The Mindset of the Traveling Criminal
As a prosecutor, when I address community groups I often began by asking, "How many of you live in a safe neighborhood?"
Inevitably, a significant number of hands go up. The most telling information comes when I ask the next question, "What makes your neighborhood safe?"
The answers are often the same. They know their neighbors. They have a neighborhood watch association. They live in an upscale zip code.
But — do these factors really immunize a neighborhood from crime?
It certainly depends on what type of crime we are talking about. Thieves can make a killing (pardon the pun) burglarizing high-end homes while the occupants are jet setting around globally. And neighborhood watch programs only work if neighbors are watching.
So wherever you live, take all of the necessary steps to protect yourself, your loved ones, your home, and your neighbors. Because according to research, you may only be as safe as the distance you live from criminals traveling to a neighborhood near you—who are often repeat offenders.
Prevention and Prediction
Where do criminals commit crimes? The answer is: everywhere.
Child molesters and domestic abusers offend behind closed doors; burglars gain access to homes by prying open closed doors. White-collar criminals find victims in boardrooms; internet predators seek their prey in chat rooms.
When it comes to vaguely planned or opportunistic crimes, however, are there locations where criminals are more likely to strike?
Research provides some answers"
The Traveling Criminal is on the Road to Nowhere, Then Jail
In "The 'Road to Nowhere'" (from the year 2000), Paul Wiles and Andrew Costello examined the behavior of "travelling criminals."
They studied recorded crime data from the city of Sheffield, data from the North Yorkshire police force jurisdiction in England, as well as other sources of data including interviews with 70 convicted burglars and thieves.
They did this to determine travel-to-crime patterns.
Wiles and Costello (ibid.) found that at least within the city of Sheffield, the average distance traveled to commit a burglary was 1.88 miles, and 2.36 miles to commit the crime of "taking without the owners consent."
Acknowledging that there is some evidence that distances travelled to commit crime might have increased over the years, Wiles and Costello (supra) nonetheless concluded that in most cases, the distances travelled were usually relatively short. They note that where criminals travel longer distances to commit crimes, they typically visit areas connected to their own residential area, such as visiting a location related to holiday or leisure travel.
Wiles and Costello (supra) also noted the distance traveled to commit crime was often shorter per the offender´s own report than the distance shown by police data. They explain this was often because offender interviews revealed they spent the night before the crime at the home of a friend or romantic partner instead of their home address as recorded in law enforcement data.
One interesting finding in their research involved premeditation — or more accurately, the lack thereof.
Wiles and Costello (supra) found that among the crimes they studied (involving theft), criminal travel was not primarily prompted by plans to offend. Instead, they found the crimes were opportunistic, depending on circumstances that "presented themselves during normal routines," as opposed to proactively searching out locations to commit crime.
Is 'Returning to the Scene of Crime' Reality?
Does an arsonist slink back to the area where he tossed a match to watch the fire spread?
That would be an important fact to know. So would whether he had started a fire there before. Accordingly, researchers study crime patterns in order to determine where different types of criminals are likely to strike, as well as how many times.
Amanda S. Hering and Sean Bair (in 2014) investigated spatial patterns of criminal offending. They note that because a minority of citizens commit a majority of crimes, there is significant benefit in studying the systematic behavior of repeat offenders.
Examining 31 unique crime series that were committed in two cities in the United States, Hering and Bair found, among other things, that robbery series were more likely to demonstrate a measure of uniformity than burglaries — which had a tendency to exhibit clustering.
Specifically, they found that half of the robbery series began dispersed, and then developed clustering with the addition of more events, indicating that criminals often return to locations of past crimes, after they have offended elsewhere.
The Concept of 'Safety in Numbers'
The popularity of online networks and apps designed to connect us with our neighbors and share sightings of suspicious people reflects our collective appreciation for the importance of safety in numbers. Aided by surveillance cameras and Ring video, perceptive observers are even more likely to spot a repeat offender who returns to the vicinity of a past crime. Let us be intentional about protecting ourselves, our neighbors, and our community.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 4,000 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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