Crime in America.Net
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Graduate-Johns Hopkins University.
Personal, Family and Home Crime Prevention Tips
Crime in America.Net offers simple, easy to understand crime prevention information and shows sources for research or additional information. Not all material will have a source. There are many “tips” that simply come from conversations with fellow crime prevention practitioners, victims and criminal offenders.
Start any inquiry about crime and crime prevention with a call to your local police agency and ask to speak to the crime prevention specialist. They are the best sources for information as it pertains to local conditions.
Much of the crime prevention material you see on the Internet is based on selling you a product or a service. I’m not trying to sell you anything and I’m not asking for anything. I simply believe that ten years as a crime prevention information specialist and spokesperson for national federally funded agencies plus four decades in the criminal justice system plus two advanced university degrees plus hundreds of research based books and reports I’ve read plus conversations with victims, police officers and criminal offenders leads me to conclusions that may keep you and your family safer.
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This paper was reviewed and approved by crime prevention specialists at the National Crime Prevention Institute in Louisville, KY where I studied and taught ) and the Maryland Community Crime Prevention Institute (http://www.dpscs.state.md.us/aboutdpscs/pct/ccpi/ ) where I was a spokesperson. Critiques are ongoing and informed opinions are welcomed at [email protected].
Notes on the Research
Please note that I use US Department of Justice or US government produced or funded research and material exclusively. With some of the research cited, you have to enlarge the page and enlarge the percent of the page displayed. In many cases I provide topical information (i.e., violent crime) that contains a wide variety of data about the issue.
Some of the data have older publication dates; please note that Department of Justice research is often definitive for decades.
Some of the research is confusing and difficult to read, but I felt that exposure to the best statistical information provides clarity as to your chances for victimization and what you can do.
The tips I present deal with stranger to stranger crime. If you and a friend exchange blows because of a perceived insult, there is little I can suggest beyond getting better friends. You would be surprised as to how many crimes occur between people who know each other, especially as they apply to female victims and children. For example, about seven in ten female rape or sexual assault victims stated the offender was an intimate, other relative, a friend or an acquaintance. See data on violent crime characteristics below for data on non-stranger violence
Two Kinds of Criminal Offenders
There are essentially two kinds of criminal offenders, ones who leave home knowing that they will commit crime and the ones who leave home without specific criminal intent. The second are known as opportunity offenders (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ -search “crimes of opportunity” if you want to see some of the literature).
Opportunity offenders “float” through their lives or jobs or school or recreational opportunities until someone mentions that Mrs. Smith has a habit of leaving her windows open during warm weather. He and an associate enter Mrs. Smith’s home through the open window and steal items they can use or sell. They are in and out in five minutes or less.
I address the opportunity offender on this site. They are generally unskilled (understatement) at criminal activity and often under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crime (see http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/dcf/contents.cfm for information on drugs and crime and http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=385 for information on criminal use of alcohol. The bottom line is that most offenders (close to 90 percent in some cities) are under the influence of something at the time of arrest (substantiated by drug and alcohol testing research upon arrest in a variety of cities, see ).
An endless number of crimes are committed by the opportunity offender and they can be very serious in nature. They look for cars with keys in the ignition or cars that are easily stolen. They watch you pull out a wallet full of money and credit cards during a purchase. They see a front door that someone forgot to close or lock. They notice that you are under the influence and thus vulnerable.
Opportunity offenders could not pick a lock if their lived depended on it. They commit a burglary by going through unlocked doors or windows (see data on burglary below) or they kick a door down or smash a window. See http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=32 for a variety of data on property crime and burglary.
Robberies are often committed in groups (especially among strangers) and they prey on what they consider easy targets. They hit and run by snatching a purse. They pull a knife or intimidate. Most do not involve firearms. See http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=31 for a comprehensive overview of robbery and violent crime.
From a crime prevention point of view, opportunity offenders are fairly easily convinced that you or your loved ones or home are not worth the trouble; that’s why so many of the tips presented on this site work most of the time. It simply does not take a lot to keep you and your family safe; its knowing what to do.
By-the-way, offenders committed to a lifestyle of crime (habitual offenders) are not very skilled at crime either. It does not take a lot of knowledge to push a person and display a knife and announce a robbery. They possess few burglary skills. They are simply committed to crime as a frequent method to gain money. They too are under the influence of drugs or alcohol during the commission of a crime. They too are looking for an easy target. See http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=22 for criminal histories of arrested felons.
Don’t be an Easy Target—Violent Crime
For general information on violent crime, see http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=31.
Understand that what you do, the people you associate with, the paces you choose to go and the way you present yourself depends on your perceived risk. If you live or work or play in an area with crime problems, then you must make personal and family crime prevention a daily part of your life. No one is asking you to fear the joy of urban or suburban life. No one is asking you to run panhandlers down with your car. No one is asking you to be rude. Life in big cities or metropolitan areas is filled with opportunity and satisfaction. But regardless of the setting, there are people who will take advantage of circumstances if presented with an easy opportunity. Unfortunately, crime in America is something that most of us need to understand and deal with.
I will attempt to teach you the basics of personal crime prevention. But there is much more to know. The U.S. Department of Justice’s clearinghouse has an array of personal and home crime prevention material at http://www.ncjrs.gov/celebrate_safe_communities/sfhasp.html.
Rule Number One–Be with Someone Else
The best method of preventing violent crime is to be to be with another person. The overwhelming number of violent crime happens when you are alone. See http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=31. This simply means being with someone else when you leave home whenever possible. This applies to every member of your family regardless of age. While it’s impossible to do this all or most of the time, do it as often as possible. Make it a habit. When shopping, ask store personnel or a security officer to walk you to your car.
Cell Phones–When Someone Else is Not Available
If the best advice is to be with someone else, and if that’s not possible, then bring along the next best thing; bring your cell phone. Having a cell phone is not a substitute for being with someone else, but it can provide you with a tool or a method to contact with the police “if” it’s used appropriately.
Police and crime prevention practitioners have encouraged the strategic use of cell phones since their inception. We give or loan cell phones to victims of domestic violence and victims of other violent crimes. We teach neighborhood watch and citizens on patrol to call their police liaison officer via cell phones and what to report. There are some within the crime prevention community who feel that increased use of personal cell phones coincides with national reductions in crime (see Criminal Victimization in the US for crime statistics, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm).
Although there is no research that substantiates a connection between reduced crime and cell phones, you can search http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ for “crime prevention” and “cell phone” to see examples as to how cell phones are used in crime prevention activities.
Provide every member of your family with a cell phone. If they are old enough to be alone outside the home, then they are old enough for a cell phone. The cell phone may be one of the most important crime prevention tools you can have. Everyone in your family needs to know how to dial 911.
But remember that the principal method of crime prevention is avoidance (go into a store or another safe place first, and then reach for your cell phone). I do not want you, your spouse or your child/teenager dialing a cell phone when they should be seeking a safe place. Do not display an expensive cell or smart phone unless necessary; it could cause a robbery instead of stopping one.
Never-the-less, never hesitate to call 911 if you believe you are being followed.
Simply announcing that you have called the police is often enough to persuade someone to stop bothering you or following you. Again, do not hesitate to call police.
Know where you are at all times so you can give your location, but do not hesitate to call if uncertain; some (not all) police departments have the technology to pinpoint your location through cell phone towers. If you are on Maple Street but do not have the hundred block or cross street, call anyway. Let the police find you.
While police cannot track you through satellite technology, some cell phones can be tracked through satellite or GPS technology that family members share with each other which may be advantageous, especially for children, older individuals or people with health problems.
My wife displayed her cell phone and announced that she called police when a very aggressive male driver tried to block her car several years ago. He fled but was apprehended by police. We successfully prosecuted the individual.
Are You Vulnerable?
Offenders judge you based on your perceived vulnerability. How you act when in public and the signals you give are important. Appear confident and unafraid. Act like you know where you are going and what you are doing. Always look people in their eyes if concerned. Nod to them. Let them know you are aware of their presence.
Do not appear distracted. Do not talk on your cell phone when driving or walking. But have your cell phone ready.
Do not appear distracted. Do not walk while listening to your portable music device. Do not drive while blasting others with your favorite music. It can attract the wrong people.
Do not appear distracted. Do not appear to be under the influence of any substance (even if you are). Advertising the fact that you are under the influence in a public place may get you attention you don’t want.
Be aware of your surroundings. If someone is following you on the street, then walk on the other side of the street. Walk in the middle of the street if necessary and if it can be done safely (as I have done after working late in downtown Washington, D.C. while walking to the subway after aggressive people asked for money). Do anything that indicates that you are in control.
Do not give money to anyone when asked. Politely but firmly say no and continue walking confidently. Do not give a cigarette to anyone who asks. If someone asks you for the time, provide it but continue to walk. Be pleasant but be firm. Have your cell phone ready. There have been many robberies that started with “do you have the time, do you have a cigarette, and can you spare a dollar?” But note that the vast majority of panhandlers are just seeking money, not a confrontation.
In Your Car
Leave lots of room to maneuver at stop lights. Leave no less than a car length between you and the other car. If a person approaches, you have room to move your car away from a possible confrontation. If truly concerned or frightened, pull out into the opposing lane if you can do so safely. Get away from the situation. Needless to say, always keep the doors locked and the windows up.
If you break down on a highway of a neighborhood you are unfamiliar with, then stay with the car until help arrives. Use your cell phone to call police. Keep your windows up. If someone wants to talk to you, do so through a cracked window. Understand that you can drive (with great caution) on a completely flat tire for miles at slow speeds if you need to escape a situation. Parents, make sure your teenager knows where they are going and has a reliable vehicle with plenty of gas and decent tires. Make sure their cell phones are fully charged.
While I’m addressing stranger-to stranger violence on this site, it’s important to restate that most female victims are attacked by someone they know. In many cases, it’s a matter of who you let into your home, or whose home you go into. See http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvv.pdf , http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/ipv01.pdf ,and http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/ipv01.pdf . See http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=gsearch for a general overview.
Children and Teens
Talk to every member of the family about personal crime prevention. Have age appropriate conversations with your children. If they are old enough to be out of your sight, they are old enough to discuss safety.
For a good document on child crime prevention, see http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/psfceng.pdf .
The most important aspect of protecting your child is making absolutely sure that the child can come to you to discuss any aspect of their lives without you getting upset. Never give the impression to your children that they are somehow responsible for their victimization or attempted victimization. People who target children try to make them feel as if they have played a role in their own victimization. You must be accepting of everything they tell you.
If victimized (or an attempt to victimize) then your child/teen probably knows the offender or has had prior contact with the offender. Teaching your children about stranger danger is important, teaching your child that, in most cases, people trying to harm them are known to them is even more important. Do not scare a child. Teach, inform and discuss.
The more you talk to your child, the less he or she will be victimized or use drugs or alcohol or harm themselves. It’s that simple.
Expect family members to resist your efforts to talk to them about crime prevention. Teenagers already know the dangers of life (or so they state). Even while resisting these conversations, they understand that you are trying to protect them, and they appreciate your intervention (even if they seem like they do not).
For additional information, see .
Don’t be an Easy Target–Home and Car Crime Prevention
The most important thing to understand about protecting your home is that “target hardening” is one of “the” most successful forms of crime prevention. See http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ and search for “target hardening.” See Preventing Crime, What Works at http://www.ncjrs.gov/works/. See Chapter 7.
The bottom line is that opportunity offenders (and many more determined offenders) will be persuaded to look elsewhere or give up entirely when they realize that breaking into your home is not worth the effort. They only have the skills to take advantage of what you leave them.
Crime prevention specialists have dedicated their professional lives to understanding what it takes to burglarproof a home (how the screws are angled for the faceplate on a door, the length of the screws and the surface material are all points of discussion). But the home owner simply wants to know “the” most effective things to do. Here they are:
Most burglaries take place through open doors and open windows. Lock your doors. Lock your windows. “In a third of the completed burglaries, the burglar forced entry into the home; in two thirds, the burglar gained entry through an unlocked door or open window.” See http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cv94.pdf (bottom of page two).
When force is used, burglars kick in a door. Have solid wood or metal doors. Higher quality windows with multiple panes of glass are better than single pane windows.
Use high-quality door frames, deadbolt locks, screw plates and screws. Have certified locksmiths (contact your local police for advice) install your locks if uncertain. They are not that expensive and the job is done right.
There are many additional suggestions, and once again, you will find them all at http://www.ncjrs.gov/celebrate_safe_communities/sfhasp.html . See “Home Security Checklist” from the National Sheriff’s Association.
Do you need an alarm? That’s a subjective decision. If it makes your family feel more secure, then consider an alarm system. The sign that come with it tells offenders that you are prepared.
Using the panic button for your car if someone questionable is outside (or inside) will cause them to reconsider and escape.
Per a variety of offenders, in many if not most cases, a barking dog is just as good (maybe better) than an alarm system.
When away from home, make sure that your home gives the impression that people are at home (timers on lights, leave a radio playing, etc.).
Place a ten dollar bill on your stair steps when you leave the home. If you return home, and the ten dollar bill is missing, leave immediately and call police.
As to your car, the same principals above apply; many thefts occur when the keys are left in the ignition. A steering wheel locking device will persuade most offenders from trying to steal your vehicle. Keep all valuables out of the car (or anything that looks valuable). Cars have been broken into for a single cigarette.
Should you fight back during a stranger-to-stranger attack?
Remember that we are addressing stranger to stranger violent crimes and every government crime prevention specialist will tell you that your life or well being is worth more than your wallet and car. That’s good advice. In essence, the research states that you will prevent a greater number of violent crimes by fighting back, but your risk if injury goes up dramatically. Remember that your assailant is generally young, very emotional (fifty percent of offenders claim mental health issues) and probably high on drugs or alcohol. Generally speaking, he wants to get something and leave. Government crime prevention specialists suggest that you let him.
Most victims of violent crime are not injured and when injured, the injuries result in brief emergency room stays
See http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ and search for “victim resistance” for an overview of some of the data.
Victim of Crime Data
Your chances for criminal victimization differ as to who you are and where you live. For example, there are considerable differences in criminal victimization based on age. For statistical information, see .
National Crime Trends
The best data for national crime trends is Criminal Victimization in the United States at . The data is based on the use of crime surveys rather than on crime reported to police. Most crime is not reported to law enforcement.
These are, in essence, the best tips for crime prevention that I am aware of. Your local police department, your state police agency and others within government (state crime prevention officer’s organizations) will discuss your issues with you; their advice is the best advice. Some will come to your house and do a security survey. Do not hesitate to call them regardless of the topic. If they cannot find an answer for you, they will research the topic and come back to you with suggestions. Start with a call to your local police agency and ask to speak to the crime prevention specialist.
I spoke to a large number of criminal offenders throughout my career who are now taxpaying, law abiding citizens. There is a good deal of research indicating that, if given the proper resources, many offenders could give up their criminal ways. Many crime prevention experts support offender reentry programs and I encourage you to support them as well.
There are a variety of national organizations that deal with victimization, crime and the criminal justice system. They are listed in this website.