A funny thing happened to me in Las Vegas last week. No, it's not what you're thinking! It's not really about clear-headed thinking at all. It's about some fuzzy thinking that replaces coherent understanding about preventing crime.
I've said before the CPTED and Design Out Crime folks don't talk much about the theories behind their work. A few of those thorny theory issues showed up in my blogs last year, such as ROTO (Research-On-The-Obvious).
There is another side to that coin. I'm referring to the fuzzy thinking of some academicians who study crime-and-place and their kin (crime mappers, police crime analysts).
Let's remember the main purpose of theory, at least in the empirical sciences, is to provide a plausible and testable explanation of why something happens, in this case crime. Events surrounding that explanation - where and when crime occurs - are merely descriptive symbols of the main event, not the actual theory that explains "why" the event happens in the first place.
From this point of view, CPTED and Design Out Crime have very few actual theories - only descriptive symbols.
DOES IT MATTER?
Descriptive symbols are useful. Describing where malaria starts killing people may help us isolate the outbreak and target treatment. Symbols may point us in the right direction toward explanation. But they do not explain the biology of malaria - and that is what kills us! Mosquito nets may help us and we need them. Ultimately, we need to be working toward a cure. We mustn't rest with nets. Same with crime.
What about gambling, casinos, and sin-city?
As I walked around Las Vegas last week I began thinking about all the casino's, the craziness, and all the activity. In Advanced CPTED there is something called "crime generators". These are locales in the city that tend to generate crime opportunities. Large casinos fit the crime generator tag. If mappers scoured the crime patterns, no doubt they'd find lots of hotspots with pick-pocketing, assaults, drug dealing, and fraud in and around the casinos. Or perhaps casino security displaces it to venues just outside the Strip? Either way, no doubt someone would come up with a "theory of casino crime locations", which isn't really a theory at all.
This is exactly what happened with the Broken Windows "theory". Crime went down in New York. Unfortunately for Broken Window Theory, as Professor Zimring showed in his book, The Great American Crime Decline, crime went down in places with no Broken Window programs. That's because descriptive symbols won't really stop crime in the long run. Only prevention based on sound theories can do that.
Yes, theories matter.
Does that make casino's crime generators? Casinos no doubt "generate" direct and indirect crime. But if we could calculate per capita crime rates around casinos, would they be any more crime-prone than other high activity places?
Do activity generators = crime generators?
Probably not in the case of large political rallies (except if you find yourself in Thailand this week). How about in the case of large football games with thousands of drunken fans? Those probably do generate similar (or more) assaults, except if we limit alcohol sales and the home team wins.
That's the problem with descriptive symbols versus real theory. They tell us something about where, and little about why.
THE CASINO CRIME GENERATOR?
It might be simple to conclude sin-city Vegas is also crime city. But FBI crime stats don't show that. We can argue all we want about unreported crime, gambling impact on family life, and so forth (those things are true and serious). Yet according to the 2008 FBI crime rates, Las Vegas wasn't even in the top 20 cities for total violent crime nor in the top 50 for total property crime cities.
So much for crime generators.
Personally, I'm no fan of the Strip in Las Vegas. There are no doubt many tragic realities that arise in that famous (infamous?) epicenter of self-absorption.
Whatever those realities, we must not confuse descriptive symbols that plot when and where with actual theories explaining why crime happens. Descriptive symbols may help us target crime and temporarily reduce it with 1st Generation CPTED and Design Out Crime. But they won't help us prevent it in the long run. Nor will they replace proper and robust theories that help us build safer places - including entertainment meccas like Vegas - in the years to come.