The Crime Triangle: Understanding Violence Prevention Strategies

Updated: May 14

The Crime Triangle is used to think about crime problems and identify potential solutions. The crime triangle asserts that in order for a crime to occur, three things must come together in place and time:

  1. a motivated offender

  2. a suitable target

  3. an opportunity (defined as the absence of capable guardians)

The crime triangle encourages us to examine the characteristics of each element related to a specific crime problem. Interventions that can reduce or prevent crime can then be developed by considering if one or more elements can be altered or completely removed from the equation (Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory: "Eck, John E.: Places and the Crime Triangle.") Different types of criminals have different types of 'suitable targets'; and different ideas of what constitutes the perfect opportunity. For example:

  • a kidnapper might have a child or woman in mind as a suitable target; and their ideal opportunity will be a time and place where no one is around to catch them.

  • a mass murderer may have many different ideas of who their suitable targets are; but usually their ideal opportunity is a large crowd.

  • a mugger has valuable items as their suitable target; and the ideal opportunity is when those items are left unaccompanied by their owners.

Rational Actors & Crime as a Process

The Crime Triangle assumes that criminals are rational actors who make rational decisions about targets and opportunities. Crime is not usually a random act that happens out of nowhere without any plan or preparation (although that's what media reporting would have you believe). Quite the contrary; crime- let's take a kidnapping for this example- is the final stage of a process of rational calculations that started long before the physical act. That process includes multiple decisions about how the offender can get what they want with the least amount of risk. The crime process can last anywhere from years to seconds. Whether a kidnapper has a specific target in mind and carefully plans their attack over months of careful observation and grooming; or a kidnapper happens to drive by a suitable target when no one is around in that immediate moment to stop him; the risk/reward assessment almost always takes place.

The decisions that criminals make about crime largely centre around the question: 'how can I reduce the chances that I will get caught?' Although it seems obvious, understanding the main priority of predator psychology helps us unlock the key to both prevention and response to a real attack. We want do everything we can at each stage of the process (or each pillar of the crime triangle) to flip the risk/reward analysis in our favour: no you WON'T succeed in attacking me, and yes you WILL get caught if you try.

"The height of strategy is to attack your opponents strategy." - Sun Tzu

That's violence prevention in a nutshell. Understand what the enemy needs to execute their attack and deny it at every angle. The great war strategist Sun Tzu said "the general who wins battles makes many calculations before the battle is fought. The general who loses battles makes but few beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, few calculations lead to defeat, how much more no calculation at all!" One of the greatest advantages that criminals have is the imbalance of calculations between them and their victims. Criminals spend much time thinking about victim selection, strategy, and tactical positioning. The average peaceful person spends very little time considering their exposure or vulnerability to them. It is imperative to understand attacks from the perspective of the criminal, and to start making calculations of our own. These calculations are often enough to keep you outside of the target selection criteria and the opportunity zones that predators so need.

Analyzing the Crime Triangle from a Self Defense & Violence Prevention Perspective

1. the offender

2. the target

3. the opportunity

The Offender

The unfortunate reality is that we exist among violent people who seek to harm others. We have no control over other people, so we can't alter or remove this element of the crime triangle. Predators come in all appearances and positions- they can be handsome and charming; in positions of power and wealth; and most commonly and disturbingly- they can be people you already know. That's why 'stranger danger' and 'be aware of sketchy people' seriously fail to prepare us for the reality of predatory criminals who are often masters of manipulation, charm, and deception. Instead of recognizing predators by their looks, we recognize them by their methods.

There are many things a predator might do to betray their intentions. Remember, crime is a process that starts with intent. If you have been selected by a criminal, they already know what they are doing and often leave behavioural or tactical 'tells' which broadcast their hidden motive. The key to detecting them is one: being aware of your surroundings and paying attention to the people around you; and two: always listening to your intuition when it tells you that something isn't right about a person or situation. If you get a bad gut feeling you can bet that it is always based on something real- not imaginary- that your intellect just hasn't had the time to pick up on yet; and that it is always, without doubt, working for your best interest. And to your gut, your survival is the primary concern. Once you are aware of your surroundings and the people in it, you can start to pick up on some of the following danger signals.

1. Refusing to accept the word no

Anyone who refuses to hear the word no is trying to control you. With best friends and salesmen, having to say no three times is annoying. With a stranger who approaches you on the street, not accepting the word no is one of the most important danger signals we have. Some example situations are:

  • someone pressuring you to drink or do drugs after you said no once

  • someone pressuring you to send them sexual content or to perform sexual acts

  • someone who insists on helping you with your groceries after you said no

  • a person who refuses to let go of your relationship after you've set a boundary and won't stop messaging you or finding a way to see you: ex-boyfriends, stalkers, employees, co-workers, friends, etc.

  • anyone who tries to pressure you into doing anything you don't want to do- no matter how seemingly small the act. Once you've already said no and someone keeps pushing you, ask yourself "why is this person trying to control me?"

2. Charm and niceness

All warfare is based on deception. Violent attackers especially understand the importance of pleasant appearances and almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning. Remember that charm is not an inherent character trait but an ability; a tool of social interaction. Charm always has a motive. Instead of thinking "this person is so nice and charming", think "this person is trying to charm me." That shift will remind you that you don't really know what this person is up to.

Niceness is not a credential for good intent, so never accept it as one.

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 also look as simple as someone offering you assistance as a way to make you feel obligated to be nice to them back. Loansharking is meant to exploit your sense of fairness and obligation and make it hard for you to 'turn them down'. Remember the context: you never asked for their help, and you don't owe anyone anything.

4. Inappropriate Messages/Behaviour

It is crucial to understand the role that social media, gaming, and messaging platforms play in the grooming process of child predators. Social media is like gold to a predator. It gives them immediate, anonymous, and virtually risk-free access to anyone with an account. And remember, a child predator isn't always the stranger behind a fake account- most child predators already know their victim and abuse children they already have access to. This is where being able to recognize danger signals no matter who they come from is so important:

  • 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 and it's usually not good. 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 and not openly.

  • 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 here.

5. Tactical Tells

We can also recognize predators by their tactics. The following are some of the key insights from a ten year study on attempted abductions by The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children:

  • The most common site of child abduction is on their way to or from school. The most common abduction site for anyone is their every day routes, but abduction can of course happen anywhere (travelling, hiking/jogging, parking lots, downtown/rural).

  • The street is by far the most common incident location.

  • Cars are the most common method of kidnapping.

  • Lures are more commonly used than physical force. Most predators try to lure their target as close to their car or house as possible to make the attack easier and less risky. There are many lures, but some common ones are offering free stuff; asking for help with directions, finding a lost dog, or putting something in their car; pretending to be a parents friend; and more. Click here to learn more about common lures.

These facts gives us a very clear picture of what the most typical abduction looks like: someone in a car approaches you on the street and starts a conversation. Therefore, every time this happens 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. To learn more about danger signals click here.

Someone who is trying to get you to come close to their car, or trying to get their car close to you, for any reason, is the number one danger signal that you should look out for.

The Target

The second step in the crime process is called "the interview"; where the criminal assesses potential targets and decides which ones are safe to attack. When you fail this interview, the attacker decides that you are too risky to attack and moves on. We think of the criminal as the threat, but criminals are also thinking of their targets as a threats to them! This is an important mindset shift to make. When you truly realize what a threat you can be to a predator; and how scared they are of their victims fighting back, you start to understand how prevention works.

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

Wars are won before they are fought. The civilizations that last the longest understand the power of being too dangerous to attack. Think about Mutually Assured Destruction. It has been one of the most effective deterrents to world war because each country knows that if they attack, they will surely be destroyed in return. This is the essence of self defense- avoid the fight. Be so obviously dangerous to attack that no one dare try. Avoiding danger is one side of the self defense coin. BEING dangerous is the other. Here are the proven things you can do to be a dangerous target and a terrible candidate for the victim interview:

*Obviously it is never the fault or the cause of the victim that the attacker attacks. There is nothing you or I can do that will suddenly turn an otherwise good man into a violent predator, or good into evil. There are only things we can do to convince the predator that their evil will not go unpunished.

1. Situational awareness

I know I mentioned this in the Offender section- but spoiler alert- situational awareness is the basis of all self defense. Situational awareness is indeed needed to detect behavioural signals that predators give, but it's also a deterrent. A target who can be surprised is far superior to the criminal than the target who can't. If you are aware of your surroundings, you will likely be able to see the attack coming long before that attacker has grabbed you; leaving you way too much time to run, yell, draw attention, and call the police with a description. If you are not aware- say on your phone with headphones blaring- the predator decides that he can likely sneak up on you without detection, removing your opportunity for avoidance or preparation and forcing you into a state of reaction. The attacker knows that at the moment of unsuspecting attack the victim will go into shock as their brain and body tries to comprehend what's happening. In such a state of sudden shock it is very hard to yell, figure out a course of action, and start fighting back in the small window of opportunity that you have. If the attacker can surprise you and remove your opportunity to run, and then put you in shock and lower your ability to react, they will have a great advantage.

Options equal survival. We need to keep our options open by being aware of our surroundings.

2. Present yourself confidently

Confidence is the second major deterrent to predators because it signals that you are going to fight back. But don't take my word for it, read about one of many studies that showed inmates with a history of assault videos of different women walking down the street and asked them to rate each one on their level of vulnerability. When virtually all the inmates formed a consensus on the vulnerability ratings of each woman, and selected the same woman as the easiest target, researchers asked their reasoning. More than anything else, 'the way that she walks' was given as the rationale behind their selection. The real scary thing was that when researchers compared the rated vulnerability with the women's actual history of victimization, the inmates were shudderingly accurate. The study shows us that the way we walk says a lot about whether or not we are likely to fight back- and that predators are extremely accurate at judging this. Indeed, they practice it all the time.

Walk confidently. Heads up, shoulders back. Let your arms swing naturally- don't fiddle or keep your hands in your pockets or crossed in front of you 'hiding' your chest. 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. Learn more about how to present yourself confidently here.

3. Verbal Assertiveness: Saying NO

Criminals often include conversation in the 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 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

The second worst thing you can do when someone refuses to hear no is negotiate or give an excuse. Both responses only prolong the conversation and open up possibilities to convince you. Being able to say no and mean it is as fundamental to self defense as you can get. 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 about how to say no to friends here.

The Opportunity

After the offender has chosen their target, the only thing they need is the right opportunity to attack. The criminal will try to put himself in a position to successfully attack the target quickly. Tactical positioning is something that predators understand very well because it is the key to a successful attack. No matter how vulnerable the target is, the predator won't attack without the right opportunity and positioning. An opportunity for attack is mostly based on the ability of other people to intervene. If no one is close enough to intervene in the attack in the timespan that the attack will take, that is a good opportunity for the criminal. Certain features can increase or decrease the ability for other people to intervene. How dark is it outside? Can people hear you yell or is it too loud? Are you too remote to be heard or seen by anyone? Are all the people around you drinking or on drugs and unable to defend you? Do you have cell service to call for help if you can run away? All of these factors are considered by the attacker ahead of time as they all equate to either an attack opportunity or not.

Tactical positioning is the "offenders technique." Just like the eagle knows how to attack at the blind spot of the duck, and as the pride of lions surround a herd of bison undetected. Positioning includes how close the criminal can get to you before you realize whats happening and whether or not you have an escape route. They are aiming to get close and surprise you at a moment when you can't easily escape, fight back, or figure out whats happening by the time the attack is over. They're not trying to fight you, they're trying to overwhelm you. They're betting on you being too shocked, scared, and stunned to be able to resist them in the small time needed to succeed. This is the result of tactical positioning. Here's how you can train yourself to recognize and neutralize crime opportunities.

1. You guessed it.. situational awareness

You need your awareness to recognize when you are in a vulnerable position or crime opportunity zone and to notice if someone tries to corner or trap you. Attacks happen at night, in broad day light, when traveling, and most commonly on people's everyday routes. Just because you've walked home a thousands times does not make it safe. Use your super senses- eyes ears and intuition- at all times.

2. Use the RL Score

Start assessing the places you go and give them a risk level (RL) score. This can be a fun game to play with yourself or your kids. A risk level score is from 1-10 and includes a consideration of all of the things that play a role in crime opportunities:

  • are there people around?

  • is it dark or light out?

  • are you in a remote location?

  • do you have cell service?

  • what's the behaviour of the people around you?

  • how many escape routes or exits do you have?

  • are you in a foreign place that presents unknown threats and risks? do you stand out or blend in? do you speak the language?

  • are you in a known gang or crime neighbourhood?

  • how big is the crowd? If there's enough people around that someone could easily see and intervene in an attack, that's a deterrent. But if the crowd is so big that you have trouble moving; say at a concert or amusement park; the crowd itself can pose both a threat and a target. Big crowds are targets for mass murderers, and crowds provide anonymity and cover for predatory criminals like abductors. See our crowd safety tips here.

Just considering these questions will lead you to become aware of your surroundings, make good positioning decisions, and in turn make you a more difficult target for criminals. This eventually becomes a habit of second nature. Learn more about spotting high risk settings here.