Crime Hot Spot Theories

Crime theories are critical for useful crime mapping because they aid in the interpretation of data (Eck, 1998). Crime theories also provide guidance as to what actions are most appropriate in response to the identification of hot spots. There are several theories of crime and disorder concentration (another term for hot spots) that need to be explored. Some of these theories are somewhat contradictory. What they do, though, is explain different types of crime phenomena that occur at different geographic levels (Eck et al., 2005).

Theories of crime and place try to offer an understanding of crime in its physical or spatial environment. These theories explain crime patterns by the location of targets, offenders’ choice of travel routes, use of space for various activities, and the innate ability of a place or target to defend itself. Thus, these theories of crime and place can be described as belonging together under the umbrella of what is called “environmental criminology” (Brantingham and Brantingham, 1981). Such theories trace their origins to the work of the Cartographic School in the mid-1800s. Henry Mayhew, who is considered to be the founder of the Cartographic School, pioneered the use of maps in the analysis of crime. Mayhew’s maps of counties of London showed spatial relationships between crime and rates of illiteracy, teenage marriage, and number of illegitimate children (Levinson, 2002). Other statisticians, including Andre Guerry and Adolphe Quetelet, were also working with statistics and maps to represent crime patterns in France in the mid-1800s (Levinson, 2002).

In the United States, the analysis of crime and place is rooted in the work done by the members of what is known as the Chicago School early in the twentieth century. Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, founders of the Chicago School, borrowed from plant ecology to explain the development of cities. According to Park and Burgess, cities developed in a process they called “succession,” whereby competition for scarce resources, primarily land, drove the development of the city outward from the city core. They proposed that cities develop in a series of successive concentric zones, with the zones at the interior being the most deteriorated.

Based on their analysis, Park and Burgess proposed a theory of crime known as concentric zone theory. They showed that the zones closest to the inner city had the highest prevalence of social ills, such as unemployment, poverty, reliance on social assistance, and rates of disease. Park and Burgess said that the prevalence of these social problems in the inner zones of the city, where social conflict was high, led to a condition they called social disorganization (Vold et al., 1998).

Other work by members of the Chicago School, notably Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, explored the theory of social disorganization. Shaw and McKay (1969) divided the city into “natural areas.” These areas shared social and demographic characteristics. Shaw and McKay went on to examine the locations of residences of juvenile delinquents and noted that areas with the highest rates of juvenile delinquents were geographic areas with weak community controls. Shaw and McKay did not attribute crime problems to the people who lived in these areas, but instead to characteristics of the areas, including physical deterioration, ethnic heterogeneity, and low rental costs (Vold et al., 1998). Shaw and McKay showed that social disorganization peaked in the central business district (CBD) (the first zone) and the zone of transition (the second concentric zone where recent immigrants first moved to and where industries were located). Social disorganization was shown to decrease in a linear fashion as one proceeds through the remaining concentric zones outward from the CBD (Vold et al., 1986). With each progressive zone away from the CBD, housing became more desirable and household income increased.

From these origins, many criminologists have sought to continue the work by these early researchers and attempt to explain or predict crime based on factors external to the individual and the individual’s interaction with those factors. One strain of theories—the ecological or areal tradition of criminology—is concerned with the environmental, contextual, community, physical, or situational correlates of crime, or their interactions. Together, these ecological theories aim to explain the relationships between crime and place at three different levels of spatial aggregation: the microlevel, the mesolevel, and the macrolevel.

Often, though not always, the microlevel refers to the actual location of a crime. The mesolevel usually refers to a neighborhood or community. The macrolevel, on the other hand, may refer to a city, or an area even larger, such as a country. In what follows, we will refer to these three levels as place theories, street theories, neighborhood theories, and other large area theories.

Before we discuss these specific theories, we will take a look at what might be considered competing theories of crime causation, and the development of environmental theories following the work of Park and Burgess, and Shaw and McKay.

In a broad sense, we can say that historically—at least since the early half of the twentieth century—theories of crime can be divided into those that seek to explain the development of criminal offenders and those that seek to explain the development of criminal events. Throughout the development of criminology, theories of—and research on—offenders have been dominant (Clarke, 1980). It could even be argued that most research on crime and crime prevention has been focused on why certain types of people commit crime and what we can do about them. It is only relatively recently that serious attention has begun to be paid to explaining crimes—rather than the criminality of people involved in crime. In trying to explain crime, criminologists in the past two to three decades have been concerned with where crime occurs (Eck and Weisburd, 1995).

Although some criminologists might consider theories of crime places and theories about the criminality of offenders as competing explanations of the crime problem, Eck and Weisburd (1995) suggested it may be useful to consider that offender explanations and event explanations are more complementary than competitors.

The reasoning for this may start with this idea: while an offender may be highly motivated to commit a crime, unless he or she actually engages in a criminal event, there is nothing to explain. On the other hand, if a criminal act has occurred, a full understanding of the event must in some manner include an explanation of the offender. Offender theories should eventually tell us how people come to be criminal offenders, and the circumstances under which they either act or desist from acting as offenders. Such theories may suggest crime prevention strategies that are focused on those individuals who are likely to become high-rate offenders or even serious violent offenders. However, to date theories about the development of criminality do not provide a solid basis for making such predictions, and there is little consensus as to what such a theory in the future would look like. Consequently, a preventive strategy based on offender theories is not near at hand. But even if we were to understand more about the development of criminality than we presently do, it is not clear whether all or even most offenders could be prevented from involvement in crime (Clarke and Weisburd, 1990).

Thus, as Eck and Weisburd (1995) would conclude, even if we had a good explanation for the development of offenders, we would still need a good explanation for criminal events. Specifically, we would want a theory that could tell us why certain targets are selected by offenders—why some targets are attractive and others are less attractive, or even repellent. What are the barriers to offending that are presented to offenders, and how are they overcome? What types of routine activities of offenders, victims, and what have sometimes been termed guardians contribute to the likelihood of crime occurring in particular places? Though we may not be close to having a comprehensive crime event theory that would provide unambiguous answers to such questions, there is some agreement among some criminologists who study crime events as to what such a theory should look like. Moreover, there is growing evidence that event prevention strategies can have a dramatic and immediate impact on specific crime problems (Clarke, 1992).

But, in recent years, researchers have begun to describe how crime and place theories come together and how they can be applied to crime analysis and crime prevention.

As it turns out, three recent theoretical perspectives—rational choice, routine activities theory, and crime pattern theory—have influenced our understanding of the importance of place in crime prevention efforts. A rational choice perspective provides the basic rationale for defining place as important, since it suggests that offenders will select targets and define means to achieve their goals in a manner that can be explained (Cornish and Clarke, 1986). A rational choice perspective, according to some criminologists, can be used to develop testable propositions describing crime events and offender behavior, particularly if a rational choice perspective is used in conjunction with routine activities theory (Clarke and Felson, 1993).

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