I stole sweets myself as a child – an admission that would one day be splashed front-page in the British tabloids1 – but it was common for ten- to fifteen-year-olds to shoplift2.
1In 1990 I gave an interview to a freelance journalist acknowledging that I had once been caught stealing sweets from Woolworths. My mother had been summoned to give me a ticking off. It was an admission I had made several times before – once along with Michael Grade, then Controller BBC 1, at the launch of a TV programme about widespread lawbreaking – but in a slow news week the News of the World devoted many of its pages to the story, describing me as ‘brave’ for confessing, but only revealing half way down the front-page article that it had happened three decades earlier when I was a child.
2Keith Soothill, Brian Francis and Rachel Fligelstone, ‘Patterns of offending behaviour: a new approach’, Home Office Findings 171, 2002. This study followed a cohort of people born in the 1950s and found clusters of offending at different ages. Shoplifting was most popular with the ten-to-fifteen age group. [http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/13452/1/r171.pdf]
For a US perspective see ‘Shoplifting Statistics’, National Learning and Resource Center, 2006. ‘89 per cent of kids say they know other kids who shoplift. 66 per cent say they hang out with those kids.’ [www.shopliftingprevention.org/whatnaspoffers/nrc/publiceducstats.htm]
Given society’s deep-rooted faith in criminal justice, more and more miscreants were reported to the authorities, with police recording a 23-fold rise between 1945 and the turn of the millennium.
Police-recorded crime figures rose from 13,000 in 1945 to 300,000 by 1999.
Just as the removal of shop counters had led to a crime epidemic, so restoring a semblance of security alleviated it. Shoplifting still accounts for almost half of all known commercial crime,1 but surveys suggest it fell 60 per cent in the decade up to 2012.2 Though losses remain enormous – guessed at £840 million in 2011 – they now represent less than 0.0025 per cent of UK retail sales.3
1 Shoplifting mostly goes unnoticed, losses are often indistinguishable from staff pilfering or stocktaking mistakes, and improvements to security can have the perverse effect of discovering more crime even when the underlying trend is going down. But retailers estimated that over 4 million shoplifting offences took place in England and Wales in 2012 (‘Crime against businesses: Headline findings from the 2012 Commercial Victimisation Survey, January 2013’, Home Office, 2013. [www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/science-research-statistics/research-statistics/crime-research/crime-business-prem-2012/crime-business-prem-2012-pdf?view=Binary])
2 ‘Crime against businesses: Headline findings from the 2012 Commercial Victimisation Survey’, Home Office, 2013, p. 14. [www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/science-research-statistics/research-statistics/crime-research/crime-business-prem-2012/crime-business-prem-2012-pdf?view=Binary] (Based on responses from the 4,000 firms who were questioned, crime against wholesale and retail business premises seems to have fallen by more than two-thirds in a decade – from 21.5 million in 2002 to around 7 million in 2012).
3 BRC survey 2011: £1.4 billion overall crime losses, 60 per cent by value are shoplifting = £840 million p.a. ONS estimate of retail sales is £6.5 billion per week = £338 billion p.a. [http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/rsi/retail-sales/april-2012/stb-april-2012.html#tab-Retail-Sales-in-Detail]
Nonetheless they cautiously suggested criminologists might usefully supplement their interest in ‘social’ crime prevention by at least considering whether ‘physical’ prevention might have a role to play.
Pat Mayhew, Ron Clarke, Andrew Sturman and Mike Hough, Crime as Opportunity, Home Office Research Study No. 34, 1976 [https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=37320] Serendipitously at around the same time an American, C. Ray Jeffery, had observed that controlling a school environment might be easier than controlling every pupil and created the idea of crime prevention through environmental design. However, the Home Office researchers were unaware of this and were cautious or even timid in expressing their ideas because, as Ron Clarke later put it, ‘to have claimed that opportunity is a cause of crime would have gone quite contrary to the criminology of the day, which was heavily dispositional (it still is)’: Ron Clarke, ‘Opportunity makes the thief. Really? And so what?’ Crime Science, 2012, 1:3 [doi:10.1186/2193-7680-1-3].
Their idea caught on with others too. In 1979 two prescient US academics, Marcus Felson helped by Larry Cohen, built on the British insight to publish a credible explanation of how crime and prosperity are linked. Felson called it the ‘routine activity theory’.
In a groundbreaking paper in 1979 Cohen and Felson pointed out: ‘It is ironic that the very factors which increase the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of life also may increase the opportunity for predatory violations… Rather than assuming that predatory crime is simply an indicator of social breakdown, one might take it as a by-product of freedom and prosperity as they manifest themselves in the routine activities of everyday life.’
Larry Cohen, and Marcus Felson, Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach, American Sociological Review, 1979, Vol. 44, pp. 588–608.
He calculated that for every 1 per cent increase in the stock of consumer goods, burglary and theft increase by around 2 per cent.
Simon Field, Trends in crime and their interpretation: A study of recorded crime in post-war England and Wales, Home Office Research Study No. 119, HMSO, London, 1990.
Such a thriving industry developed that by 1995 a quarter of all emergency calls made to police in Britain were prompted by burglar alarms.
The figure of burglar alarm calls to police was provided to the author by the British Security Industries Association.
Similar falls were recorded in all industrialised countries from the late 1980s onwards.
Andromachi Tseloni, Jen Mailley, Graham Farrell, Nick Tilley, ‘Exploring the international decline in crime’, European Journal of Criminology, 2010, Vol. 7, No. 5, pp. 375–94.
As the middle classes bought their way out of victimisation, burglary became increasingly concentrated on the poor.
Andromachi Tseloni, ‘Relative vulnerability to burglary and the crime drop in England and Wales’, Panel session ‘The Crime Drop’, 12th Annual Conference of the European Society of Criminology, Bilbao, Spain, 12–15 September 2012.
Tseloni’s UK data echoed earlier findings in the US: Steven Levitt, ‘The Changing Relationship between Income and Crime Victimization’, Economic Policy Review, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 3 (see Social Science Research Network) [http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/LevittTheChangingRelationship1999.pdf]
‘There is a remarkably sharp decrease of domestic burglary in many EU Member States. One of the main reasons for this spectacular fall is probably the influence of increased preventive behaviour among the population.
Communication from the Commission to the Council and European Parliament: Crime Prevention in the European Union, Com(2004) 165 Final, Brussels, 12 March 2004.
A near neighbour, perhaps an associate or a rival, called G. F. Milliken soon came up with a more sophisticated version, and in 1857 Pope’s patent was bought by Edwin Holmes, who improved it further and took it to market in New York, linking up with Alexander Graham Bell to pioneer centrally monitored alarms.
The contrast with Britain was stark. In England and Wales the number of prison places increased by 50 per cent,1 but that was barely one-sixth of the pace in America and substantially less than the equivalent growth in crime. While the proportion of burglars imprisoned in America rose, the proportion imprisoned in Britain fell by a substantial margin. And while in 1981 the US burglary rate was slightly higher than in the UK, by 1996 the English burglary rate was more than double America’s.2
1 Prison Population: by type of establishment 1980–1999: Social Trends 31, Office of National Statistics, London.
2 Patrick A. Langan and David P. Farrington, Crime and Justice in the United States and England and Wales, 1981–96, Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Dept of Justice, Washington, 1998.
By the 1970s American householders were busily fitting intrusion detection, locks and reinforced doors, and the proportion of homes with alarms increased ten-fold between 1975 and 1985, after which US burglary began to level off and fall.
Comprehensive report from Rutgers: ‘Final Report to AIREF The impact of home burglar alarm systems on residential burglaries’, by Seungmug ‘Zech’ Lee, Rutgers, 2008. [http://airef.org/research/airef91808_fullreport.pdf]
In the Netherlands, new building regulations led to a 50 per cent drop in burglaries of new homes compared to older ones.
Jan van Dijk, Stockholm Lecture, 2012.
By 2010 they were twice as likely to be burgled as their English, Dutch or German counterparts.
Jan van Dijk, Stockholm Lecture, 2012.
Car numbers declined in the Second World War, growing slowly in the 1950s and reaching 10 million in 1970, or one for every two households.
It is unfortunate that nobody foresaw how cars would be as attractive to thieves as horses always had been. Lack of foresight is a depressingly routine feature of crime.
By 2011 auto thefts had receded to the levels last recorded in 1967.
Immobilisers, intruder alarms, central locking, sophisticated keys, tougher door and boot designs, better identification markings for critical components, stronger window rims and laminated glazing were introduced, and all of them had an immediate effect – especially immobilisers, which prevented hot-wiring of the ignition.
Electronic immobilisers became mandatory in the EU in 1998.
The government was so emboldened that in 1998 it set up a vehicle action task force chaired by a senior executive from Ford and gave it an aggressive target of cutting vehicle crime by a further 30 per cent within five years.
VCRAT, or the Vehicle Crime Reduction Action Team, brought together motor manufacturers, dealers, police and government officials, and continues to set security standards for vehicles and car parks. Ministers have ducked some of VCRAT’s recommendations, notably to force owners of older cars to retrofit electronic immobilisers. This was a case where politicians chose to have more crime rather than run the risk of unpopularity.
Instead of the newest, most desirable, cars being most targeted for theft, it became the older ones. There developed a dramatic disparity in a vehicle’s susceptibility according to its date of manufacture.
Since cutting crime is like an arms race one would expect the early dramatic gains over car theft to be eroded over time. Indeed, since 2006 there has been some evidence that thieves are finding vulnerabilities in newer vehicles. But annual theft rates fluctuate as does the average age of the UK car fleet so it is hard to be sure of trends. As of 2013 older cars were still much more likely to be reported stolen than newer models. See Crime Survey for England and Wales, Office of National Statistics, Table 4.9 Age of stolen vehicles, 2003/04 to 2012/13 [http://ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/focus-on-property-crime–2012-13/rft—table-4-vehicle-related-theft.xls].
As Ron Clarke, Pat Mayhew, Mike Hough and Marcus Felson had predicted, crime flourished when easy targets were available and shrank when they were not.
Many carefully controlled studies have shown the overwhelming importance of opportunities in promoting crime. For example, when Dutch researchers tracked the activities of adolescent offenders they found the types of crime, times and locations were all dictated by provocations just as Clarke and colleagues had forecast. “The findings demonstrate that offending is strongly and positively related to all hypothesized situational causes except using cannabis and carrying weapons.” (Wim Bernasco, Stijn Ruiter, Gerben Bruinsma, Lieven Pauwels and Frank Werman, “Situational causes of offending: a fixed-effects analysis of space-time budget data,” Criminology, November 2013, Vol 51, No4, pp895-926.)