Burglary Rates Fall as Stores Harden Exteriors; But Neighbors Also Play a Role

Better security devices are necessary when stores have fewer close neighbors

It probably reflects the current state of news reporting that positive data trends get little attention. It’s far more clickable to report numbers that are “disturbing,” “worrisome,” or “troubling.”

So maybe you haven’t heard, but retail stores and other commercial properties are experiencing fewer burglaries. In the first half of 2019, burglaries for all properties fell by a substantial 11.1 percent nationally, and that follows a whopping 28 percent drop in burglaries of non-residences in 2018.

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The decline follows a general hardening of retail properties, which have made nighttime break-ins more challenging, less profitable, and raised the odds for thieves of being caught. However, while the value from locks, alarms, and cameras is plain, less tangible forces are also at play.

When it comes to devising strategies to prevent burglary, a lot can depend on how much value you think you get from surrounding routine activity—neighbors, non-security employees, occupants of other buildings, or passers-by. Decisions on security staffing, patrols, perimeter hardening, surveillance, and access control—they all depend to some degree on whether you think it’s likely that casual observers will deter thieves or are likely to spot them and make the necessary emergency call.

It’s a particularly important crime prevention question because there is mounting evidence that in the risk/reward trade-off that runs through a burglar’s mind, he or she is typically far more concerned about minimizing risk than maximizing gain. “The unequal role of rational choice elements in burglary targeting is probably because the burglar’s first priority is to avoid arrest,” notes research published in Security Journal titled “A risky business: How do access, exposure and guardians affect the chances of non-residential burglars being seen? “Smaller or no gains are likely to be less important, if free to burglarize subsequently elsewhere,” the study concludes.

As such, executives charged with devising security strategies for retail stores should place significant value on those crime prevention strategies that increase the likelihood of detection, as this factor is more important to a potential burglar than the amount of booty they might ultimately escape with.

The researchers collected data from police incident logs, burglary site surveys, and questionnaires of police officers and victim interviews for six months of sample non-residential burglaries in the UK. The study then examined how different factors and site characteristics altered the likelihood that a non-residential burglar was spotted.

Luck certainly plays a part, the study showed, but it also found compelling evidence that spotting a burglary in progress is not purely a matter of chance. “While it is clear that, to some degree, burglars being seen or not seen will reflect chance occurrence, such as if an employee happens to be working late or an eyewitness is not disposed to report an incident, or the only neighbor at a low-risk target happens to look through a window just at the time a suspect is breaking in, it seems clear that the factors identified here make many sightings more or less probable,” concludes the study. The likelihood of a burglar being seen is largely non-random and dependent on distinctive target features, which reflects a burglar’s likely systematic target selection aimed at limiting the risk of being seen.

“Findings confound the idea that burglar sightings are purely random occurrences,” the report concludes. Indeed, at least half the explanation for sighting probabilities appears to lie in differences in target characteristics, according to the study. Some of these characteristics you would expect. Burglars are more than twice as likely to be spotted at occupied premises, for example. And darkness strongly depresses sightings. Controlling for occupancy, daylight increases a burglar’s risk of being seen by two-thirds.

The findings on non-residential burglary sightings show the value of surrounding “guardianship” activity:

  • Private security patrols did not improve sighting rates. Again, a likely reflection of burglars making a systematic choice of targets.
  • The presence of neighbor guardians markedly elevated the probability of burglary sightings. Specifically, each non-residential neighbor facing the target property, and each additional domestic dwelling with a side view of the rear of the target, elevated sighting odds by a third.
  • Visibility of a target’s entrances and exits to neighbors and passers-by increased the sighting odds by 140 percent.
  • Roads at the sides of targets tripled the likelihood of burglars being spotted, but alleys at the sides or backs of target premises markedly reduced the odds of burglars being seen.
  • When neighbors are situated more than 30 yards away, a property is more likely to have a burglary go unnoticed. For every meter that neighboring premises were closer to the target, the odds that a burglary would be seen increase by 6 percent in darkness. Odds increased 2 percent per meter for all incidents, in both night and day conditions.
  • Suspects were twice as likely to be seen when they broke in through the front entrance when compared with those who used more ‘hidden’ entrances, such as windows, skylights, back doors, or climbing over walls.

Overall, the study found that where protection from neighbors is weak, “non-residential premises are likely to remain vulnerable to burglary, with low sighting risks providing tempting targets.”

In these cases, short of moving, what can properties do? “Only through the installation of better security devices aimed at countering neighbor guardianship deficiencies is target vulnerability likely to be reduced, either through deterring culprits or enabling their arrest,” according to the study.

The study found that, after dark, covert video surveillance and closeness to streetlights notably increased the odds of burglaries being observed. So, “installing bright lighting at targets subjected to night-time burglary to offset the negative effects of darkness on sightings should help boost burglar sightings or provide a deterrent effect.”

Also, while a larger number of immediately audible alarms reduce sightings in daylight—because they alert offenders—silent or delayed audible alarms resulted in a six-fold increase in the odds of burglar sightings. “In addition, when combined with visible entrances and exits, they tripled the sighting odds,” concluded the study. “This confirms the benefits of not alerting the offender to the fact that an alarm has been activated.”

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