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What Prevents Crime?

By Brian | July 14, 2005 | Share on Facebook

Jeff Porten, guestblogger on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog this month, posted this about the security cameras in London and their inability to stop the London bombing, touching off an interesting discussion in the comments thread about security versus privacy.

This got me thinking: What prevents crime? Local, State, and Federal governments all around the world have tried various strategies, and many megabytes have been archived over whether or not those strategies are effective and/or worth it. I think it’s best broken down this way:

What Prevents Crime?

Social Convention Prevents Crime
This is the easy one. Most of us are not criminals. Period. (Note to all the bigots of the world: replace “of us” with your least favorite group and the sentence still rings true. Some examples: Most Arabs are not criminals. Most Muslims are not criminals. Most Jews are not criminals. See how easy it is? Fun for the whole family…) At any rate, the fact remains that 99.999% of the people in the world wouldn’t dream of killing another human being, even if they were guaranteed they could get away with it. Heck – a significant percentage of us would stop at a red light on a rural road at 2AM, even if we could see with our own eyes that no one was coming for miles in both directions. Call it habit, call it conscience. Some even call it religion. Whatever you call it, the fact remains that most of us are good people.

So that leaves us with the criminals.

Law Enforcement Prevents Crime
Crooks hate being watched, plain and simple. The New York Police Department’s uniformed headcount increased 42 percent to 40,300 between 1992 and 2000 (that’s one officer for every 7 recorded crimes). In the same period, crime fell by 54 percent. In London, uniformed headcount dropped 10 percent over the same period (one officer for every 41 recorded crimes) and crime increased by 12 percent. [Source]. “John H”, a Whatever commenter, relates similar anecdotes about Chicago in recent years (no direct link – scroll down to Comment #9).

Skeptics will point to other factors that reduce crime (economic growth, community action programs, etc.) and point out horrible stories about crimes committed by cops, crimes that happened while police were on patrol, or crimes committed in the presence of surveillance equipment. While the other factors may also be at play (no one’s saying law enforcement is the only way to prevent crime), the stories are nothing more than anecdotes designed to cloud the big picture.

OK, here’s where it gets really sticky:

The Appearance of Law Enforcement Prevents Crime
If you’re cruising down the highway and a cop pulls up behind you, you slow down. The cruise control could be pegged at the speed limit, but when you see the police car in your rearview mirror, your foot hits the brake. That’s all well and good, but here’s the fascinating part: people also slow down if the cops just park one of their empty police cars on the side of the road. They slow down when they pass an electronic sign that displays their speed and asks them to slow down. They even slow down when they pass a sign that says “Speed monitored by helicopter.” In some cases, the suggestion that someone might be watching can be as powerful as someone actually being there.

Here’s a more haunting example: When the 9/11 hijackers met in Spain, they decided against attacking a nuclear facility in New York, because they assumed the airspace around it would be restricted, increasing the likelihood that the plane would be shot down before impact. [Source: 9/11 Commission Report, Page 245] It wasn’t the security that dissuaded them, it was the assumption that security would exist.

This is also the theory behind the random passenger checks at airports. Jeff slams the TSA in another post for letting loads of people through security with cigarette lighters, calling their security “just for show.” I would argue that this is precisely the point: the TSA can’t possibly hope to identify and confiscate every possible weapon a person may carry on the plane. But by making a very public display about confiscating nail clippers, cigarette lighters, scissors, etc., they hope to dissuade a criminal from attempting to board with a weapon, simply because that criminal might assume that he/she is likely to get caught. If this is indeed the case, missing a few lighters doesn’t matter at all. The “show” is helping to increase security every bit as much as the act itself.

A final thought: in the time between Jeff’s original post and today, the security cameras in London did in fact help the investigation. What now appears to be four suicide bombers were seen on camera meeting just before the attacks and then entering the various train stations, etc. Obviously, the idea that they were being watched didn’t dissuade these terrorists from acting. Hopefully, though, the fact that these guys were found and identified within 72 hours of the attacks makes the next terrorist scrap his plan.

Of course, if that’s the case, we’ll never know…

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