This chapter explores the importance of place in theory and research in both mainstream criminology and other disciplines. As we noted in earlier chapters, traditional criminology has focused primarily on understanding why people commit crime. This focus on criminality has generally inhibited study of microgeographies and their role in producing crime. However, more recently there has been a trend toward integrating microgeographic places into traditional theorizing about criminality. In the first part of the chapter we discuss this trend, focusing on some recent innovations in understanding criminality that have incorporated place-based perspectives. In the second part of the chapter we focus on how other disciplines have influenced thinking in this area, focusing in particular on contributions in psychology, economics, and public health. Finally, we explore how trends in other disciplines might influence future directions of study in the criminology of place.
THE GROWING ROLE OF MICROGEOGRAPHIC PLACES IN TRADITIONAL THEORIZING OF CRIMINALITY
As we noted in Chapter 1, places, at least at a macro level, played a key part in the development of criminology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But despite the role of place in crime in empirical study in Europe and theoretical development in the Chicago School through social disorganization theory, microgeographic places were mostly ignored. This was not because early criminologists failed to recognize the role of place in crime. Crime occurs in specific environments, and this was apparent to observers of the crime problem. Nonetheless, as we noted in Chapter 1, early criminologists did not see “crime places” – small discrete areas within communities – as a relevant focus of criminological study. This was the case, in part, because crime opportunities provided by places were assumed to be so numerous as to make concentration on specific places of little utility for theory or policy. What is the point of focusing theory or research on the opportunities offered by specific places if such opportunities can be found throughout the urban context?
Moreover, criminologists did not see the utility in focusing in on situational opportunities when criminal motivation was the key to understanding crime rates. Criminologists traditionally assumed that situational factors played a relatively minor role in explaining crime as compared with the “driving force of criminal dispositions” (Clarke and Felson 1993, 4; Trasler 1993).
The growth of interest in the criminology of place has generated key developments in the data and methods used in identifying and understanding geographic concentrations of crime. Ron Clarke noted in 2004 that “quite soon, crime mapping will become as much an essential tool of criminological research as statistical analysis is at present” (Clarke 2004, 60). This means, of course, that criminologists will have to develop methods of analysis that meet the new problems that geographic data present. Moreover, with ever-improving data quality and resolution, there is a constant need to evolve better research methods, practices, and statistical approaches.
This chapter will outline the imperative for a robust analytical framework that incorporates measures of adjacency in any spatial analysis, and articulate the problems that can befall an aspatial approach to geographic data. The chapter then identifies some of the unique characteristics of spatial analysis before providing an overview of new and innovative approaches to spatial criminological research.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THEORY IN DEVELOPING METHODS
We want to note at the outset that theory is key to any discussion of analytic approaches associated with spatial analyses. While this chapter highlights the roles of both analytic methods and the policy implications that may result from spatial analyses, the theories we discussed in Chapter 3 provide a framework for developing analytic results that provide a greater understanding of places, and the people who use those places, and for policy implications that can be linked to the agencies and locations that will best be served by them.
While various methodologies and techniques have been developed to examine and measure the role of place, these analytical approaches provide little practical value without also considering the reason why these places matter. A simple example of this would be to consider a black box model where we have no information on what occurs within the box, but are merely aware of the outcome of an event. This example, applied to geographic units of analysis, effectively limits the criminal justice system and agency providers to the role of responders with little knowledge or ability to understand why events are occurring and what role, if any, the location itself plays in these events.
The fact that crime and disorder are concentrated at a few places is interesting and deserves an explanation. It is also interesting that places show up in other criminological theories and in other disciplines. And it is useful to understand the methods for studying places. However, a primary reason we are interested in high-crime places is that it might be possible to do something about crime by addressing these places. We are convinced that focusing on places can substantially reduce crime and disorder. Our conviction is not a matter of faith, but is based on over twenty-five years of accumulating evidence.
This chapter summarizes the research evidence examining whether focusing on crime places reduces crime. We first discuss a broad range of place-based prevention strategies examined by Eck and Guerrette (2012). This review provides strong evidence for a place-based approach to crime prevention. We then turn to a specific form of place-based crime prevention – hot spots policing (Sherman and Weisburd 1995). Again, we have a strong body of evidence supporting a place-based approach. Having reviewed hot spots policing, we turn to the importance of place managers and third parties in controlling problem places. We then examine an extension of the third-party approach to argue that a place-based approach to crime may free crime control policy from the police monopoly. Then we describe how a place-based approach to crime could be incorporated in community corrections to improve probation and parole outcomes. Finally, we review the larger body of research on the potential threat of crime displacement, and its opposite, the diffusion of crime control benefits. Consistently, the evidence described in this chapter clearly shows the substantial utility of a place-based approach for reducing crime.
SITUATIONAL CRIME PREVENTION AT PLACES
In Chapter 3 we argued for the importance of social disorganization theories for understanding crime places. This is an area where basic research suggests promise (e.g., see Weisburd et al. 2012; Weisburd et al. 2014), but where there is little evidence of effectiveness of specific practices. Such evidence is beginning to be developed, but we can say little at this juncture. In contrast, the evidence regarding opportunity reduction and crime has grown systematically over the last few decades.
In the previous chapter, we showed that crime is concentrated at very small geographic units, substantially smaller than neighborhoods, and that these concentrations, on average, are relatively stable. This is true whether examining high- or low-crime neighborhoods. Although high-crime places do cluster, they seldom form a homogeneous block of high-crime places. Rather, interspersed within concentrations of high-crime places are many low- and modest-crime places.
Why is crime concentrated in a relatively small number of places? Standard criminology has not asked this question, largely because standard criminology focuses on criminality and implicitly assumes that the density of offenders explains crime density. Recognition that place characteristics matter is the starting point for this chapter. We look at two perspectives on crime place characteristics. We use the term “perspective” because each type of explanation is comprised of multiple theories linked by a common orientation. The first perspective arises from opportunity theories of crime. The second perspective arises from social disorganization theories of crime.
We begin by contrasting two ways of thinking about how a place becomes a crime hot spot and suggest that the process by which high-crime places evolve must involve place characteristics. In the next sections, we examine opportunity and social disorganization explanations. In the final section of the chapter, we examine possible ways researchers might link these two perspectives.
PROCESSES THAT CREATE CRIME PLACES
Before we look for explanations of why places become hot spots of crime it is important to consider two processes that might lead to such an outcome. Criminologists have generally proposed two generic models to account for the processes that lead to variation in place susceptibility to crime. One model suggests that places may start with reasonably similar risks of an initial criminal attack, but once attacked the risk of a subsequent attack on the place rises. Over time, places diverge in their crime risk, and consequently in their crime counts. This temporal contagion model is also known as a boost model (see Chapter 2) or a state-dependence model. It puts the emphasis on offenders’ willingness to return to a previously successful crime site (Johnson et al. 2007; Townsley et al. 2000). It suggests that irrespective of initial crime risk the occurrence of a crime will lead to changes in risk of crime at a place.
A new perspective in criminology has emerged over the last three decades, a perspective with considerable potential to add to our understanding and control of crime. In the same way the invention of the microscope opened up a biological world scientists had not previously seen, this new perspective opens the world of small geographic features we had overlooked. Research has demonstrated that actions at these microplaces have strong connections to crime. Just as the microscope paved the way to new treatments and advances in public health, this new perspective in criminology is yielding improved ways of reducing crime. This new perspective shifts our attention from large geographic units, such as neighborhoods, to small units, such as street segments and addresses. This shift in the “units of analysis” transforms our understanding of the crime problem and what we can do about it.
There are two aspects to this shift in units. The first shifts our attention from large geographic units to small ones. This we have just mentioned. The second shifts our attention from people to events, from those who commit crimes to the crimes themselves. Criminology has been primarily focused on people (Brantingham and Brantingham 1990; Weisburd 2002). Frank Cullen (2011) noted in his Sutherland Address to the American Society of Criminology in 2010 that the focus of criminology has been even more specific. He argued that criminology was dominated by a paradigm, which he termed “adolescence-limited criminology,” that had focused primarily on adolescents.
To what extent have person-based studies dominated criminology? Weisburd (2015a) examined units of analysis in all empirical articles published in Criminology between 1990 and 2014. Criminology is the highest-impact journal in the field and the main scientific publication of the largest criminological society in the world, the American Society of Criminology. He identified 719 research articles. Of the 719 articles, two-thirds focused on people as units of analysis. The next main units of study were situations (15 percent) and macrogeographic areas such as cities and states (11 percent). Eck and Eck (2012) examined the 148 research papers published in Criminology and Public Policy from its first issue in 2001 until the end of 2010, and the 230 articles published in Criminal Justice Policy Review during the same time period.
We began this book by noting that criminologists have largely ignored the involvement of microgeographic places in crime. Mainstream criminologists have focused on “who done it?” and not “where done it?” (Sherman 1995). At least for the last century the key inquiries of crime and the key prevention approaches have looked to doing something about criminal motivation (Sutherland 1947; Reiss 1981). Why people commit crime has been the main focus of criminology (Brantingham and Brantingham 1990; Weisburd 2002), and catching and processing offenders has been the main focus of crime prevention (Weisburd 2008). In contrast, the criminology of place (Sherman et al. 1989; Weisburd et al. 2012), which began to develop in the 1980s and 1990s (Brantingham and Brantingham 1981; 1984; Eck 1994; Eck and Weisburd 1995; Roncek and Bell 1981; Weisburd and Green 1995a), provides an alternative vision of how we can understand crime and the crime problem. Like the emergence of community criminology during the same period (Bursik 1988; Morenoff et al. 2001; Sampson 2008; Sampson et al. 1997) the criminology of place has offered a new set of mechanisms for crime study and a new set of methods for doing something about the crime problem.
Theory has been a driving force in criminological study, and as we note below, we think that more not less attention to theory is important for advancing the criminology of place. However, theories are about something and try to explain something. When we change the unit of analysis, we are changing the target for theory. The criminology of place proposes a new target. It focuses on places, rather than people. Its goal is to explain the criminal involvement of microgeographic units rather than trying to explain the criminal involvement of people. This does not mean we ignore the role of individuals in the crime problem. But it does mean that we begin our inquiries with the place and see the individuals as only one part of the crime equation at places.
We have illustrated in the preceding chapters the extent to which theory, method, and empirical evidence about crime places have been developing over the last three decades. In this concluding chapter, we want to draw from our review of what is known some key themes that we think our work has identified, and key questions that still need to be answered.
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