Can Offenders Be Experts?

Burglars can show expertise like those in any other field

Posted Jul 05, 2015

Source: Apprentice4/Flickr

I have interviewed and conducted experiments with numerous offenders over the years. They’ve had varying levels of experience in a variety of different crimes. Off and on, I’ve focused on burglars as there’s been an understandable interest in how they choose the properties they will target, what goods they will take, do they care about their victims etc.  

The general public and the police services are always interested in the crime prevention knowledge we might learn from studying property offenders (such as the cues burglars use to decide what is a vulnerable property, based on ease of access, signals of wealth and occupancy etc.).

From another angle though – that of prevention and rehabilitation, almost nothing is done to try and rehabilitate property offenders, or nip things in the bud before they become entrenched in a life of crime. Although thieves and burglars make up at least two-thirds of the convicted population at any one time in most English-speaking countries, the majority receive no rehabilitation at all, rarely seeing a professional during their sentence. They have short sentences, and return to the life that facilitated their offending when they are released, with little support to go straight. We spend billions on rehabilitating, reducing risk and reintegrating the much smaller number of serious, violent offenders back into our society, which is a worthwhile aim. But if we spent just a fraction of this on our ‘run-of-the-mill’ property offender, we might see a very big pay-off in terms of a downturn in crime and a reduction in the misery these offenders can cause on a daily basis. The new methods we are using to understand offending behaviour may well give us clues as to how best to intervene with the decision-making making process that the offender uses to undertake the crime.

Many years ago when I first became a researcher, I was interested in how burglars picked their targets. We noticed in an artificial environment using maps and slides of a neighbourhood, that burglars were faster and more systematic in the way they navigated the locality compared to ordinary householders (the ‘opposition’ sample to the burglar). They also had a superior knowledge of various signals on houses that made them more or less vulnerable to burglary. These cues were to do with the amount of access there was to the property (e.g. end of terrace always has more access to the side and rear); signs of relative wealth (the target does not have to be a mansion); whether the property was occupied (most burglars prefer it not to be); and, always last, security features (most burglars say they have noticed a big increase in the amount of security features we have on our homes, but we still always leave one area vulnerable, or unlocked).

In more recent work, we have linked how the burglar describes his journey once inside the property to what is known about how experts think in any domain. Over time and repetition this decision-making becomes extremely rapid, involving instant, unconscious recognition of cues associated with whatever type of expertise you are focussing on, and this triggers automatic scripts in your memory about how to act in particular situations. Experienced burglars, like surgeons, pilots and chess players, fit all of these criteria when they undertake a burglary (and there is some evidence of this in sex offenders and street robbers too). Of course, expertise is a continuum, and there is a lot more skill and learning involved in becoming a surgeon or a pilot than becoming a burglar. This is why we refer to offender expertise as ‘dysfunctional expertise’. But more-or-less anyone can develop expertise in an area by practising (e.g. learning to drive a car is an extremely complex mental challenge at the beginning, but becomes automatic after a few months). The important thing here is that the decision-making processes become unconscious and automatic, and in the offending world, this is of much concern.  

We know that for most crimes, the initial decision to commit a crime might be hours, days or even weeks before the crime occurs, and is remote from the eventual scene of the crime. Burglars are constantly and unconsciously scanning their environment and registering cues indicating vulnerable targets. They rarely act impulsively and opportunistically, but will return to the neighbourhood later, when the time is right. They will undertake the burglary quite systematically, though this is not to say their lives away from the scene of the crime are not chaotic. Despite all this knowledge (mostly through interviews and rudimentary experiments) accruing over the years, no-one has walked through with the burglar how he thinks and feels, from those initial decisions to commit the crime, on the journey to the crime, during the crime and afterwards. After all, we can’t go on the actual journey to commit the crime with the offender….or can we? Recent developments in simulation technology and the gaming industry have lead us to try out simulated houses that can be ‘entered’ and ‘burgled’ on a laptop with real offenders. We’ve found that burglars burgled a simulated house almost identically to how they burgled a real house (and very differently from the control group of students).

We are now developing a much more sophisticated, simulated neighbourhood with a number of houses that can be ‘burgled’ within it and are trying this out with large samples of convicted offenders and control groups. If this works, it may help us to ‘be with’ the offender as he makes his decisions and answer important questions such as: how long, on average, is the initial decision to commit the crime away from the actual crime; at what point does thinking become completely automatic; at what point does the imminent reward of doing the burglary become so entrenched in the thought processes that it’s difficult to back out; when might be the best time to train the offender to make his thought processes more conscious so he can re-evaluate them?

On the journey to crime and at the scene of the crime we can understand better how to change the environment to make it harder for the burglar to undertake the burglary. And of course, all of this will not be restricted to just burglary. It will open up a new way to understand what underlies many types of crime.