, and virtually risk-free access to anyone with an account. A child predator isn't always the stranger behind a fake account, most already know their victim. Here are some danger signals:

-Adults who message a minor privately

The majority of child abuse cases start online. Children must know that it is inappropriate for adults to private message them online. Yes- even if it's their beloved soccer coach. No normal adult is interested in having on-going private online conversations with minors just for the heck of it- there is always a motive. The problem is that many teenagers simply don't recognize this as a danger signal because they don't feel like a minor-they feel like an adult. And depending on the status/position of the adult who gives them attention, they might even feel flattered or excited to be noticed by them. But the adult is well aware that they are speaking with a minor and how inappropriate that is- that's why they do it privately.

-Bringing up sexual topics

Child predators seek sexual content or to eventually meet up to exploit in person. At some point child predators bring up sexual topics to lead the conversation there. Anyone who brings up sexual topics with a minor, online or in person (whether it's an adult they already know, or someone who looks their age that they've never met before); that is a serious danger signal.

Some of the best things minors can do to protect themselves online is keep their profiles private, not accept anyone as a friend they haven't met in person, and remember that they are a minor- no matter how much they admire the adult in question, it is always suspect when an adult seeks to have conversations in private messages with them.

Learn more about online safety for kids and teens here>

The Target

We think of the criminal as the threat. What many people don't know is that criminals think of their targets as a threat too. Attackers look for 'easy targets' that they believe will not fight back and put them at risk of getting caught. They are usually accurate in their predictions. Here are some strategies you should use to be seen as a difficult target.

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

1. Situational Awareness

A target who can be surprised is far superior to the criminal than a target who can't. If you can be surprised, the attacker can remove your opportunity for avoidance or preparation and force you into a state of reaction. A sudden attack causes shock as the brain and body try to comprehend what's happening. In this state it's extremely difficult to yell, develop a course of action, or fight back in the small window of opportunity you have to do so. Surprise is a great strategy for the criminal. Never allow yourself to be surprised by maintaining active awareness of your surroundings and the people in them.

Options = survival.

2. Walk Confidently

Studies show that criminals judge vulnerability by observing how you walk. Confident body language is a major deterrent to predators because it signals that you are going to fight back. To walk confidently, keep you head up and shoulders back and let your arms swing naturally. Make eye contact with those you pass. Walk with purpose- take wide strides and move like you have a place to be and no one is going to stop you from getting there.

3. Verbal Assertiveness: Say NO and Mean It

Criminals can include conversation in the victim interview. A predator might pass by and ask if you need help with your groceries. The way that you respond tells him how much of a threat, or non-threat you are. The woman who turns towards him, raises her hand into the 'stop' position, makes eye contact, stands confidently and says "No" in a firm and direct tone will likely fail the interview. The worst thing for a woman in this position to do is look timid, avoid eye contact, and give ever-weakening refusals before giving in and allowing him to finally help her with the groceries.

"If you let someone talk you out of the word no, you might as well wear a sign on your chest that says "you are in charge" -Gavin De Becker

De Becker states in his book that the second worst thing you can do when someone refuses to hear no is negotiate or give an excuse. Both responses prolong the conversation and open up possibilities to convince you. Being able to say no and mean it is as fundamental to self defense gets. When you speak to people you cross paths with, especially when you speak to someone who offers or asks you for unsolicited help, speak with self-assurance, clarity, and confidence.

Learn how to say no to friends here>

The Opportunity

Opportunity selection is critical to the attackers process. Attackers aim to avoid detection and put themselves in a position to carry out the attack quickly. Factors like visibility, remoteness, and location impact opportunity selection, but what's most important is whether or not there are capable guardians around at the time to intervene. Here are a few facts about abductions:

  • The most common site of child abduction by a stranger is on the route to or from school, followed by outside the victims home (NCMEC)

  • The most common site of abduction overall, in which 75% of abductors are non-strangers, is the victims home, followed by the street (FBI)

  • Most abductions include a suspect driving a vehicle (NCMEC)

  • Lures are just as common, and in some age groups more common than physical force (NCMEC)

Find the data on abductions here>

This gives us a picture of what a typical abduction looks like: someone in a car approaches you on the street or by your house and starts a conversation or tries to force you into the car. Anytime someone in a car approaches you, it should be met with skepticism. Never approach someones vehicle no matter what they ask or offer you and keep your distance from anyone who stops near you.

The #1 rule is to be aware of your surroundings and keep your distance. Never give someone the opportunity to surprise or trick you.

1. Don't allow yourself to be surprised

In the same way an eagle strikes at the blind spot of a duck, attackers position themselves for a quick, successful attack. They position themselves so that before you even get your feet underneath you the attack is over. A predator might pretend to be talking on the phone by your car and attack the moment you open the door. To protect yourself from these kinds of traps you need to first be aware of your surroundings, and second keep your distance from people around you. If someone is lingering by your car or house, wait for them to leave. If someone on an elevator gives you the creeps, wait for the next one. If someone starts a conversation with you keep yourself at a safe distance from them and their vehicle.

2. Don't allow yourself to be tricked

Criminals also create opportunities through compelling lures that lower your guard and let them get close enough to attack. An effective lure is far more useful to a criminal than weapons or strength because they convince the victim walk into their trap willingly. Lures can be as simple as asking for the time, or more intimate like inviting you to their house for drinks- the lure that Jeffery Dahmer used to murder 27 men and boys. Distance is the defense here. When someone speaks to you respond from a safe distance no matter what they have to say. Never allow your personal space to be encroached on.

3. Common Sense Measures to Remove Crime Opportunities

Buddy system

No matter where you're going, sticking with a friend or group is one of the best things you can do to deter criminals.

Drink responsibly

When intoxicated, your awareness is severely impaired and you lose the ability to fight back physically. If you drink, stick with a friend, know your way home, watch your drinks carefully, and don't wander around the streets or leave with people you don't know.

Blend in when you travel

Tourists are easy targets because they don't know the land, language, or customs and often stand out like a sore thumb. Do your best to blend in with locals and not draw attention to yourself. Keep anything of value tucked away. Research local threats before you travel. Read our travel safety tips here>

Know where the exits are

A life saver in any crisis.

Park in well-lit and populated places

rather than a vacant underground parking garage.

Don't be in the middle of a large crowd

Read our concert safety tips here>

"Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." - Sun Tzu

By denying the attacker what he needs we turn ourselves from a potential target to a non-target. This is how we win without having to fight.


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Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of

Girls Who Fight.

Our mission is to help women and girls lead safe and confident lives. Learn about our programs >


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