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Stealing from person

In this section of the report, the findings are presented from a review of community-based crime prevention strategies that have as a primary goal a reduction in stealing from person. Following a brief review of the literature examining issues relating to the prevention of personal theft, a summary of the evidence in support of intervention types reviewed by the research team, an explanation of how they work and the characteristics of successful strategies are outlined.

Preventing stealing from person

The ABS (2011: 55) define stealing from person as

[the] taking of money, personal goods or personal information from the immediate possession or control of a person without the use of force, threat of force or violence or putting the victim in fear.

Stealing from person encompasses a range of activities, such as bag snatching and pickpocketing, and may be perpetrated using different techniques. An overview of common theft techniques is provided in Table 15.

Recorded crime data suggests that theft from person is less common in New South Wales than the other major property offence types. There were 8,504 stealing from person incidents recorded in New South Wales in 2011, a rate of 118 incidents per 100,000 population (BOCSAR 2012). However, determining the extent and cost of stealing from person offences is difficult as they are typically surreptitious acts and therefore difficult to detect. For instance, Smith, Bowers and Johnson (2006) reviewed bag thefts occurring in UK pubs and clubs and found that 89 percent of victims did not actually see the theft take place, while another 35 percent did not even notice that their bag was missing until they were leaving the premises. Due to their surreptitious nature, only a small number of completed theft from person offences are reported to the police. Many victims may not even be aware that their property has been stolen; instead thinking it is simply missing or lost.

Despite its seemingly trivial nature, the costs of theft from person offences are considerable. Besides the obvious impact of the offence on the victim who has to replace their property (usually at their own expense), some research suggests that thieves use stolen personal items (eg credit cards, drivers licences etc) to perpetrate identity theft (Johnson et al. 2010). As such, theft from person offences may facilitate more serious crime.

Research suggests that certain locations such as licensed establishments are more attractive to thieves. Licensed establishments such as bars, pubs and nightclubs attract large crowds of people, typically standing in the same position for long periods of time, who are distracted and not paying attention to their personal belongings (Johnson et al. 2010). Alcohol also potentially reduces both the offender’s and victim’s perceptions of risk, making theft more likely to occur (Smith, Bowers & Johnson 2006).

Busy locations in general appear to attract higher rates of theft from person offences. This has been attributed to the ability of offenders to ‘blend’ into the crowd’, and reduced surveillance opportunities (Smith, Bowers & Johnson 2006).

A significant risk factor for theft is the presence of unprotected and desirable items (Whitehead et al. 2008). Products that are especially attractive to thieves are CRAVED—concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable and disposable (Clarke 2002a). Examples of CRAVED goods include:

  • iPhones/iPods/iPads;
  • cash;
  • personal gaming devices;
  • debit/credit cards;
  • personal identification eg driver’s licenses;
  • mobile phones; and
  • laptops.

Very little research has examined which strategies are effective in reducing personal theft. Notably, determining the effectiveness of a localised prevention scheme is difficult considering that a theft from person offence may occur at any point in a person’s travels and go undetected for significant periods of time (Webb & Laycock 1992).

However, there are a range of devices currently on the market that aim to reduce opportunities for theft. A number of these measures are described in Table 16; however, these interventions have not yet been evaluated.

Table 15: Common techniques used in the commission of a theft from person offence
Technique Description

Lifting

Picking up property (from a table, chair etc) while the owner is not looking

Dipping

Involves reaching into the victim’s purse, pocket or bag which the victim is ‘wearing’ and taking an item without the victim’s knowledge

Slashing

Cutting the straps of the victim’s bag to gain easier access to their property

Distraction

Involves the distraction of the victim (eg an accomplice engages them in conversation) so that they exercise less care around their possessions

Snatching

Overtly pulling the victim’s property away from them and then hastily leaving the scene

Source: Johnson et al. 2010; Smith, Bowers and Johnson 2006

Table 16: Schemes to reduce stealing from person
Intervention type Description/mechanism How it works

Microdots

Microdots are very small and invisible to the naked eye. They are attached to a person’s property and can be traced back to the original owner. Makes property identifiable to their owners and reduces ambiguity over ownership

Makes selling stolen goods more difficult, reducing the rewards that an offender associates with the crime

Chelsea Clips

A clip that is built into chairs at restaurants, pubs etc. They allow patrons to secure their bags/purses off the ground

Increase the effort offenders’ associate with stealing an item

GPS

Many of latest mobile phones have inbuilt GPS that allows owners to track the phone within two metres of its location

Reduces the rewards associated with offending and increases risk of detection

IMEI blacklisting

If a mobile phone is stolen, network operators can block the phone’s International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) which renders the phone inoperable, even if the SIM card is replaced

Renders the property useless, thereby reducing the reward an offender associates with the offence

Karrysafe Karryfront Screamer bag

Bags that have an inbuilt anti-attack alarm that is triggered if the bag is removed with force, for instance when they are snatched

Makes it obvious to the victim and passerbys that an offence is being committed. Increases the risk that an offender associates with the commission of an offence

Source: Briscoe 2001; Whitehead et al. 2008

 

Findings from the review

A comprehensive summary of the findings from a review of strategies designed to prevent theft from person is presented in Table 17, which summarises the evidence for each intervention type identified by the review. Strategies examined as part of this review are described in Table 18. Very few strategies that aim to reduce stealing from person offending have been evaluated. Overall, the review identified only five studies that met the criteria for inclusion and, of these, two met level three on the SMS. Therefore, any conclusions about the impact specific interventions on stealing from person offences should be interpreted with caution.

Table 17 Evidence in support of crime prevention interventions targeting stealing from person
Intervention Description of intervention Supported interventions Evidence of effectiveness Where it works How it worksb Characteristics of successful strategies

CPTED/urban renewal

CPTED or urban renewal projects include strategies that involve modifying the built and landscaped environment to create safer places that are less crime prone or make people feel safer, as well as strategies to improve the overall appearance of a residential area

Education-type project

Awareness campaign

Access control

CCTV

Community policing

Lighting

Two of the reviewed studies utilised CPTED in combination with other interventions. One appeared to be effective

Retail environments eg busy marketplaces

Areas with high volumes of people

Manipulate the physical environment (built or landscaped) to improve surveillance, define ownership of spaces and minimise conflict between users

Introduce or improve formal or informal surveillance to increase the perceived risk that committing an offence will result in identification and capture

In one of the successful strategies, CPTED was part of a broad multifaceted strategy. In the other program, the researchers adopted a problem-solving approach and engaged in a comprehensive analysis of the intervention site’s crime problem. They located hotspots for bag theft and targeted their intervention accordingly

CCTV

CCTV involves the placement of cameras to capture images that are recorded or transmitted to monitors. However, occasionally non-functional CCTV cameras may be placed in highly visible locations for their deterrent effect

CPTED

Community policing

Awareness campaign

Three strategies utilised CCTV, two of which appeared to be effective. Two were implemented as part of a multifaceted strategy, with only one being effective. One of the effective interventions was implemented in isolation

Theft hotspots eg lobbies and elevators in public housing estates and train stations

Introduce or improve formal or informal surveillance to increase the perceived risk that committing an offence will result in identification and capture

In one program where effectiveness was clearly demonstrated, the installation of cameras was preceded by a media campaign that informed the public about the cameras

Awareness campaign

An awareness campaign aims to provide information to a target group, to raise awareness of specific issues, crimes, services and/or preventative measures

Education-type project

Access control

CPTED

CCTV

Two of the reviewed studies utilised awareness campaigns in combination with other intervention strategies. Both interventions were effective

Retail environments and train stations

Areas with high volumes of people

Encourage individuals (potential targets or individuals who facilitate access to targets) to consider the implications of their actions and discourage behaviour that may create opportunities for crime to occur

Increase an offender’s perceived risk of crime, the perceived effort of crime or reduce the anticipated rewards of crime to discourage them from committing an offence

In both of the reviewed studies that used an awareness campaign, it was used in combination with other interventions. In one of the programs, the purpose of the awareness campaign was to inform the general public about the primary intervention

a: Limited to those interventions for which there was more than one evaluated strategy

b: Based on those mechanisms that were identified for effective strategies

Interventions supported by evidence of effectiveness

Overall, the evidence in support of interventions that aim to prevent stealing from person is relatively weak, due to the small number of studies and variable quality of the evaluations that have been conducted. However, two interventions were supported by a small number of evaluation studies finding evidence of effectiveness.

  • Two strategies involved an awareness campaign, both of which appeared to be effective in reducing theft rates. Both interventions were used as part of a broader, multifaceted program.
    • In one of the strategies, the awareness campaign involved project staff working with retail store management to identify risk factors for bag theft (ie security audit).
    • In the other strategy, the purpose of the awareness campaign was to inform the public about the primary intervention and provide potential victims with information about how they could avoid theft.
  • CCTV was used in three of the reviewed strategies, two of which appeared to be effective in reducing theft rates. Interventions typically involved staff or security professionals identifying theft blind spots or hotspots and positioning cameras accordingly. Two of the interventions were implemented as part of a multifaceted strategy, one of which was effective. The third strategy involved the use of CCTV as the sole intervention and also appeared to be effective.
  • CPTED was used in two of the reviewed strategies, although only one appeared to be effective in reducing theft rates. Interventions involved redesigning spaces, for instance installing windows or increasing the width of gangways, to provide increased surveillance opportunities. Both of the interventions were implemented as part of a broader, multifaceted program. Further research is required to determine the effectiveness of CPTED as a theft prevention strategy but, given the lack or research into effective strategies to prevent steal from person offences, it may still be regarded as a promising approach (and for that reason has been included).

Suitability for implementation by local government

Awareness campaigns and CCTV are both suitable for implementation by local government, although the suitability of CCTV as a strategy for local government will depend on the location being targeted (ie whether it is a public area). The immediate and longer term costs of establishing, maintaining and monitoring a CCTV system may also be prohibitively expensive, particularly where stealing from person offences do not occur in a small, well-defined area. These interventions are consistent with the types of strategies that frequently appear in local crime prevention plans (Morgan & Homel 2011). Given the prevalence of theft from person offences, more research is required to determine which types of interventions (and combinations of interventions) are effective.

Table 18: Crime prevention strategies targeting stealing from person
Source Context Intervention(s) Mechanism(s) Outcomes Research design

Fairbrother and Sowerbutts (nd)

Target crime—bag theft.

Nature of problem—increasing rates of theft from person offences in a busy shopping strip. Rising rates of elderly victimisation

Target location–Southport United Kingdom. Area characterised by low crime rates, tourism population and an older than average demographic

Education-type project—tourism and retail staff provided with training to recognise opportunities for bag theft and to rectify risk factors

Awareness campaign—visible signage in the shopping strip gives locals and tourists knowledge to reduce their risk of victimisation. Crime reduction officers worked with premises experiencing high rates of bag theft to redesign the space to address crime risk factors

Access control—installation of Chelsea clips in hotspot premises

Increase an offender’s perceived risk of crime, the perceived effort of crime or reduce the anticipated rewards of crime to discourage them from committing an offence

Increase the perceived effort or rewards associated with a crime by making targets harder to access, remove or dispose of

Manipulate the physical environment (built or landscape) to improve surveillance, define ownership of spaces and minimise conflict between users

(Desirable effect)

Intervention—thefts from persons reduced from seven (1 Jan–1 May 2009) to zero (1 Jan–1 May 2010)

Comparison—theft rates increased (1–2)

Adjacent—theft rates decreased from four to two

Evaluation focus—process and outcome

Evaluation design—pre–post, control

Research methods and source of data—quantitative- crime records

Level on SMS—3

Webb and Laycock (1992)

Target crime—robbery and theft from person.

Nature of problem—high rates of theft in London Underground

Target location—Oxford Circus station. Very busy central London Underground train station

CCTV—34 passenger alarms were installed around the station, the majority of which were monitored via CCTV. Cameras were monitored by staff at all times

CPTED—walls of the train station operator rooms were replaced with waist length glass windows so that commuters could see staff and vice versa. Four information booths were placed around the station. At least one booth was manned between 10 am–4.30 pm and 6 pm–10 pm

Community patrol—two transport officers patrolled the station at all times

Introduce or improve formal or informal surveillance to increase the perceived risk that committing an offence will result in identification and capture

Manipulate the physical environment (built or landscape) to improve surveillance, define ownership of spaces and minimise conflict between users

Increase an offender’s perceived risk of crime, the perceived effort of crime or reduce the anticipated rewards of crime to discourage them from committing an offence

(Undesirable effect)

Intervention—thefts from person increased from 380 (April 1987– March 1988) to 407 (April 1988–March 1989). Robbery increased from 23 to 30 in the same period

Evaluation focus—process and outcome

Evaluation design—pre–post

Research methods and source of data—quantitative- transit police records

Level on SMS—2

Poyner and Webb (1992)

Target crime—theft from shopping bags

Nature of problem—high rates of theft

Target location—busy marketplace in Birmingham United Kingdom

CPTED—market space was redesigned, gangways were widened from two metres to three metres and stalls were rearranged to create more space between them

Lighting—market building received a significant lighting upgrade, inside and out

Manipulate the physical environment (built or landscape) to improve surveillance, define ownership of spaces and minimise conflict between users

Increase an offender’s perceived risk of crime, the perceived effort of crime or reduce the anticipated rewards of crime to discourage them from committing an offence

(Desirable effect)

Intervention—thefts decreased by 40 percent in first years of operation and 70 percent in second

Adjacent—positive displacement effect to surrounding markets

Evaluation focus—outcome

Evaluation design—pre–post

Research methods and source of data—quant and qualitative–—police records, interviews with market management team

Level on SMS—2

Musheno et al. (1978)

Target crime—robbery, attempted robbery, aggravated assault, simple assault, bag snatching and pick-pocketing, residential burglary, attempted residential burglary and vandalism

Nature of problem—significant crime problem in Bronxdale, New York City

Target location—Bronxdale Houses—a New York City public housing estate consisting of 26 seven-storey buildings, each containing 53 apartments

CCTV—installation of cameras in lobby and elevators. Cameras transmitted continuously to every resident’s television and could be viewed on Channel 3. Residents were encouraged to leave the sets tuned to Channel 3 when they were not watching other programs and to report any irregularities to housing authority police

Increase an offender’s perceived risk of crime, the perceived effort of crime or reduce the anticipated rewards of crime to discourage them from committing an offence

Introduce or improve formal or informal surveillance to increase the perceived risk that committing an offence will result in identification and capture

(Desirable effect)

Intervention—self-report victimisation rates for pick-pocketing and bag snatching decreased from 6.5 to 4.2

Comparison—rates of pick-pocketing and bag snatching increased from 3.8 to 4.8

Evaluation focus—process and outcome

Evaluation design—pre–post, some control

Research methods and source of data—qualitative—self-report victimisation surveys

Level on SMS—2

Winge and Knuttson (2003)

Target crime—robbery and theft from person

Nature of problem—high crime rates and drug abuser population

Target location—Oslo, Norway. Busy railway station characterised by concentration of shops, hotels, restaurants and pubs. Area attracts a large drug using population

CCTV—six CCTV cameras installed in an area just outside the train station. Cameras were monitored 24/7 by specially trained security personnel located in the station. CCTV feed directly linked to police command

Awareness campaign—public informed about the use of CCTV cameras though signage

Increase an offender’s perceived risk of crime, the perceived effort of crime or reduce the anticipated rewards of crime to discourage them from committing an offence

Introduce or improve formal or informal surveillance to increase the perceived risk that committing an offence will result in identification and capture

(Desirable effect)

Intervention—robbery/theft from person rates decreased by 26.3 percent (133 to 98 incidents in a 12 month period)

Comparison 1—robbery/theft from person rates decreased by 3.3 percent (30 to 29)

Comparison 1—robbery/theft from person increased by 35 percent (20 to 27)

Evaluation focus—outcome

Evaluation design—pre–post, control

Research methods and source of data—quantitative and qualitative—police incident log book, crime data, local business/customers/employee victimisation surveys

Level on SMS—3