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Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers in 60 Small Steps

Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers in 60 Small Steps
Step 10: Put yourself in the offender's shoes

Whenever you analyze a crime problem or think about solutions, try to see the crime from the offender's perspective. Try to understand why they commit the crime - not the distant social or psychological causes, but the benefits they are seeking. A radical critique of criminology pointed out 30 years ago that is not their genes that propel bank robbers through the doors of the bank: they rob banks because they want to get rich.

In many cases of theft and robbery the benefits are obvious, but they may not be clear for gang violence or so-called "senseless" vandalism and graffiti. In fact, graffiti can mark the territory of a juvenile gang, can indicate where to purchase drugs, or can simply be a way to show off. Knowing which of these reasons is dominant helps to define the focus of a problem-solving project and unravel the contributory factors. It can also help the project team identify solutions. Thus, the New York City subway authorities succeeded in eradicating graffiti only when they understood the motivation of the "taggers," which was to see their handiwork on display as the trains traveled around the system (see Step 41).

Learning how offenders commit crimes is as important as learning why they commit them. You will find rational choice theory helpful in thinking about these questions. The name is misleading because the theory does not assume that offenders plan their crimes carefully; it assumes only that they are seeking to benefit themselves by their crimes, which is rational enough. The theory does not even assume that offenders succeed in obtaining the benefits they seek. This is because they rarely have all the information they need, they do not devote enough time to planning their actions, they take risks, and they make mistakes. This is how we all behave in everyday decision-making and is what theorists call limited or bounded rationality.

Offenders must often decide quickly how to accomplish their goals and how to get away without being caught. Interviewing offenders will help you understand how they make these decisions. (The COPS Guide on interviewing offenders will help you think about the legal and technical difficulties of conducting these interviews. See Read More.) Surprisingly, it is usually not difficult to get offenders to talk, especially if you confine yourself to the general nature of the problem you are trying to solve, and avoid specific questions about crimes they have committed. Offenders are no exception to the rule that we enjoy talking about ourselves and about the work we do. On the other hand, always retain some skepticism as people who habitually break the law may also habitually exaggerate and lie.

Martin Gill of Leicester University in England tells a story of interviewing an experienced offender in prison. When dealing with the crime that had led to his arrest, Gill asked: "Did you think you'd get caught?" The prisoner leaned back in his chair and gave him a long look before saying: "I never expected to hear someone from a university ask such a stupid question. Do you think I'd have done it, if I thought I'd get caught?"

If you cannot interview offenders, try to imagine the course of a crime (see Step 35). What must be done at each stage? How are targets selected? How can victims be subdued or tricked? The police escaped? The goods disposed of? Even if you cannot answer all these questions about modus operandi, your attempt to enter the offender's mind can help you think about responses. This is not an invitation to try your hand at psychoanalysis. Instead of delving into the offender's unconscious you should try to understand the tangible benefits the offender is seeking and how he must manage the commission of crime without too much effort or risk. This is what Paul Ekblom of the Home Office Research Department means when he advises problem solvers to "think thief."

Paul Ekblom interviewed thieves on the London Underground (subway system) who told him that they would stand near signs warning that "pickpockets" were operating. On noticing the signs, passengers would reassuringly pat whichever pockets contained their wallets, which was a considerable help to the thieves.

Another alternative to interviewing your own group of offenders is to search the literature for reports of interviews with similar groups of offenders. Environmental criminologists have greatly expanded our knowledge about the methods that criminals use by interviewing car thieves, muggers, shoplifters, and residential and commercial burglars. The offenders may not be quite the same group as your own, but carefully looking at the results of these interview studies can suggest hypotheses that you might explore in regard to your own problem.

Armed Robbers Talking


"You are sitting there alone and you feeling light in your pocket, your rent is due, light and gas bill, you got these bill collectors sending you letters all the time, and you say, 'I wish I had some money. I need some money.' Those are the haints. [You haint got this and you haint got that.] Your mind starts tripping cause you ain't got no money and the wolves are at the door... [After my last stickup] I gave my landlord some money and sent a little money off to the electric company, a little bit off to the gas company. I still had like twenty or thirty dollars in my pocket. I got me some beer, some cigarettes, and [spent] some on a stone [of crack cocaine]; enjoy myself for a minute" (pp. 43-44).

Advantages of robbery

"Robbery is the quickest money. Robbery is the most money you gonna get fast... Burglary, you gonna have to sell the merchandise and get the money. Drugs, you gonna have to deal with too many people, [a] bunch of people. You gonna sell a fifty-dollar or hundred dollar bag to him, a fifty-dollar or hundred-dollar bag to him, it takes too long. But if you find where the cash money is and just go take it, you get it all in one wad" (pp. 51-52).

Choosing the victim

"See, I know the places to go [to locate good robbery targets]. Usually I go to all the places where dope men hang out... but I [also have] done some people coming out of those instant tellers" (p. 78).

"That's all I done robbed is drug dealers ... they not gonna call the police. What they gonna tell the police? He robbed me for my dope? They is the easiest bait to me. I don't want to harm no innocent people, I just deal basically with drug dealers" (p. 64).


"Well, if [the victim] hesitates like that, undecided, you get a little aggressive and you push them ...I might take [the] pistol and crack their head with it. 'Come on with that money and quit bullcrapping or else you gonna get into some real trouble!' Normally when they see you mean that kind of business they ... come on out with it" (p. 109).

Source: Wright, Richard and Scott Decker (1997). Armed Robbers in Action. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Read More:

  • Decker, Scott (2004). Using Offender Interviews to Inform Police Problem-Solving Guide No. 3. Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Problem Solving Tool Series. Washington, D.C.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice. (Accessible at www.popcenter.org and www.cops.usdoj.gov).