Monday, July 25, 2016

Using the Crime Triangle to Solve Crime Problems

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted “Intro to 60 Steps for Crime Analysts”. One of the 60 Steps, Step 8, introduces the Problem Analysis Triangle or as it’s also called, the Crime Triangle.

If you remember from your high school science class, they explained the elements necessary for a fire to occur with something they called the “fire triangle”. When you have heat, fuel and oxygen come together a fire can occur. Remove any side of the triangle and the fire goes out.

Similarly, the crime triangle is a theory authored by two criminologists Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson. The theory states that predatory crime occurs when a suitably motivated offender comes together in time and space with a unprotected victim.

The beauty behind looking at crime problems through the crime triangle is that it can help you see that the solution to every crime problem is not the typical reactive police response. That is that police respond, investigate and make an arrest. In fact, that type of response is often dreadfully inefficient at dealing with some crime problems. To understand why, we need to look at and expansion of the crime triangle theory.

In this expanded theory, the inner triangle of offender, victim and place is surrounded by another triangle. Every victim has a guardian, every offender a handler and every place a manager. This outer triangle controls the elements of the inner one. For instance the police or more often the victim themselves is the guardian for the victim. Family or a probation officer may often act as a handler for an offender. A landlord or property owner may act as a manager for a place.

Let’s look at how the crime triangle helped solve a crime problem in the sleepy little burg where I work. A number of years ago, we began to notice a number of disorder problems that were centered around a particular nightclub. We’re not strangers to nightclubs and the problems that sometimes come with them. I work in a community of over 130,000 persons that is also right next to one of the largest military bases in the United States. The agency where I work has quite a bit of experience with the crime and disorder problems that seem to be associated with bars and nightclubs.

However, what made this particular problem so troublesome is that the crime and disorder associated with this one club was well above what would normally be expected. As the problems started, we applied some of the normal police responses. We increased patrols and enforcement activity around the club, began to scrutinize their compliance with liquor laws and reached out to the club’s management expressing our concerns and offering assistance in making their club a safer place for their patrons.

As the problem grew, we realized that these normal responses weren’t working. By the time things came to a head, we’d had two murders and one accidental shooting death in the parking lot, as well as more assaults, stabbings, non-fatal shootings and arrests than we could count.

As we analyzed the problem using the crime triangle, we realized that our problem involved different offenders coming together with different victims and that the one common element was the place. Applying pressure to the offenders or their handlers would not likely resolve the problem as it was not just one offender or group of offenders. Reaching out to potential victims was not likely to work as we were also seeing large numbers of different victims. The key to this problem lie in the place.

We continued to try to work with the management of the nightclub. However, the club’s owners didn’t want to cooperate. As it became apparent over time that they were not interested in reducing the disorder associated with their club our approach shifted from helpful to hard nosed. After weeks of trying we decided we were going to have to play hardball.

After we initially recognized the problem, we began to communicate with other stakeholders having a vested interest in this problem. Our law enforcement agency, the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission which licenses businesses that serve alcohol, the fire department, city staff and officials with the local military base. We communicated the nature and extent of the problem, identified the resources we could each bring to the problem and brainstormed solutions.

Eventually, we decided we had no choice but to take drastic measures. One, we instituted actions to have the club’s liquor license revoked. Under Texas law, there is a mechanism to do this for clubs that pose a serious problem to public safety.

The second was to bring this issue to the military’s Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board or AFDCB. The military is a unique institution in that they can exercise a significant amount of control over their troops to maintain good order and discipline. If a business or location is proving to be dangerous to the welfare of the troops, they can place an establishment in an off limits status which prohibits military members from going there. Many of the victims of the crime and disorder around this club and a few of the suspects turned out to be military members. AFDCB had an interest in stopping this.

In the course of these proceedings, the ownership of the club was given a number of opportunities to rectify the problems over a period of weeks. They continued to balk at our efforts and the club eventually had their liquor license revoked and was placed in an “off limits” status for military members. This removed the place side of the triangle as potential victims and potential offenders would no longer come together in this place.

The end result? The problem disappeared and it did not displace to other areas. It also sent a message to other nightclubs that they had a responsibility to exercise proper management over their “place” and we would not hesitate to ensure that they did or would shut them down if they refused.

It doesn’t matter what side of the triangle you remove to solve a crime problem. If you have an intractable problem, work on whichever side is easiest. Analyzing your particular problem through the lens of the crime triangle can help you see the problem more clearly, and identify possible solutions.

Do you have a crime problem you’re working on at your agency? Looking at it through the crime triangle what side is the easiest for you to remove?

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