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Leveraging Situational Crime Prevention to Combat Retail Crime and Loss

Pat is ringing up a customer at the point of sale, engaging in a little friendly banter with a regular customer. Suddenly, three males burst into the store wearing masks and wielding a handgun and two long guns. They’re screaming for everyone to get on the ground. But one of the men then yells at Pat to get back up and open and empty all the registers’ contents  into a well-worn shopping bag.

While this scenario isn’t common, it is happening across the nation. It creates lifelong trauma for those in the store at the time of the event, may cause those victims and others to avoid that spot in the future, and can even negatively affect employees across the enterprise. We won’t even get into the financial harm crimes create for stores, companies, and communities.

Divert, Deter, Detect, Disrupt, Document for Action

It’s got to start somewhere. And when it comes to preventing crime and loss, it starts with the individual offender—the “bad guy.” Offenders are creating our crime and loss problems. They’re the ones victimizing others and places. They’re making the decision to harm. And offenders are the key to crime prevention. After all, it’s them we’re trying to deter.

Asset protection and loss prevention aren’t just terms, they’re what we’re supposed to be doing—supporting our organizations by preventing incidents and reducing negative impact. And to reduce crime events, we need to reduce crime attempts. That means creating deterrence, which means, of course, convincing the bad guys not to initiate or progress a crime on our property.

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The teams at the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) and the University of Florida (UF) are focused on refining and measuring deterrence measures using surveys, in-depth offender field interviews, store walk-throughs, crime-event video footage review, and rigorous field experiments. We’re working with over seventy leading retailers and eighty-five solution partners to find what really works, what doesn’t, and, just as critically, how to deploy and execute countermeasures. It’s really about how we do something, not what we do.

Read Hayes
Read Hayes

Reviewing video, case reports, and witness interviews, for example, helps us better understand intricate crime incident details to identify sensor- and action-tool aiming points or targets. When we measure how a new or adjusted intervention performs in reducing events and crime harm, we typically find good outcomes due to our upfront precision aiming and dosing efforts. Many retailers have found a big difference between a security measure that (1) looks like it’s probably working, (2) is definitely working, and finally (3) is working well enough to provide a good return on investment.

More and more retail chief executive and chief financial officers expect number three, and this high hurdle can be difficult to achieve in all but the worst crime locations blessed with the best place managers. So research and development activities continue as crime problems rapidly evolve, geospatially and tactically.

Science and Strategy

Many professions today are largely driven by good science. Medicine, agriculture, business, law enforcement, teaching, and construction, to name a few, use explanatory theories and empirical data to inform their processes and decisions. Loss prevention also continues to incorporate evidence-based decision-making. In fact, criminological theory and research is becoming one of the more developed scholarly areas.

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A key part of the criminology literature is deterrence. Deterrence means convincing would-be offenders to abandon thoughts of harming someone or launching an actual crime attempt—a tough thing to do, but what loss prevention professionals must be adept at doing. Loss prevention and asset protection executives are their companies’ crime and loss control experts. That means being deterrence experts.

Frameworks or Theory Tools

Crime theory doesn’t just imply academic pondering. Good theory means a thorough understanding of a problem, so cost-effective solutions can be precisely applied. It’s tough to prevent a heart attack if we don’t understand how they occur. Research-based medical theory predicts how heart attacks take place, as well as how to prevent and recover from them.

Likewise, science can help LP managers with their missions by continually building practical tools using rigorous field research and development. Deterrence theory tools are critically important since good theory explains in detail how retail crime takes place. They also explain how loss prevention methods disrupt or degrade crime and criminals. For example, routine activity theory predicts crime events based on the dynamics of likely offenders coming into contact with desirable and poorly guarded assets across an individual’s activity space (Cohen and Felson, 1979; Felson, 1996; Felson, 2002). Social learning, rational choice, planned behavior, and control theories explain why individual offenders are motivated and commit deviant acts (Akers, 1998; Cornish and Clarke, 1986; Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990; Tonglet, 2002).

It’s the Opportunity

Situational crime prevention (SCP) and theft triangle theories build on these macro and micro theories by explaining why assets are contextually desirable and vulnerable. These user-friendly concepts provide practical guidance to asset protection executives on using crime and criminality theories to impact their specific crime and loss problems (Clarke, 1997; 1999; Hayes, 1993; 1997a). Situational crime prevention, for example, describes twenty-five crime-reducing tactics to reduce an offender’s motives, will, opportunities, and perceived low risk of detection (Clarke and Eck, 2003). Similarly, the theft triangle provides direction on reducing offender motives and opportunities while increasing their perceived risk of detection in different environments using people, processes, and systems delivered in zones of influence (Hayes, 1997a).

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It’s All Relative

A critical bridge stands between applying situational protective measures and reducing crime attempts. Like modern medicine that is rapidly moving to the molecular level to provide greater prevention and treatment, we should examine a deeper crime prevention concept—crime control impact is often highly conditional. Offender background factors like peer influences, life experience, and even current mood—as well as the design and ongoing execution of crime control measures—affect crime-event outcomes (Piquero and Pogarsky, 2002; Pogarsky, 2002).

For example, a basic tenant of deterrence says that those to be deterred should:

  1. See or otherwise know about the protective cues we deploy, such as CCTV domes in the ceiling.
  2. Understand how this cue will directly affect them. CCTV domes mean their crime attempt will be detected through monitoring of video images, for example.
  3. Believe they will be detected and detained as advertised. The cue must be credible and immediate to them.
  4. Be concerned enough about possible consequences to alter their plans or behaviors (Hayes, 1997a).

To capitalize on this premise, researchers and practitioners need more data on protective methods to boost awareness and understanding of deployed asset protection cues, as well as how to improve their credibility. This is why LPRC and UF researchers spend so much quality time “in the wild” with current or recent offenders, to get their take on all the above for a given problem.

Deterrence Primer

This article started by stating the primacy of deterrence for LP professionals. LP people apply deterrence cues to disrupt and displace criminals.

Two basic types of deterrence are:

  • General deterrence or convincing individuals not to deviate before they do. Cues, like alert staff, convey a message that essentially says, “Don’t even try to steal that item because I’ll see and report you.”
  • Specific deterrence or convincing prior offenders not to reoffend. Hopefully, a person who previously stole from us was detected, and whatever happened from that point convinces them not to try again.

Deterrence factors include:

  • Certainty of detection, apprehension, and punishment. To deter someone, they really must be convinced that our protective cues are a clear and present threat to them.
  • Severity of consequences. It is also imperative that potential offenders be convinced that detection will result in serious problems for them. Sanctions can be formal (governmental or organizational) and informal (personal embarrassment or guilt) and include other risks stemming from victim defenses, such as injury or detention.
  • The celerity or swiftness of the detection and consequence process. Many offenders tend to be short- term oriented, so whatever’s going to happen needs to happen quickly, not months or years down the road.

Deterrence is often conditional because people commit crimes partly based on and considering:

  • Foreground factors, meaning the condition, atmosphere, and protective cues that exist naturally or that we deploy in our stores and other properties, including lines of sight, lighting, people, and technologies.
  • Background factors, meaning what offenders “bring to the party,” including their mental capacity, current mood, needs, wants, experiences, and beliefs. Offenders are encapsulated in their own psychosociological worlds. Like many of us, they continually pursue their own comfort and pleasure. They also have beliefs and moods, such as anger, that affect what they perceive and, most importantly, how they react to our cues.

Deterrence is also highly situational since it is:

  • Time dependent. Seeing or hearing about a credible, protective threat within moments or days is more likely to deter someone than something observed or heard months earlier.
  • Contextually dependent. The effect of our cues is situational. Deterrence results from a snap decision by a human. They wanted to do something bad, but something or some things we did convinced them not to attempt a crime. “Some things” is probably more often the catalyst than something. A combination of alert, active employees, good store layout (clear lines of sight, good lighting, and so forth), well-designed fixtures, improved packaging, and technologies tip the steal or don’t steal decision in our favor more often than a single effort.
  • Space dependent. Specific cues at and around a crime target are more likely to influence offender behavior. In other words, proximate or nearby cues such as active employees and a large CCTV public view monitor or dome with a motion-activated flashing light and sound should prove more impressive to would-be thieves than a more distal threat, such as stiffer criminal sentencing laws.

Taking Action

Numerous retailers report that despite extensively deploying LP staff and technologies, they still catch a lot of thieves and experience tremendous losses. We can do better.

Although retailers sell other people’s products through a variety of channels, the action is still centered around offices, distribution centers, and physical stores. LP professionals should help store and facility managers better control these mission-critical spaces. The company cannot meet or beat its goals if sales and support places aren’t safe and secure. And adequate safety and security is a function of the quantity and quality of LP effort in each space.

LP professionals should be experts in supporting their company’s goals by providing field-tested deterrence processes to busy place managers. Since LP exists to support the organization’s operating goals by providing safety and security initiatives and results, LP managers also need to clearly understand their organization’s flow of merchandise, data, and money, as well as national and local cultures and practices. They need to know how things are supposed to work as well as how they actually work when no light is shining on them. This information comes from walking and mapping supply chain activity, as well as talking to and surveying field staff.

Armed with clear understanding of corporate strategy objectives, knowledge of current operating practices, infrastructure and manager and employee attitudes, and current crime and loss problem dynamics (who, what, when, where, why, and how), asset protection leaders can construct their evidence-based loss prevention programs. Issues like employee and customer safety, fraud, and theft are then defined and prioritized for action based on likelihood and downside risk.

Putting It All into Play in Concentric Zones

Research shows that we can make a difference. We can’t affect an offender’s home life, peers, genomics, or other background factors, but we can shape our physical environments. A critical hypothesis is that crime attempts drop in part due to changes in the level and quality of situational crime-reduction efforts (Farrell et al. 2008, 2011). According to situational crime prevention studies, crime is the result of an interaction between an offender’s intent or disposition, opportunities, and the immediate situation (Eck, 2019).

Offenders choose to commit crimes based on their perceptions of available, desirable target opportunities (e.g., Felson, 1987). Consequently, situational and built environmental factors can either stimulate or suppress crime, so addressing these structures is paramount. SCP provides a posited framework and action options designed to influence offender decisions by shaping the environment to create a formidable impression of control (Clarke, 2010).

SCP options include reducing potential crime benefits, increasing apparent effort, and increasing the perceived likelihood of serious consequences for offenders contemplating victimizing another person or a place (Clarke and Eck, 2007; Freilich, et al., 2017). Significantly, SCP also focuses on very specific categories of crime or disorder, especially where crime concentrates. Understanding how, when, where, and why crimes are most frequently committed and how offenders find and attack victims in these places is critically important to SCP.

To maximize protective success, SCP efforts should be implemented three dimensionally along the criminal offender’s likely approach, attack, and post-event pathways in concentric “zones of influence” (Hayes, 1997).  As part of this SCP process, place managers can determine the signals an offender emanates at stages or points along their crime journey and include appropriate sensors designed to pick up meaningful visual, aural, and digital signatures that might provide earlier and more accurate warnings and definitions to situationally protect place users. The more data on offender intention and action is gathered, the more precise preventive measures can be. Sensor data can also help assess countermeasure reach and effectiveness.

The zones-of-influence model proposes five primary areas to both detect and influence behavior prior to entering a place, while on-site, and after the visit. The areas work outward from the crime target (whether a person, cash, store merchandise, or other), starting with zone 1 as the target. The zone 2 or proximate area around a target provides the opportunity to gather immediate offender and action data, and possibly influence an offender not to progress their crime with specific crime-reduction measures or by priming or alerting a potential victim to enhance protective action at or on the actual target (zone 1).

Zone 3 is the entry or exit to a place as well as the interior space at large. Place managers can leverage technologies or people to sense approaching offenders or at least attempt to create a credible impression of capable guardianship via, for example, signage, electronic tag antenna pedestals, and large screens with onboard CCTV cameras. Place workers can be directed to certain areas to observe or engage as appropriate to deter and disrupt an offender’s activities.

A critical spatial zone that practitioners leverage is known as zone 4 or the surrounding parking area. Highly visible sensors and protective devices placed in the parking lot can collect data around approaching threats and possibly deter approaching offenders by creating more realistic downside risk concerns. Zone 4 protective measures are designed to deter those contemplating harming others, but these prevention efforts may also comfort the legitimate place user or “green shopper or employee” as they feel safer and more inclined to return there to work, shop, or otherwise enjoy the protected place and space. Just as importantly, place managers have the ability to detect and define possible threats and maybe even deter or disrupt them beyond the parking lot in the built, social, and digital world of zone 5.

Increasingly, retailers are deploying a variety of monitoring devices (such as cameras), surveillance systems, and controllable devices (such as lighting and sound-alert systems) for situational crime prevention. In this context, we are interested in studying what we call “SaferPlaces,” which we define as places (such as a retailer location) where observational data are gathered, followed by data analysis and decisions on how to manage the built environment and/or trigger interventions to change behaviors and protect people and property.

Framework to Action

After the heavy protective-process discussion, let’s go back to the armed robbery nightmare described at the beginning. How could we leverage the zones of influence to reduce the likelihood their store is robbed?

The following list is not all-inclusive but should be considered for thoughtful program development as you plan and grow your asset protection program and specific problem-solving efforts:

  • Prior commercial robbery research indicates that many robbers first consider the “size of the prize,” so we strive to reduce the amount of accessible cash as much as possible and at all times since many robberies occur during daylight business hours. Many retailers use frequent cash pickups, secure cash-dump safes, and time-delay safes combined with highly visible zone 1 (on the protective container), zone 2 (near the cash retainer), and zone 3 (on store entry and exits) signage advertising low or no-cash access situations to reduce crime incentives. Safe opening might also include sounds and lighting changes.
  • All employees should periodically receive robbery or other forceful-crime prevention and response training, so they reduce cash or pharmaceutical levels and have ready access to reinforce zones 1 and 2 protective action. Training should also help them learn to reduce possible behavioral “triggers” that an offender might perceive causing them to escalate violence.
  • Zone 2 might also have cash-container lighting that increases in intensity when an individual approaches it or loiters near it. Having the cash area highly visible to others outside the building might also help deter offenders. Most offenders don’t want to appear on stage while victimizing others and would rather control the situation and get away with their crime.
  • Visible and covert cameras might also be placed in the cash area and on entry and exit points to record inbound and outbound individuals, perhaps before or after masking. Again, we might prime camera effectiveness with visible signage in zones 3, 2, and 1.
  • If placed or viewable from zone 4, competent and capable-appearing off-duty law enforcement or other guards may deter some robbers before they enter the location.
  • Creating a more secure parking area (zone 4) with fewer curb cuts or vehicle-entry points can slow post-theft escape. Similarly, higher fencing and other barriers like hedges and walls make pedestrian escape more difficult and time-consuming, exposing the offender to increased apprehension risk.
  • LP analysts should collect geo and temporal data, including all event, environmental, and offender characteristics across the zones to understand robbery dynamics for better protection and problem-solving.
  • Social media, blogs, and other online platforms can be used to detect, identify, and share offenders and crews in zone 5 before or after they strike. Similarly, traditional and social media outlets in zone 5 can be used to help identify offenders and alert others.
  • LP practitioners should coordinate with each other across chains and law enforcement partners to identify patterns, offenders/crews, and multizone protective program results.

Using a framework like situational crime prevention and its processes to stand up, test, refine, and deploy across all zones of influence can help plan, sell, and measure outcomes. The LPRC team suggests that your asset protection team look into SCP and train your team to leverage it along with asking a ton of why and why not questions using great critical-thinking skills. Please send your comments, questions, and suggestions to

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