This blog is a part of our series, "Perspectives in Crime" where we explore leading academic studies that touch on crime data.
Criminology has long sought to understand how motivated offenders choose their targets and what locations seem to attract criminality, which not only impacts where people live, eat, and shop but also where they work. Researchers from two major academic papers tackle the problem of burglary from offender and location-based perspectives and offer insights to security professionals in the allocation of resources across the areas they protect.
The first paper, “How do Residential Burglars Select Target Areas?” published in the British Journal of Criminology, analyzes burglary events in The Hague, Netherlands. The second paper, “Burglar Target Selection: A Cross-national comparison” published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, analyzes burglaries in Birmingham, England and Brisbane, Australia in addition to data from the Hague.
In both studies, detailed geospatial data for cleared single offender burglaries were utilized. Because where the offender resides is an important factor in target selection, offenses involving multiple parties were excluded from analysis. The dataset concerning The Hague surveyed 548 closed burglaries recorded from the years 1996-2001. Birmingham’s data covered 398 closed burglaries from the year 2009, while Brisbane's data covered 889 closed burglaries from the year 2006.
Motivated offenders, foraging techniques, and suitable targets
The first paper (Bernasco & Nieuwbeerta, 2005) combined general understanding of routine activities theory — crime arises when a motivated offender finds a suitable target with the absence of capable guardianship — with the notion that crimes occur close to where the offender lives. Called the discrete spatial choice approach, the research collated target characteristics and offender characteristics into a single framework for understanding where crime happens, and micro-economic and econometric frameworks were used to analyze problems where an actor is faced with a choice amongst several alternatives.
When applied to burglary, offenders are assumed to evaluate each potential target neighborhood in terms of finding valuables to steal, successfully completing the burglary without being caught, and physical accessibility and proximity of available targets.
In addition, burglars seem to exhibit ‘optimal foraging’ techniques in selection of suitable targets to invade. In determining the factors involved in this foraging behavior, the authors began by theorizing that burglars are more likely to select targets where their criminal risk is likely to yield items of high value. Because high value items are more likely to be present in more expensive neighborhoods, the authors tested whether neighborhoods with higher real estate values were more likely to be visited by burglary.
Contrary to expectation, the authors found that real estate values had no meaningful impact on the likelihood that a neighborhood was targeted for burglary across The Hague, Birmingham, and Brisbane. They concluded that neighborhood affluence was not a significant factor for burglary.
Following previous research suggesting that neighborhoods with low social cohesion were more conducive to successful burglaries, the researchers tested whether residential mobility — an indicator of neighborhood stability and cohesion — might impact the likelihood of reporting suspicious behavior. Like the affluence hypothesis, the authors found no evidence in support of a neighborhood turnover effect with respect to burglaries.
Multi-family dwellings vs. single-family homes
Next, the authors focused on the proportion of single-family homes in a neighborhood as a risk factor for burglary. Single family homes are more sensible targets for motivated offenders than apartment buildings or other consolidated housing units because they are more likely to have entrances/exits removed from street view and have lower risk of surveillance. Following this logic, the authors hypothesize that neighborhoods with a greater percentage of single-family homes are more likely to be targeted for burglaries. Across all three study areas, the researchers found that single-family homes had increased the odds of a burglary event by a factor of 1.10.
Location equal opportunity
The authors then tested whether offenders target neighborhoods proximate to where they live. An offender experiences a comparative advantage approaching targets in an area they are familiar with and are less likely to be identified as a stranger, the authors reasoned. A target neighborhood’s proximity to the burglars’ home also shortens the length of their journey to and from the crime scene. Because areas closer to a city center are familiar to all residents, the researchers also tested whether neighborhood distance to city center might also increase the risk of burglary. Across all three cities, the results show that offenders have a strong target preference for nearby neighborhoods. The odds of a neighborhood being targeted for burglary increase significantly with proximity to a burglar’s home, whether the offender is an adult or juvenile.
The last target selection criteria that authors tested was the number of residential units in a neighborhood. Intuitively, the authors reasoned that neighborhoods with a high concentration of residential housing present motivated offenders with a greater number of suitable targets. In all three study cities, this hypothesis was confirmed, with areas rich in opportunity appearing to invite more burglaries.
Figure 1 summarizes statistical results for each variable tested. Across each city, the length of a bar corresponds to the effect size of each variable. A bar length more than 1 indicates that the variable increases the odds that a neighborhoods is targeted for burglary, expressed in multiplicative terms. In The Hague, for example, the authors find that compressing the distance between where a juvenile offender lives and an available neighborhood by 1 kilometer increases the odds of that neighborhood being targeted for home invasion by a factor of 2.2x.
Know your risk
Across all factors examined, the studies seem to suggest that burglars are highly opportunistic. They appear to favor nearby neighborhoods, rich in single-family dwellings with lower levels of both formal and informal guardianship. While simple and intuitive, these results reinforce the sound logic of routine activities theory Knowing where motivated offenders are likely to reside, clues us to the nearby neighborhoods they are likely to strike next.
Curious about crime risk in your area? Check out the Pinkerton Crime Index to learn more.
Bernasco, W. & Nieuwbeerta, P. (2005). How do Residential Burglars Select Target Areas? British Journal of Criminology. 44: 296-315.
Townsley, M., Birks, D., Bernasco, W., Ruiter, S., Johnson, S., White, G., Baum, S. (2015). Burglar Target Selection: A Cross-national Comparison. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 52: 3-31.