Crime patterns have changed significantly as a result of COVID-19 social controls.
COVID-19 changes means CPTED needs to be done differently.
Self-isolation, confinement to the home and shut down of businesses and social infrastructure have been central to most countries' attempts to slow the spread of COVID-19 infections.
Isolation and shut down have had a variety of effects including less people in public spaces and increased levels of stress on individuals and households. Anecdotally, these factors have initially resulted in significant reductions in many types of crime and anti-social behavior.
This is not unexpected. People staying home makes domestic burglary and theft more difficult. Homes are inhabited 24/7 and hence at least notionally defended.
Less people on the street means less opportunity for crime that depends on access to persons and vehicles on the street. Thus, we expect the crime evidence to show lower levels of assaults on, and thefts from strangers, and reduced levels of vehicle theft.
In contrast, there are many international reports of significantly increased levels of domestic violence.
Thus far, reports on changes to levels of robbery and theft from business premises are variable although there are public reports that commercial crime has increased (see The Times Colonist). The high levels of closure of businesses and organisations mean opportunities for robbery (in the sense of theft with threat of violence) are reduced: if there is no one at the business, obviously personal threats at the premises are ineffective. However, closed and unmanned shops and businesses offer increased opportunity for burglary because the premises are undefended.
Obviously, reports of anti-social behaviours have changed: there are less people on the street and in public spaces. Anecdotally, complaints of anti-social behaviour appear to now focus on individuals being less compliant with COVID-19 restrictions, and on those on the streets with nowhere else to go. In part, the latter is because they are more obvious.
The above picture reflects and aligns with the crime data on 'shocks' such as the effects of weather and holidays on crime patterns described in our recent LinkedIn article about crime and weather.
Crime changes during COVID-19 months of social control
Recent changes to crime at the start of COVID-19 reflect sudden changes to routine behaviours of individuals and groups. People have changed their activities and where they spend their time. So opportunities for different types of crime change also change.
Estimates of the expected length of time national strategies to reduce COVID-19 will apply varies from a few months to over a year. The length of time is enough to change crime patterns in many ways.
How is the trajectory of crime likely to change during the course of COVID-19 strategies?
For many criminals, the pressures that result in economically-driven crime are substantially unchanged, regardless of the changes in self-isolation and reduced levels of public presence of individuals. For them, the pressures to gain resources from crime and opportunities may result in different patterns of crime but are aimed at the same overall amount of crime 'revenue' over time.
Many other people - e.g. those losing their job or their business is closed - acquire pressures to become involved in economically-driven crime.
- Individuals driven to crime either via poverty or need (e.g. drug addiction) will find other ways achieve income.
- The increase in the numbers of individuals under increased pressure to commit crime suggests that crime will increase.
But, currently, crime rates following social control implementation appear to be lower.
However, analysis of other 'shocks' indicates that
Changes that appear to reduce crime instead result in displacement of crime across space, time and/or crime type.
There is some evidence that displacement of crime is typically restricted to within 2km of the residence or routine activities of the criminal(s). In the case of COVID-19, the area of self isolation and lockdowns of routine activities is city-wide or national and hence greater than the above 2km/routine activity limit.
The implication of COVID-19 strategies, therefore is there will be a displacement of crime primarily in time and crime types. In other words, what is expected is,
Crime during COVID-19 strategies will first reduce - then increase and then change towards different crime targets and crime types
If the above crime displacement analysis is correct, the sequence will be:
- Currently: reduced crime and some attempts at different crime, then,
- Changes in crime patterns and significant increases in crime to compensate for the earlier period of reduced crime, then,
- A reduction in crime back to economic crime stability (assuming that economic pressures to commit crime do not increase)
The social changes of COVID-19 controls suggest we will find reductions in:
- Public assaults and thefts
- Public sexual offenses
- Anti-social behaviour
However, we will then likely expect increases in:
- Burglary and theft from closed businesses, commercial premises, schools etc.
- Robberies of stores and businesses that are trading
- Domestic violence
- Home invasions
- Vehicle theft
- Theft of public infrastructure (copper, batteries etc.)
- Illegal/black economy trading
- Drug trafficking and dealing
Effective CPTED strategies in the time of COVID-19
Traditionally, the effectiveness of most CPTED methods depends on cultural pressure. CPTED operates mostly by leveraging cultural norms to create pressure to be lawful.
For example, natural access control makes visible those who do not follow the natural access cues. They are seen as behaving differently from the norm and in ways that require explanation. This increases the pressures to be lawful in that location.
Similarly, natural surveillance primarily works by individuals ('eyes on the street') identifying the absence of the culturally normal and the presence of the abnormal. In practical terms, 'What is that person doing in the dark, shining a torch into that house?'
It is seeing this abnormality of behaviours that exposes and reveals criminal activities and criminals. The potential for being seen puts pressure on potential criminals to behave in a lawful manner in that location.
Traditional CPTED natural surveillance is in the time of COVID-19 reduced in its effectiveness because there are less people around and hence less pressure to 'conform' to lawful behaviour.
At this time of COVID-19 lockdowns, almost all conventional culture and behaviours become 'odd' or abnormal and this reduces the effectiveness of traditional ways of using CPTED.
Many cultural factors that CPTED methods use are now weaker or missing.
This requires changes in how CPTED is used.
In a few cases, the effects of CPTED are unhelpfully strengthened by the COVID-19 changes. It is much easier to spot unusual behaviour on empty streets and, in some places, almost any presence on the streets is unusual. This raises the risk that any activity (regardless of its legality) may be regarded as suspicious - or anti-social.
An example of the latter from here in Fremantle: A small legal open-air Saturday morning farmers' market with superb management of social distancing of food shoppers was the subject of a very high level of spurious complaints to Police. Complainants inappropriately regarded anyone seen shopping for food as anti-social and criminally dangerous.
All the above indicate the application of CPTED approaches needs some modification during this period of COVID-19 social control.
Some obvious changes include:
The reduced effect of crime control via cultural norms results in greater emphasis on effective target hardening and security methods compared to other CPTED approaches.
The primary aims of target hardening are to increase the time and resources needed by criminals to achieve criminal outcomes and to reduce the time of response to defend.
In short, the aim of the target hardening is to try to ensure the time taken by the criminals is longer than the time taken for Police or security to arrive.
In the case of unoccupied commercial premises in remote locations, the increase in time needed for effective protection may be not be possible by any means. That requires an alternative:
Where effective target hardening is not possible, explore moving valuable resources to safer locations.
Self isolation and social distancing measures mean the only 'eyes on the street' are those from buildings. In many cases, these 'eyes' are directed elsewhere within their building (Netflix?) rather than out on the street.
The implication is the crime prevention benefit of natural surveillance and 'eyes on the street' is significantly reduced
Natural surveillance and the concept of 'eyes on the street' has been perhaps the primary of CPTED methods. They are traditionally reinforced by Activity Support but which now is mostly banned by COVID-19 controls. In the current COVID-19 situation, the consequence is that all of these are likely to take a secondary role.
Natural access control
The primary purpose of natural access control is to guide individuals to use specific access pathways.
The aim is to steer people away from crime opportunities; to identify those who move towards the crime opportunities; and to use social pressures to ensure conformity.
With extremely low levels of public activity, the role and effectiveness of natural access control is reduced.
The primary crime prevention role of Activity Support is to increase natural surveillance.
However, self isolation and social distancing measures have resulted in the banning of most activities providing Activity Support.
The banning of most public activities means the role and effectiveness of Activity Support is reduced or non-existent.
Image management and maintenance
Image management and maintenance reduces crime by indicating to a potential criminal that a location is well cared for and, by implication, well-defended.
During this COVID-19 period, only essential work is permitted. This excludes most new image management initiatives and restricts the crime prevention benefits to those gained from essential maintenance work .
During the COVID-19 restrictions, crime prevention using new image management and maintenance may not be possible
Territorial reinforcement is a keystone of crime prevention, particularly property-related offenses.
Clear boundaries defining public space, semi-public space, semi-private space and private space provide potential criminals with strong information about appropriate behaviour, control and ownership of spaces.
COVID-19 strategies reduce the number of people in public space and increase the numbers 'at home'.
This means that appropriate territorial reinforcement around residences has a well evidenced crime prevention role. It offers a strong discouraging effect on criminal and inappropriate behaviours around residences.
During COVID-19, territorial reinforcement is likely to be an effective CPTED tool to reduce crime.
The most effective predictor of crime risk is recent prior crime.
This is useful during COVID-19 as prior crime provides a simple and effective criteria to identify where to apply limited crime prevention resources.
Recent prior crime at a location offers a strong justification for immediate application of CPTED methods.
For burglary and theft during COVID-19, increased emphasis on target hardening and territorial reinforcement appears to be the most effective CPTED approach.
The criminal discouragement effect of CPTED the chosen measures is dependent on the potential criminal(s) being aware of them and discouraged by them.
This indicates that the CPTED methods used need to offer substantial improvements in security and protection in ways that are also visually obvious.
Use significant visually-obvious target hardening and territorial reinforcement immediately after property crime to reduce repeat victimisation.
There is public concern that self-isolation will result in increased exposure of partners and children to abusers, and added pressures that result in increased domestic violence and abuse.
Specialist service providers seem most likely to provide best guidance in relation to domestic violence prevention and whether and how CPTED can help.
Reducing Fear of Crime
Media reports increased levels of fear and concern in many people as a result of COVID-19. It is unclear whether this fear of the consequences of COVID-19 (illness, death, loss of income etc.) increases fear of crime or displaces it. Also the absence of people and activities in public space reduces many factors typically associated with fear of crime. In addition, some of the expected changes in crime are new and not yet associated with fear of crime.
It is unclear which of the above will prevail. However, the two most effective factors in reducing fear of crime are likely to continue: the active presence of police and authority figures, and appropriate media reports.
Evidence indicates CCTV :
- Strongly supports police and is effective in identifying and prosecuting criminals
- Does NOT reduce crime, except in some car parks
- Does NOT reduce fear of crime
During COVID-19, installing CCTV is not likely to reduce crime. Some evidence indicates it will increase fear of crime
New research data from this COVID-19 period may support or contradict these longstanding findings.
In evidence terms, lighting has a complex relation to crime.
Lighting can increase or reduce crime. There seems no obvious reason why this may be different during COVID-19 time. The likely transition to different crime targets does not indicate a sudden need for additional lighting.
CPTED is increasingly involved in the digital world. Individuals lives are becoming more digital as are things around them; with the advent of computers in cars, smart houses and smart cities.
All of these are part of individual environments and these environments are subject to design to reduce crime (CPTED is 'Crime Prevention through Environmental Design'). This new digital-physical CPTED, I've called 'CyberCPTED' and new CPTED training is being developed for it at www.cybercpted.org
During self -isolation at home and working from home during this COVID-19 period , people will be exposed to increased cyber-crime risks. These include identify theft (e.g. stealing banking passwords) and malware/viruses: both can result in serious criminal losses.
The Australian government offers a range of sensible crime prevention advice for individuals and small businesses at https://www.australia.gov.au/information-and-services/public-safety-and-law/online-safety
With over 20 years in computer security, we recommend Malwarebytes as anti-malware/anti-virus for Windows, Apple, iphones and Android phones as one of the best protection for households and SMEs. It's what we use and we are agents for them.
- COVID-19 self-isolation and social distancing strategies change the patterns and trajectories of crime and the relative effectiveness of CPTED methods.
- Expected changes to crime types: lower household burglary and public assault and higher domestic violence, commercial burglary, robbery, car theft, cyber-crime and fraud.
- Expected crime trajectory: first, lower overall crime rates than normal -> higher than normal -> back to normal; then different again after COVID-19 controls are released.
- Effective CPTED is likely to depend more on target hardening/security and territorial reinforcement.
- Prioritize immediate support to minimise repeat victimisation by significant improvements in target hardening and security that are visually obvious.
- Expect reduced CPTED effectiveness from natural surveillance, natural access control, activity support and image management and maintenance.
- CCTV is not expected to reduce crime or fear of crime.
- Changes to lighting is not likely to affect crime rates.
- Reduce risk of cyber-crime by using Australian Government cyber-security advice and anti-malware software.
If you would like more information about effective CPTED methods or are interested in certified CPTED training (online or face to face, please check the section of this website or contact:
Dr Terence Love, CEO, Design Out Crime and CPTED Centre via