I like the crime triangle. It is popular among crime analysts. It helps analyze crime hotspots. It is also part of problem-oriented policing. Sometimes too it is part of the prevention practitioner’s toolbox. It has elegant utility and simplicity.
The crime triangle emerges from "routine activity theory" (RA) in the early 1980s. RA explained some behavior quite well, like predatory crime (stalking). It did so with a simple premise: crime converges at the intersection of likely offenders, suitable targets and an absence of guardianship (or, more recently, "handlers").
In lay terms, picture the three sides of a triangle with an offender, a victim, and a target/place. When those things come together, so the theory goes, crime goes up.
The crime triangle is useful. Break the triangle and you prevent the crime. Want to increase guardianship? Get property managers to keep better control of their properties. Improve bar management in bars that over-serve. Simple. Elegant.
So far, so good. Except for one thing; that is where it typically ends in the RA world. The crime triangle does not dig deeper into the causes of crime.
Why? Because routine activity (and its crime triangle progeny) is one of those crime and place theories.
RA is less a causal theory explaining why and more a descriptive symbol predicting when, where or how. It ignores why someone becomes motivated in the first place. RA assumes an endless supply of motivated offenders. They are motivated for some reason; we just don't know why. The only "explanation" of motive falls back to rational choice theory.
Rational choice assumes offenders are rational actors who weigh risks against rewards. From the window of RA (and the crime triangle), crime looks like a "normal" condition of life.
True, some criminal behavior is “normal” in the sense that as events, products, and social affairs change, so too do crime opportunities. But as a causal theory, that’s rather trifling. It’s a bit like saying with enough water, sun and moderate temperature, certain environmental conditions will produce rain.
Then again some criminal behavior is not normal at all and RA just doesn’t work. Consider the story of the Connecticut mass murder in the news today.
As the NY Times says, this is “the latest in a series of American workplace tragedies”. It is a sad story about a workplace shooter who killed numerous workmates and then himself. He may have snapped from perceived workplace injustice. Perhaps he was clouded in a drug stupor. Maybe he was insane.
Routine activity theory might suggest how to remove opportunity for future incidents like this. That is a good start. Baby steps.
But RA theory will never actually know why because it will never ask. In cases such as this, the risk and reward assumptions of crime-and-place theories look rather silly. What does a suicidal shooter “risk”? What “reward” was this shooter gaining? Vengeance? (If so, we’re back to motive.)
WHAT CAN THE TRIANGLE DO?
What will the crime triangle tell us in cases like this?
1. Capable guardians - cameras, plentiful supervision, and so forth. Unfortunately this shooting occurred at shift change when there were lots of employees and supervisors about. As for CCTV, how often do we watch nighttime news clips of robbery/shootings on corner-store CCTV? Cameras don’t stop shootings.
2. The time/workplace environment – preventing guns in the workplace. Will metal detectors work? Perhaps, but how difficult is it for shooters to become bombers. What then? Bomb sniffing dogs? At some point Orwellian paranoia replaces civility. Where do we stop? Body cavity searches?
3. The offender – modus operandi (not motive. Remember, RA is motive-neutered). The crime triangle asks if "handlers" like armed security might have intervened (that actually might have helped). Or maybe we could have prevented the shooter from getting guns in the first place? Others can argue 2nd Amendment rights. I won't bother here.
Crime triangle questions just don't do it. Instead, we must also ask this: Why did the shooter shoot? What can we learn about motive to prevent such tragic events in future?
The crime triangle is a useful and elegant baby step. I like it and I use it. But it is veneer. It is short term. It is not enough.
Our analysis of neighborhood crime must include a more robust analytical dialogue. If our analysis does not encompass action to move social life forward, it is not robust. Ultimately, if our theory fails to include motive, we are cluttering our dialogue with junk and the analysis of junk.