How Might Improved Lighting Affect Crime?
In most people's minds, there is a simple and direct relationship
between lighting and crime: better lighting will deter offenders who benefit
from the cover of darkness. Improved lighting means that offenders are more
likely to be seen by someone who might intervene, call the police, or recognize
the offender. Even if this does not happen, some offenders who fear that it might
would be deterred from crime.
However, things are rarely as simple as they first appear. Professor
a crime prevention expert, has explained how improved lighting can have a
variety of different effects on crime. In particular, not only can it sometimes
increase crime, but it can also affect not just nighttime crime, but daylight crime
as well. You should familiarize yourself with all the possible effects he
discusses, which are summarized in Box 1 and Box 2.
Box 1: How Improved Lighting Could REDUCE Crime (adapted from Pease 1999)
- Improved lighting deters
potential offenders by increasing the risk that they will be seen or
recognized when committing crimes.
- Police become more visible, thus leading to a decision to
desist from crime.
- If improved lighting leads to
the arrest and imprisonment of repeat offenders they can no longer commit
crimes in the area.
- New lighting can encourage
residents to spend more time on their stoops or in their front yards in the
evenings and thus increase informal surveillance.
- Improved lighting can encourage
more people to walk at night, which would increase informal surveillance.
- New lighting shows that city
government and the police are determined to control crime. As a result,
potential offenders might no longer
see the neighborhood as affording easy pickings. In additions, citizens might
be motivated to pass on information about offenders.
- Better lighting can increase
community pride and cohesiveness,
leading to a greater willingness to intervene in crime and to report it.
- If offenders commit crime in
both light and darkness, nighttime arrests and subsequent imprisonment would
reduce both daytime and nighttime crime.
How Improved Lighting Could INCREASE Crime (adapted from Pease1999)
- Increased social activity
outside the home in the evenings can increase the number of unoccupied homes
available for burglary.
- Increased visibility of
potential victims allows better assessment
of their vulnerability and the value of what they carry. Offenders might more
easily be able to see if parked cars contain valuable items.
- Increased visibility allows
better judgment of the proximity of "capable guardians" who might intervene
- Better lighting might facilitate
activities like drug dealing and prostitution.
- Better lit streets might attract
disorderly youths from nearby areas.
- Improved lighting of rarely used
footpaths might facilitate undesirable behavior.
- Disorderly activities focused
upon a newly illuminated area can spill over into the use of that place as a
daylight meeting point.
Two theories underlie Professor Pease's ideas about the
crime prevention effects of improved street lighting.†
lighting is a situational crime prevention measure that focuses on reducing
opportunity and increasing risk through modification of the physical
lighting strengthens informal social control and community cohesion through the
promotion of social interaction and investment in neighborhood infrastructure.
Some of the effects identified by Pease are more plausible
than others, but his lists can help you in two main ways: (1) they alert you to
the fact that improved lighting might not always lead just to reductions in
nighttime crime, but can sometimes have other results as well and (2) they
alert you to possible arguments that might be used by the supporters and
opponents of improved lighting.
Will Improved Lighting Displace Crime to Nearby Areas?
Pease's hypotheses concern the different ways in which
improved street lighting might affect the neighborhood where it is installed.
But what about nearby neighborhoods? Might not criminals simply commit their
crimes where the lighting is still poor? This phenomenon, known as spatial or
geographical displacement, might seem an obvious result of improved lighting,
but again, matters are not so simple, as is shown by the following.
studies show that displacement occurs much less often than most people, police
included, often assume. For example, a review of 55 studies of displacement
undertaken for the Dutch Ministry of Justice found that displacement occurred
in only 22 instances. When it did occur, it was never complete, so that there was
always a net benefit of the crime prevention measure.3
recent U.S. study concluded that street offenders are much more likely to adapt
their methods to the new conditions or to displace their activities to a
different time of the day, rather than to offend elsewhere.4
than displacement, many recent studies have found that there is diffusion of
benefits to nearby areas. This means that the crime prevention measures have a
beneficial influence beyond the places that they target, perhaps because offenders
are not exactly sure where the crime prevention measures have been introduced. Obviously,
this is much more likely if offenders are not local residents.
For police officers, the main implication of this research is
that although improved street lighting might displace crime into nearby
neighborhoods, it is just as likely to reduce crime in these neighborhoods
because of a diffusion of benefits.