Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Uncovering the Great Murder Mystery

The Big Combo - a 1950s film noir murder mystery
Photo John Alton, BigComboTrailer, Allied Artists 
In 2010 Vanessa Barker published an intriguing study just released on the internet: Explaining the Great American Crime Decline.

I love this study.

Barker reviews three studies on the crime decline: Frank Zimring’s The Great American Crime Decline, a report by Goldberger and Rosenfield and a book by Wallman and Blumstein, The Crime Drop in America.

You might think the crime decline topic is old turf with explanatory paths we’ve walked many times: less street cocaine, bigger and fuller prisons, tougher policing, smarter policing, legal abortions.

Alas, says Barker, none of those standard stories emerge from the research intact.


Barker moves away from standard stories onto Insights from Urban Sociology. Crime theorists will recognize references to collective efficacy and neighborhood structure. For those unfamiliar with crime theory, SafeGrowth is a megamenu of these same insights. Probably why I love the study...duh!

The changing structure of downtowns and changing youth culture falls squarely into these insights. Such changes help build more cohesive neighborhoods, not in places like Ferguson but in enough places to make a difference.

These insights include social and environmental factors this blog has held front and center, like business associations, non-profits, schools, social services, cultural activities, transport systems, and housing. They include examples of collaborative commons and social cohesion.

More prisons do not explain the crime declines

That’s when Barker drops the bomb! When she re-examined urban ecology studies on immigration she discovered how increasing immigration has helped reduce crime, not increase it!

“Sampson…suggests that increased immigration in the 1990s sparked urban renewal and economic growth in immigrant-dense neighborhoods like Queens and Bushwick in New York, the West Side in Chicago, South Central Los Angeles, and cities like Miami. The influx of immigrants corresponded with increases in income and decreases in poverty.”


I’d love to see that debate in elections now underway in Canada, and next year in the U.S. Sadly what we get instead is hollow sound-bite nuggets from a bunch of nattering numpties.

Case in point: Last week the NDP party in Canada proposed to hire 2,500 more cops. They want to cut crime on Canadian streets…streets where most crime is still declining!

Pockets of Crime expands urban ecology theory -
collective action by residents can turn the tide,
but only when physical conditions are right


Sadly the standard stories persist, lately in the theory that crime declines resulted from increased security worldwide (in technical terms, guardianship). And we are served up a buffet of advanced statistical techniques that hit and peck at data in shiny, new datasets.

It’s a kind of infinite monkey theorem for big crime data. Remember the theory that predicted the monkey who hits and pecks keyboard keys for infinity will almost surely end up creating Hamlet.

I say leave the monkey alone! Barker and colleagues are onto something, something we’ve known for a long time.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Our enemies in blue

Baltimore streets in April - photo by Aiden Walsh
This week I heard from two old friends, an ex-police chief and a current chief. Echoing sentiments in our recent book You In Blue, one offered, “there needs to be a new narrative”. The other, surprisingly, referred me to the controversial anti-police book by Kristian Williams,  Our Enemies in Blue: Police Power in America.

Our Enemies attempts to string together a series of violent police incidents like Ferguson and Baltimore into a wider historical chain stretching back decades. According to Williams, links showing up today - zero-tolerance, order-maintenance policing and quality-of-life policing - are but the latest manifestation of an age-old chain.


Agree or not, Williams is not the first to suggest alternatives to the criminal justice system. Restorative justice, CPTED, the Interrupters, and SafeGrowth are all modern examples. Williams’ examples are a tad more unconventional and less stable. (The now defunct Black Panthers is one.)

Our Enemies in Blue by Kristian Williams
Still, Williams’ central theme has been widely researched in the police literature: “The police do provide an important community service - offering protection against crime. They do not do this job well, or fairly, and it is not their chief function, but they do it and it brings them legitimately.”

Williams curiously ignores decades of collaborative problem-solving in the POP world - no doubt because POP refutes his point. But the fact that most police basic training academies ignore POP, reinforces it.


Williams asserts: “it is a bad habit of mind, a form of power-worship, to assume that things must be as they are, that they will continue to be as they have been... The first step toward change is the understanding that things can be different. This is my principal recommendation: we must recognize the possibility of a world without police.”

I’m not sure what that world would look like. But the fact that this sentiment has sizable voice and more listeners than ever before tells us the ripples started in Ferguson are splashing on shores far and wide.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

CPTED - The death and life of social

CPTED history - looking back before moving forward

GUEST BLOG – Mateja Mihinjac is a criminologist at Griffith University, Australia completing her Ph.D on the implementation of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). She is a certified SafeGrowth instructor and has taught SafeGrowth in Australia and New Zealand.

Diane Zahm, urban planning professor and former ICA Chair, once wrote that without citizen involvement in the process and locally relevant practices, implementation of CPTED strategies is “merely security and not really CPTED”.

I uncovered that quote recently while researching CPTED theory and history. I was amazed how much information supported the social and motivational aspects of CPTED and yet were largely ignored in contemporary CPTED literature. From my research it was clear CPTED, as originally intended, was more similar to SafeGrowth than the physical, 1st Generation CPTED today.


In Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote of urban life and “eyes on the street”  representing the foremost example of the design that supports informal control and builds social capital. Similarly, Elizabeth Wood emphasised that people’s needs and desires should be taken into account and that “design cannot do everything for the population”.

Newman’s 1972 concept of defensible space relies on the social fabric to create the expression of territorial proprietorship. Therefore the power to defend space is not a consequence of architectural design but rather its prerequisite.


Following Newman, the Westinghouse CPTED studies examined the most comprehensive demonstration CPTED projects. The studies emphasised the importance of motivational reinforcement, a concept that somehow got lost in the implementation process. As a result, outcomes were mixed.

A 1993 evaluation of the Westinghouse studies concluded:

“The reason for inconsistent and temporary effects appears to be that crime and violence arise from interactions between the social environment and the physical environment, which cannot be controlled entirely through manipulations of the physical environment.”

Volunteer-run outdoor library. Social reinforcement activities in Ljubljana, Slovenia
Photo by Marusa Babnik
Given the power relegated to social reinforcement in the work that pioneered CPTED, how did it get lost in modern CPTED theory?

Social motives for crime receive practically no attention in modern CPTED with the exception of Second Generation CPTED in which social and community aspects are reintegrated back into CPTED practice and theory.

With the renaissance in community-development called collective efficacy, the exciting social design revolution called tactical urbanism, and the evolution of SafeGrowth as a new way to plan safer neighbourhoods, I hope CPTED will join these new 21st Century movements and finally recognize the need to fully integrate the social and the physical.

For it is within community where the power to drive social change emerges.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Target hardening - the journey into the desert

Razor wire - the ultimate target hardener
This week I fielded inquiries about target hardening. It reminded me of the story of the mirage in the desert:

When the desert traveler dying from thirst sees the mirage of an oasis he diverts toward what he mistakenly thinks is his salvation. He does so, not because it is real, but because it is all he knows and because he is desperate.

This is what happened when shop-owners in London installed spikes to deter sleeping homeless people. The global backlash became an embarrassing public relations nightmare far worse than homeless people looking for a bed. Clearly, target hardening was a mirage that backfired.

Target hardening remains a mirage because we have very little research about its impact on community-building or on the perception of the public. Target hardening definitely conveys a message. What message does it convey about buildings, benches, urban parks and residential property? Does it drive people away for fear of crime? Is that message helpful for building local pride in our future communities?

For decades shop owners have target hardened their shops after closing
Target hardening seeped into CPTED language in spite of its utter absence in the early literature from the CPTED pioneers. As far as I can tell, target hardening as a CPTED strategy showed up about a decade after CPTED was born.

Then in the early 1980s Ronald Clarke adopted target hardening as a component of situational crime prevention and that is where it has resided ever since.

Historically target hardening has been around a very long time. Some instructors like to equate medieval forts as examples of target hardening, but stretching a metaphor to antiquity does a disservice to contemporary democracies where human rights bind modern societies together.


Still, target hardening persists in the security lexicon because at times it works very well. I use it when other options don’t work such as high risk public housing prior to community-building programs. Regrettably, research on the topic is thin. Most target hardening research obsesses on common property crimes such as burglary, vandalism and thefts and to a lesser extent, robbery.

There is scant research on crimes against persons such as homicides, shootings or gang related violence, and what does exist is spotty. Luckily some research on target hardening still shows up in the property crime literature.

Fishbowl target hardening - security at a Bank of China branch in Brazil  
The truth is we know very little about the broader impact of target hardening. And our ignorance portends a rather scary future until we answer the single most important question about it: Is target hardening simply a mirage diverting us from more substantial, sustainable, and community-minded answers?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

CPTED event of the year - 2015 ICA conference

Looking down from the Calgary Tower observation deck - photo imgur at buzzfeed 
If you have not been following crime prevention or CPTED websites you may not know about a must-see event - the upcoming 2015 International CPTED Association bi-annual conference. This year it is October 19-20 in Calgary, Canada, where the ICA was born twenty years ago.

In 1996 there were few, if any, regional CPTED organizations and there were no international CPTED organizations. Even today it remains the only global association offering a certification program for CPTED practitioners.

The bi-annual conference is an ICA showcase for new theories, emerging practices, and creative ideas in crime prevention through environmental design.


The roster does not disappoint. Consider these topics:

  • Translating CPTED into transport environment during London’s Olympics
  • The return of displacement - CPTEDs nightmare
  • Implementing CPTED from Queensland, Australia to Pompano Beach, Florida
  • Urban design and criminality in Brazil
  • The crime capital of Canada - a community response
  • Inclusive urban spaces in Latin America for women
  • Perspectives of crime and disorder in South Africa
  • CPTED in cyber space

Sunrise over Calgary, site of the 2015 CPTED conference - photo by Michael C, Tourism Calgary 
Guest speakers include Paul Ekblom, professor at Central Saint Martin’s University of the Arts, London. Ekblom is a leading author and researcher on CPTED and will talk about “CPTED: Are our terms and concepts fit for purpose, and if not how might they be improved?”

Michael Sutton is a criminologist from Nottingham Trent University in the UK and will talk about “The routine activity theory of crime masquerading as causality”

Dr. Randal Atlas, myself, and ICA Executive Director Barry Davidson will facilitate an open session about homelessness and CPTED and what practitioners might do to better respond.

Rachel Armitage, professor of criminology and director of the Secure Societies Instutute a the University of Huddersfield, UK and Chris Joyce of the West Yorkshire Police will present “Why my house; Exploring offender perspectives on risk and protective factors in residential housing design”

For more information see the ICA website.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Every time they want to count you out...use your voice

Facilitating safety audits with Saskatoon kids - doing it their way
GUEST BLOG: Tarah Hodgkinson is senior researcher in the Integrated Risk Assessment Instrument Group in Vancouver, Canada. She is a member of the International CPTED Association and a certified SafeGrowth practitioner. She is completing her PhD in criminology at Simon Fraser University.
Like the lyrics above from the best selling track Sing, too much crime prevention targets at-risk youth, but it rarely consults them. In The End of Education, Neil Postman told a fable of New York City falling into desperation. The streets are in disrepair, people are afraid to go outside and the police are unable to control the ballooning crime problem.

Not knowing what to do, the Mayor’s aide prepares to flee the city, but first reads Thoreau’s Walden, especially the quote, “Students should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?”


I recently participated in a safety audit with local youth in Saskatoon,  Canada. With the help of a local planner and SafeGrowth advocate, Elisabeth Miller and planner Haven Rees, we reworked some of the safety audit to make it more youth friendly. We taught safety audit principles through games and examples. Finally the youth conducted a safety audit in one of Saskatoon’s neighbourhoods.

The experience reminded me how rarely youth are brought to the table when discussing safety, despite their unique experience in the urban environment. This group was particularly interesting, because they were all newcomers to Canada. Many were from countries much more violent and crime-ridden than Canada.  Their experience is particularly unique, because they experience fear and safety differently.

Children from different countries see spaces differently - Safety Audits capture that
For example, while conducting the safety audit one youth exclaimed, “of course I feel safe here! It’s so much safer than Russia!”

The youth in the safety audit told a different story than adults often do about their neighbourhoods. In a Block City exercise they were given the opportunity to build a neighbourhood with schools, shops, homes, and churches. They placed parks and shops very close to their home.

During the safety audit they also noticed things in the neighbourhood that we had missed. We were consistently surprised by their awareness and eagerness to participate. They were excited that we were taking their contributions seriously and genuinely intended to use their feedback.


I’ve had the privilege of teaching youth throughout my career. I often see their frustration when they are counted out from decisions because they are too young, or not given opportunities because adults feel they haven’t learned enough yet. However, when given the opportunity they can create beautiful and inspiring things. I’ve been impressed by the efforts to include youth here in Saskatoon.

Similar results are reported in this blog by educator Fleur Knight during her work in New Zealand schools.

I hope others will recognize the importance of involving youth in policy and neighbourhood improvements and we will stop doing things to and for youth, but rather with them.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Steel palms and transformation in Philly

Neighborhood music store and steel palms on 5th Street North, Philadelphia - photo Theresa Stigale
One of the more offensive ideas I’ve come across in criminology is the theory that some high crime neighborhoods never change. They remain that way for decades and they are impervious to recovery. Equally offensive - and no less true - is a belief that zero tolerance enforcement in crime hotspots or hardening targets in those high crime neighborhood is the best we can do.

No doubt crime persists in some places. Enforcement and situational prevention too can help. But they are far from the best we can do. Places do change and we can be part of that change. To peddle the inevitability of crime persistence or the impossibility of neighborhood rebirth is to embrace empirically unsound, intellectual funk.    


That was my thought last week in Philadelphia where we worked with Philadelphia LISC, the Philadelphia Commerce Department, and Police Department to launch more SafeGrowth community development projects.

We’ve been here twice over the past few years, most recently last year where impressive project work is still underway. One of those SafeGrowth projects started four years ago - Rainbow de Colores park - won accolades and was featured in an award-winning video for reducing crime and transforming a drug infested, shooting gallery at a handball court into a safe place alive with neighborhood life.

Last week energetic and dedicated commercial corridor managers, police officers, architects, city officials and residents began SafeGrowth projects in commercial corridors across the city. We did our training on 5th Street North, an area called El Centro de Oro, often associated with high crime and some of the highest drug dealing hotspots in the city.

Safety Audit walkabouts during our SafeGrowth training in Philadelphia
There is much to be done here (and elsewhere). The truth is that positive transformation is no more inevitable than stagnation. Fortunately work is already underway.


For example on 5th Street positive things are happening: street-scaping, thriving restaurants, an active arts and music scene, and vibrant community groups such as the innovative HACE (the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises) where we held our training. This corridor is revitalizing. Things are looking up!

You know something special is going on when you hear that local residents and shop owners take it on themselves to clean graffiti from the decorative, steel palm trees lining 5th Street North. To one author those hand-crafted trees are “a beloved symbol of the many Latin American islands represented in the local population.”

Obviously, undeterred by obsolete criminology theories, local pride and cohesion is where neighborhood transformation begins.