This guide begins by describing the problem of burglary at single-family house construction sites and reviewing the factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions that can help analyze your local burglary problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem of burglary at single-family house construction sites as identified through research and police practice.
Burglary at single-family house construction sites is but one of a larger set of problems related to burglary and to construction sites. This guide focuses on burglary of building materials, tools, appliances, and small equipment from single-family house construction sites. Although there are many similarities between burglaries at single-family house sites and those at multifamily or commercial sites, the varying physical and logistical characteristics of the two types of sites require the utilization of very different crime prevention techniques. In addition, the theft of heavy construction equipment, such as backhoes and loaders, from single-family sites poses a unique crime prevention problem because of the size, cost, and mobility of such equipment. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires separate analysis, include:
Burglary at single-family house construction sites is the taking of property from houses under construction or from the area immediately surrounding the house. Depending upon whether the person who stole the property was lawfully on the premises or not, the crime is either defined as burglary or theft. For convenience sake, this guide will refer to both crimes as construction site burglary.
There is far less research on construction site burglary than there is on residential burglary. However, construction site burglary has been recognized as a significant problem in the United States and elsewhere in the world, including Canada, Australia, Europe, and Japan. Estimates from the United States indicate that between $1 billion and $4 billion worth of materials, tools, and construction equipment are stolen every year. The wide range of estimates is attributable to the lack of reporting to police and insurance companies by builders and contractors. Between 5 percent and 20 percent of the cost of building a residential subdivision goes to the burglary of tools and equipment. In addition to property losses, there are indirect expenses that also impact the cost of construction; these include job delays, downtime for operators, higher insurance premiums, and cancellation of insurance. These direct and indirect losses to builders and contractors are passed on to house buyers, resulting in an average increase of 1 percent to 2 percent in the price of a new house.
Understanding the factors that contribute to the problem of single-family house construction site burglary will help to frame local analysis, to determine good effectiveness measures, to recognize key intervention points, and to select appropriate responses. The following factors make such construction sites particularly vulnerable to burglary.
The high cost of construction materials induces some people—including some contractors—to steal materials from construction sites in order to reduce their own building costs. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the price of construction materials. For example, from January 2003 to May 2004 the price index of 11 key construction materials more than doubled. Thus, the local home building economy affects construction site burglary rates. Local material shortages, including those caused by natural disasters, will similarly affect the nature and amount of construction site property stolen.
Certain practices by building contractors can contribute to burglary. For example, delivering appliances to a site before they can be secured in the house increases the opportunity for burglary. Lax tool tracking practices can also lead to theft. Builders and contractors may save time by not checking tools in and out daily, but a lack of control and oversight can give employees the impression that their employer does not care if tools are taken or may convince them that burglars are unlikely to be caught and prosecuted. Finally, many builders treat burglary as an unavoidable cost of business and seek to offset their losses by increasing house prices.
In this house under construction, the front door was left wide open with
appliances left uninstalled in the kitchen.
Credit: Rachel Boba and Roberto Santos
Burglars commit burglary, quite naturally, for the money. The decision to burgle is influenced by the perception of the ease with which a crime can be committed; in addition, burglars are commonly influenced by others. Burglars often know their victims, who can include casual acquaintances, neighborhood residents, people to whom they have provided a service, or the friends or relatives of close friends. Burglars either do not give much weight to the potential consequences of their actions or believe that there is little chance of getting caught. And in fact they are correct: burglars are rarely caught; national burglary clearance rates are only around 13 percent. Clearance rates for construction crime in particular are not recorded nationally, but these offenders seem to be caught even less often.
Although little specific research has been done, some researchers have classified construction site burglars into three categories: amateur opportunists, insiders (such as employees and rival contractors), and professional thieves. Common to all of these types is the ability to blend in with regular construction workers. There follows a more detailed discussion of each type of construction site burglar.
Amateur opportunists: Amateur opportunists live or travel near construction sites, see property on the site, and take it based upon an immediate evaluation of rewards and risks. They do not typically plan their crimes in advance, but rather act upon an immediate opportunity. However, they may also take property after seeing it unprotected for a long period of time as they travel past the construction site. Burglary of smaller materials and tools at times when workers are not present may indicate this type of offender.
Professional thieves: Professional thieves make their living burglarizing property and selling stolen goods. They plan their crimes in advance and tend to have an intricate knowledge of the areas where their crimes are committed. Larger hauls or the theft of high dollar items may signify an organized burglary effort.
Insiders: Insiders work for builders, contractors, or rival companies. They either have knowledge of a specific builder’s construction practices and access to keys, tools, and materials, or they have a general knowledge of construction practices, such as how to disassemble an air conditioning unit or the stage at which appliances are typically delivered. Generally, a high percentage of employee thefts begin with opportunities that are regularly presented to them. If security is lacking and management is indifferent, the temptation to take items that are improperly secured or accounted for may be too much for these individuals to resist. Daytime burglaries, the theft of goods with tight schedules between delivery and installation, or burglaries where complex deinstallations occur with minimal property damage may indicate that crimes are being committed by insiders.
Construction sites are interesting places. People passing by may stop to see what is being built or may even walk through the site. The simple curiosity that draws many people to construction sites also increases the probability that some people will then trespass or take unprotected property from the site.
The physical environment can affect the opportunities for crime at a particular location. For example, in planning their crimes, residential burglars consider occupancy cues (for example, the presence of cars, residents, and voices or other noises), surveillability cues (for example, whether they can be seen by neighbors or passersby), and accessibility cues (for example, how well the site is protected by doors, fences, or locks). Nearly all the cues that would prevent an offender from committing a residential burglary are typically lacking at single-family house construction sites: both the house under construction and the houses surrounding the construction site are generally unoccupied; at certain stages of construction the house has neither windows nor locking doors; and so forth. The following are specific physical features that render single-family house construction sites vulnerable to burglary.
Example of large scale building materials being left
unprotected during the early stages of a construction site.
Credit: Rachel Boba and Roberto Santos
Example of a construction site with building materials and uninstalled
doors left unprotected.
Credit: Rachel Boba and Roberto Santos
Patterns of repeat victimization for burglary at single-family house construction sites may not be obvious. Although a particular construction site might not be victimized repeatedly, a particular builder may be. For example, a comprehensive study in Port St. Lucie, Florida found that although only 12 of 254 individual sites were burglarized twice, 20 percent of builders accounted for nearly 70 percent of burglaries.
† See the Problem-Solving Tools Guide on Analyzing Repeat Victimization.
Property taken in construction site burglaries is rarely recovered. However, the type of goods that are taken may indicate the motivations of the offender. Amateur opportunists may take generic building materials for use in their own houses, such as plywood, lumber, or ladders. Professional thieves may take property that can be sold in an unregulated second-hand market, such as ceramic tiles, faucets, toilets, doors, and windows. Insiders may be more likely to take tools and small equipment or items that take some skill or effort to remove.
Example of an air conditioning unit delivered and left uninstalled.
Credit: Rachel Boba and Roberto Santos
Unlike residential and commercial burglaries, there is little research that indicates when construction site burglaries predominantly occur. And in fact, because of the lack of guardianship and the large number of workers that frequent a site, it would seem that construction site burglaries could occur at any time of day and on any day of the week. However, analyzing local burglary data may allow you to determine whether burglars prefer a particular time or day, which in turn will allow you to develop responses tailored to your local circumstances.
Because there are typically no witnesses to these crimes, the exact time of occurrence may be difficult to determine. Thus, it can be helpful to analyze the length of time that the property was left as risk.
The time period after a house has lockable windows and doors but before the house is occupied is a particularly vulnerable construction stage, because a large number of desirable types of property (for example, washers, dryers, and refrigerators) are in the house during this time. Burglaries in subdivisions may occur more often during the early construction stages (such as after the laying of the foundation), but before the first residents start moving in because of the availability of desirable construction materials and the lack of guardianship. Once again, because there is no research on this topic, it is important to determine when houses under construction are most vulnerable within your community. Lastly, construction cycles and schedules vary considerably by region, due to factors such as weather and national and local economics. Anticipating booms in construction based on these factors may assist in identifying a potential problem or in determining if an existing problem will continue.
The information above is only a generalized description of burglary at single-family house construction sites. You must combine these basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem if you hope to design an effective remedial strategy.
In addition to criminal justice agencies, the following entities have an interest in thwarting burglaries at single-family house construction sites and ought to be considered in connection with your information-gathering and problem-solving efforts:
The following methods will likely be helpful in analyzing the problem of burglaries at single-family house construction sites.
Police reports will provide a first look at your local problem. However, it can sometimes be difficult to identify burglaries that occur at construction sites, because reports of interest might be classified as “theft,” “vandalism,” or “criminal damage to property,” depending upon local statutory requirements and reporting protocols. Moreover, your records system may make it difficult to separate offenses occurring at single-family house construction sites from those occurring elsewhere. If standard reports do not capture the information you need, ask investigating officers to collect additional information when they make their initial police reports; for example, you might ask them to note whether there were any neighboring residences or what stage of construction the house had reached when it was burgled.
Visiting and observing single-family house construction sites can help you understand the construction practices and environmental features that contribute to the burglary problem.
Because construction site burglary is typically concentrated geographically, crime mapping can be a particularly useful analytical tool. Construction site burglary patterns that detail the method of the crime, time of day, day of week, type of property stolen, and any other important characteristics can inform patrol officers, builders, inspectors, neighborhood watches, and homeowners of recent activity in a particular area and encourage them to be on the alert for suspicious behavior.
Detectives and patrol officers often have undocumented knowledge about the crimes they have investigated. This information can often be elicited through personal interviews. For example, you might ask officers what they know about burglary operations they have observed or what measures they think might help in preventing burglaries.
Interviewing builders and contractors can be crucial, because many opportunities for construction site burglaries arise through site management and mismanagement. Understanding individual and industry reporting procedures, site supervisor responsibilities, crime prevention initiatives, the relationship between builders and subcontractors, and industry-wide views on crime and victimization will factor directly into understanding your local problem. In addition, such interviews will allow you to gather firsthand information on the efficacy of particular anticrime initiatives, such as the use of security guards and fencing, the initiation of reward programs, the utilization of burglary alarms and locking containers, and the delayed installation of appliances. Interviews should not be done haphazardly; rather, key questions should be developed beforehand to facilitate the information-gathering process. The questions listed in the following section can provide direction for these interviews.
Local building inspectors and other government personnel may be able to provide information about municipal policies and regulations that directly affect burglary opportunities. They may also have insights into industry practices that are effective in preventing burglary.
There follow some critical questions you should ask when analyzing your local burglary problem. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.
† The Port St. Lucie (Florida) Police Department developed a scale to rate the difficulty of each burglary. The scale took into account the amount of skill, the type of transportation, and the time necessary to complete the crime, as well as the accessibility of the stolen property within the site. For additional details, see Boba (2005).
Measurement will allow you to determine the degree to which your efforts have succeeded and may also suggest how your responses can be modified to produce the intended results. In order to determine how serious the problem is, you should first measure the extent of the problem before you implement responses; in that way, measuring the problem after responses have been implemented will allow you to determine whether your solutions have been effective. All measures should be implemented in both the target area and the surrounding areas. For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 1, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.
When evaluating a response, you should use measures that specifically reflect its impact. In that regard, it is important to remember that when a response is initially implemented the reporting of crime may rise because of an increased awareness of criminal activities and increased cooperation with police.
The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to burglary at single-family house construction sites.
The following criteria, although not necessarily indicative of a successful outcome, may indicate that your responses have had the intended effect.
Analyzing your local problem will give you a better understanding of the factors that contribute to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you can consider possible responses to the problem.
The following responses will provide a foundation for addressing your particular burglary problem. These strategies are drawn from research studies and police practice and are generally based on opportunity blocking. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances and that you can justify each response based upon reliable analysis. Several of these strategies may apply to your local problem; and in fact, an effective remedial strategy will likely involve the implementation of several different responses.
Because law enforcement alone is seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem, do not limit yourself to considering only what police can do; rather, carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and whether they can help respond to it. In some cases, responsibilities may need to be shifted toward those who have the capacity to implement more effective responses. (For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems). Building partnerships and working towards a collective response with the various stakeholders is essential to success.† This is particularly true in regard to construction site burglaries, because so many of the factors that contribute to the problem are related to building practices.
† See Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 5 on Partnering With Businesses to Address Public Safety Problems.
There is little research evaluating responses to the problem of construction site burglaries. Therefore, the responses discussed below emphasize appropriate and practical opportunity blocking. Blocking criminal opportunities often has a greater direct effect on offenders than do other crime prevention strategies.
Police should establish cooperative working relationships with builders. In turn, builders should share information about burglary problems and patterns, local building practices, and loss prevention efforts. Builders should be encouraged to provide police with after-hour contact numbers, documentation of stolen appliances, and tool serial numbers.
If it can be established that certain houses are at a high risk for victimization, response measures can be concentrated at those locations. For example, the Port St. Lucie (Florida) Police Department determined that houses in the final stages of construction were at a higher risk of burglary and used this information to target police attention.
Examples of poor coordination of deliveries include:
† The microchip tags used by Celebrity Houses were supplied by tool maker Bosch, whose Safe and Sound tool tracking system is an alternative to the common practice of engraving or marking (O’Malley, 2005).
Some companies have found that hotlines are a cost effective way to control theft. In Northern California, a hotline system that rewards individuals up to $1,000 is funded through membership dues, association contributions, and a grant. In 2003, the system paid out $8,000 in rewards and recovered over $2 million in stolen property. †
† A survey conducted of ten large U.S. retail companies, which represented almost 50 percent of U.S. stores, found that a hotline with some sort of rewards (for example, cash) was effective in convincing employees to report theft. The survey indicated that successful programs create a supportive environment in which reporting mechanisms and participation incentives are sufficient to encourage employees to report theft or other inappropriate behavior by their coworkers (Scicchitano, Johns, and Blackwood, 2004). See Scicchitano, Johns, and Blackwood (2004) for a summary of the use of toll-free hotlines for reporting dishonesty, techniques for encouraging the use of the hotlines, and recommendations for companies that want to implement hotlines.
The Casey city council in Victoria, Australia initiated a policy that mandated street lighting for construction areas. Prior to the initiative, street lighting was activated when the first occupants moved in, which meant that there was no street lighting during construction in unoccupied areas. The new policy authorized the activation of street lights at the time of the release of each subdivision.
Example of target hardening of construction equipment.
Credit: Rachel Boba and Roberto Santos
† See Response Guide No. 4 on Video Surveillance of Public Places.
† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 5 on False Burglar Alarms.
Template of a sticker placed
on major appliances to increase the
perception of risk of being caught.
Credit: Port St. Lucie(FL) Police Department
† See Response Guide No. 5 on Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns.
This article was published along with other tailored responses in the community.
Credit: Fort Pierce (Florida) Tribune, September 2005
The table below summarizes the responses to burglaries at single-family house construction sites, the mechanism by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they ought to work best, and some factors that should be considered before a particular response is implemented. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances and that you can justify each response based upon reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses; law enforcement alone is seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.
|Changing Building Practices|
|#||Response||How It Works||Works Best If…||Considerations|
|Limiting the number of construction sites supervised||Increases the amount of meaningful guardianship over individual construction sites||. . . there is an adequate number of employees||Supervisors may be able to handle a higher number of sites in subdivisions where houses are centrally located, as opposed to sites that are spread out across a large geographical area|
|Coordinating delivery and installation||Decreases the time between delivery and installation to reduce opportunity for theft; eliminates the opportunity for theft when installation is delayed until||. . . the time between delivery and installation is as short as possible; immediate installation after delivery or installation after occupancy is preferable||Check state and local requirements relating to the installation of appliances; it is sometimes the case that the financer requires appliances to be installed before the closing of construction|
|Screening and training workers/ subcontractors||Promotes trustworthy employees and helps them recognize and report criminal behavior||. . . there is low employee turnover and a minimal number of subcontractors||Where permitted by law, employers should conduct criminal and financial background checks of both potential employees and subcontractors|
|Limiting the hiring of subcontractors||Promotes trustworthy employees who know a builder’s policies and procedures||. . . there are an adequate number of workers and subcontractors in the local market||In some locales, this may not be possible because of a small workforce or a high volume of construction|
|Having a check out system for tools||Records data on individuals responsible for tools; instills both a sense of accountability and the perception that management is watching inventory||. . . one person at a site or subdivision is responsible for the system||Consistent use of the system|
|Hiring of loss prevention personnel||Devotes individual attention to preventing and solving burglaries; the specialist can also be a liaison between police and other stakeholders||. . . the company can afford a full-time loss prevention specialist||May be difficult to convince builders who believe that losses due to burglary are merely a cost of doing business|
|7||Employing onsite private security patrols||Produces a visible, pro-active deterrent, which may discourage offenders from committing burglaries||. . . sites are clustered together or are located in a subdivision||Communication, guidelines, and reporting procedures are essential to maximizing the benefits of security patrols. Patrols should be periodically evaluated to ensure they are being used properly. For the cost-conscious, it may be possible to create a perception of security through signage that says “Protected by Acme Security Company” or “Beware of Guard Dogs”; fake security cameras can also be an effective deterrent|
|8||Establishing an employee hotline to report crime||Increases an offender’s perception of being apprehended by providing an anonymous way for coworkers to report criminal behavior||. . . the builder encourages use of the hotline and provides cash rewards or other incentives||A successful reporting program provides the mechanisms, incentives, and environment to encourage employees to report theft or other inappropriate behavior by their coworkers|
|9||Adopting and enforcing antitheft policies||Enforces a zero tolerance position on crime and lets potential offenders know criminal behavior is not acceptable||. . . the message is consistently and regularly presented to employees and the policies are strictly enforced||May be difficult for builders to enforce when there is a high volume of construction and a shortage of workers|
|#||Response||How It Works||Works Best If…||Considerations|
|10||Improving lighting at construction sites||Indicates security measures are in place at the construction site; increases observation of the site by passersby; allows people to observe incidents without taking personal risks||. . . there is appropriate lighting for the environment||Electricity may not be available|
|11||Installing and monitoring closed-circuit television||Deters potential offenders; provides evidence of offending for apprehension and prosecution||. . . cameras are portable, well-positioned and not easily disabled; there is adequate lighting at night||Expensive, but can be motion sensitive; most useful in high risk areas|
|12||Installing alarm systems||Deters potential offenders; quickly alerts builders and police||. . . if triggered alarms are promptly investigated||High percentage of false alarms; signs indicating the use of an alarm should be displayed to reinforce the deterrent effect|
|13||Using portable storage units||Stores materials that will be kept at the construction site overnight||. . . the construction sites are in a subdivision||Can be equipped with an alarm and a lock that is resistant to bolt cutters|
|14||Installing fencing||Provides a visible deterrent by clearly identifying site boundaries; controls access to the site||. . . used in larger construction sites or subdivisions||Limiting access may frustrate employees|
|15||Marking property||Deters potential offenders from taking property that they believe builders are monitoring; allows police to return recovered property||. . . desirable property can be marked||Requires builder participation and investigative follow up; publicity increases the benefits|
|16||Installing global positioning satellite (GPS) locator chips||Enables builders to track and recover larger appliances and equipment||. . . the builder has reason to believe that property will be taken (for example, from a confidential informant)||System must be monitored and can be expensive|
|17||Displaying crime prevention signage||Can convince potential burglars that builders and police are monitoring sites and enacting crime prevention measures||. . . signage is professionally designed and produced as well as prominently and strategically displayed||Signage alone may be a cost-effective deterrent to novice offenders; however, its deterrent effect can deteriorate over time|
|#||Response||How It Works||Works Best If…||Considerations|
|18||Enhancing natural surveillance||Requests assistance of neighborhood residents and other groups likely to be in a particular area||. . . a construction site burglary problem has been identified in a particular area||“Reverse 911,” including those with autodialers, can be used to communicate with a targeted population|
|19||Making use of publicity||Influences a potential offender’s perception of risk; provides information about defining and reporting suspicious behavior||. . . campaigns are carefully timed||Any attempt to use publicity to prevent or deter crime must be credible|
|20||Disrupting markets for stolen goods||Reduces rewards for offenders by preventing them from profiting from their crimes||. . . the goods are being sold in second-hand markets||Can be difficult to obtain information about how and where offenders sell or exchange stolen goods; stings are expensive and time-consuming|
|#||Response||How It Works||Works Best If…||Considerations|
|Responses With Limited Effectiveness|
|21||Police patrolling of construction sites||Increases guardianship||. . . patrols are focused on sites and subdivisions at the most vulnerable stages of construction||Difficult for officers to apprehend offenders|
|22||General surveillance and bait operations||Property is placed to tempt offenders; police stake out the crime scene or place GPS locators on the property||. . . used tactically with established patterns or confidential informants||The equipment is expensive|
|23||Conducting fencing sting operations||Police set up bogus operations to buy stolen property||. . . police have specific information about a large theft operation||Research suggests that these operations may generate more crime than they prevent|
|24||Increasing penalties for burglars||Raises the penalties for burglary; specifically deters criminals||. . . offenders are apprehended||Increased penalties deter offenders only if combined with greater perceived risks or fewer anticipated rewards|
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The quality and focus of these submissions vary considerably. With the exception of those submissions selected as winners or finalists, these documents are unedited and are reproduced in the condition in which they were submitted. They may nevertheless contain useful information or may report innovative projects.
Bulldozing - Construction Site Burglary [Goldstein Award Finalist], Port St. Lucie Police Department (Port St. Lucie, FL, US), 2006
Construction Site Burglaries, San Diego Police Department, 1999
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