Some thoughts on Prevention
Updated: Nov 12
Every day is filled with a very large number of things that don’t occur. And that’s a good thing because so many of life’s random and unexpected happenings can leave you worse off. Today for example, you didn’t die in your sleep. Your house didn’t burn down. You weren’t hit by a bus. You didn’t overdose on fentanyl. Good things could have happened too, but those are fewer, and psychologically we don’t value the good things as much as we fear the bad things. Winning a thousand dollars is great, but losing a thousand is way worse. In our lives we spend so much time thinking about how to prevent bad things from happening, the worst of which, and the one we work hardest to avoid, is death. We wear seatbelts, we check the expiry dates on milk, we look before crossing the street, we lock our doors. We’re pretty good at keeping ourselves safe. But we could be better.
Why is prevention the last priority? Below the last priority? Why, as a society, do we keep making the same mistakes over and over again, dooming the next generation to the same set of problems and the same sad outcomes as the last?
Crime prevention is a vivid and disturbing example to consider. Would you rather prevent a murder, or spend resources catching a murderer? Would you rather keep your laptop safe or file a police report that ends with nothing getting done. The wise politician is tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.
Last summer two things happened on the same day. First, I cancelled my home security plan because I never bothered to arm the system, and my subscription had run out. That same day, sometime overnight, my neighbour across the street had his wallet stolen from his parked car. Before he realized it was gone, the criminals had used his cards at stores across the neighbourhood and the city.
We are obsessed with crime. About one-third of British newspaper content focuses on crime, while in Canada coverage of some form of social deviance take up as much as three-quarter of news and radio coverage.[i] Stories about crime fall between two narratives – the conservative view that there are heroic law enforcers fighting off comic-book villains bent on criminality, and the liberal view that criminals are forced by social factors to make regretful choices. In the conservative view, being tough on crime is the answer. In the liberal view, we need to solve underlying problems of racism, inequality and poverty to prevent crime. But many criminologists assert that neither view has a monopoly on truth.
In his book Criminal, the British writer Tom Gash describes how motorcycle thefts in West Germany fell by two-thirds between 1980 and 1986. As a result 100,000 fewer motorcycles were stolen every year in West Germany. At the same time, car and bicycle thefts were relatively unchanged, so what happened? He went to speak to the criminologist Pat Mayhew who had uncovered this trend and he asks, why? To which she responded “It’s sort of obvious, isn’t it?” While motorcycle thefts had fallen in West Germany, they had also fallen in the UK and the Netherlands. The common factor to these three countries was the introduction of mandatory helmet laws. When riding without a helmet became a crime and police were on the lookout to fine helmetless riders, theft went down, by a lot. This left Tom Gash with a problem – it didn’t fit into either conventional view of criminality.
Ever since the invention of private property, society has put a lot of effort into preventing theft.
Having something stolen affects us on many levels. The simplest to look at theft is a straight-forward economic loss. Your $100 headphones were stolen, you need to spend $100 to replace them. Case closed. But that’s not really how it works. First of all, those headphones cost $100 five years ago, now they cost $200. And you really liked those headphones. You had taken them all over the place, they were comfortable on your ears, you knew how the buttons worked. But even more than that, you feel unsafe, you feel violated, you feel threatened by having something of yours taken away. If you’d lost them, it would have been sad. But if they’re stolen, it is scary and sad. It makes you not trust people; it makes you suspicious and puts you on your guard.
Many factors can prevent crime, some seen and some unseen. Reducing the opportunities for crime reduces crime. For example, car theft has been in the media regularly since the pandemic has led to an increase in criminality in general and specifically to an increase in violent crime and vehicle theft. In 1990, the U.S. saw 657.8 vehicle thefts per 100,000 population, this declined by two-thirds to a low of 215.4 thefts per 100,000 in 2014 before climbing slightly during the pandemic. Why were so many fewer cars stolen? One likely reason it did not decline is police enforcement as the clearance rate of motor vehicle theft in the U.S was only 12.3 percent.[ii] The most likely answer is that key fobs introduced in the late 1990s immobilized engines unless the microchip was nearby, thus preventing the simple method of smashing windows and ‘hot-wiring’ cars that thieves had used during the high-theft years.
But then gangs and organized crime learned that simple technology could make modern cars even simpler to steal. The computerized fob actually made cars easier to steal with off-the-shelf tech that gangs can employ on a large scale. A thief can now steal a car within ten seconds without breaking anything.
We are caught in an arms race and it should be relatively simple for car manufacturers to fight back using simple pin codes or biometric readers to keep cars safe. Entry into smart phones and computers is virtually unbreakable without a user’s face or pin code, presumably this technology could be transferred to cars which are becoming more and more like computers with wheels.
My previous house had a really old back door when I first moved it. When I asked a contractor to come over and help me replace it, he saw something I had missed.
“You can see where the lock was broken here, and here, probably forced a couple of different times” he said. “But don’t worry, there are hardly any break-ins around here anymore.”
Really, I wondered. Why not?
We worry a lot about home invasion, like many of the bad things we try to prevent, we have a morbid fascination with property crime. Some people do a lot to prevent property crime, others leave their doors unlocked. Of course much of this is based on where you live, but some of it comes down to an individual's risk tolerance. The rate of breaking and entering in Canada fell from 1,400 break ins per 100,000 in 1986 to just over 400 in 2016. In the U.S. the rate of home invasion is one-fifth what it was in the 1980s, with a rate of 271 home invasions per 100,000 people in 2020.[iii]
Police departments and home insurance companies provide common sense strategies that actually reduce the risk of home invasion, these include: locking doors and windows, installing security cameras and alarm systems.[iv] Hardening targets by adding additional layers of protection is a good strategy at deterring crime. But the fall in home invasions has less to do with hardening our homes as windows and locks haven’t change much in the past forty years. The fact that electronics are cheap and ubiquitous made TVs and stereos less appealing to thieves than they were in the past. The fact that people keep little or no cash at home has also made homes into less appealing targets. To a great extent theft has moved onto the internet where we are all constantly barraged by scams and phishing attacks which feels different than home invasion, but ends up bringing in huge amounts of revenue for criminal gangs.
Even if a home is undisturbed, bicycles stored in a shed or garage are often targeted by thieves. How many bikes have you had stolen? I’ve been lucky, I’ve only had a seat stolen when my bike was parked on a busy street out front of my clinic in Ottawa. But it wasn’t just lucky because I also use a big U-lock, and have been known to use two big locks when I got a new bike a few years back. But even a big U-lock can be cut through these days by a resourceful thief with a battery-powered angle grinder that costs less than $100 at a hardware store. The internet is replete with men holding angle grinders and quickly cutting through locks then riding away in broad daylight.
Lock companies have made some strides towards creating locks that are so resistant to angle grinders that only the most determined thieves will succeed. SkunkLock created a U-lock which, if cut into by a thief, releases compressed gases that are designed to induce vomiting. The gas is not dangerous but it should act as a deterrent.
If this seems cruel, unethical or pointless to a bike lock purchaser, the British company Hiplock went back to basics in 2021 and designed and built a very strong lock. They called it the D1000 and instead of hardened metal, they used a graphene-reinforced ceramic composite which is designed to resist angle grinders so well that thieves give up. Tests suggest that the three hundred U.S. dollar Hiplock D1000 really does help cyclists to harden their bike against theft. For example, the lock tester for the New York Times’s product testing company Wirecutter had to replace the blade on his angle grinder five times to cut through the D1000. At that point, there was only a 1.2 cm (0.75 inch) gap so he would have had to make a 2nd cut to actually free the bike. The batteries on hand-held angle grinders would also need to be replaced several times with that much cutting.[v]
But better security in one area can displace crime. One concern is that instead of cutting the lock, a thief could cut the metal to which the lock is attached (such as a post or fence). And ultimately, thieves will target the best bike with the weakest lock so they will move on from the Hiplock D1000 and target bikes with weaker locks.
Art galleries have learned after centuries of art theft that security should be a top priority. Large numbers of people move through galleries every day and curators have to find a balance between making art accessible and visible, and keeping it safe. The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre on August 21, 1911 by a museum worker and two associates who removed it from its frame and walked out with it wrapped in a blanket. He kept it in a trunk for two years before trying to sell it to an art dealer in Florence who contacted the police which led to its recovery.
Pål Enger, who played as a professional soccer player in Norway, had been obsessed with Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream since he saw it as a child on a school trip. In 1994, after serving a criminal sentence for stealing another Munch painting from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway, he broke into the same museum a second time and stole The Scream. He left a note which read “Thanks for the poor security.” The painting was recovered within two months. A different version of The Scream was stolen in 2005 by an armed gang from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Two years later, in August 2006 the Norwegian police recovered the painting, along with Munch’s Madonna which had also been stolen. The Munch Museum was closed for ten months to upgrade its security after the theft.
On New Year’s Even 1999, as Millennium fireworks exploded over the English university city of Oxford, a thief broke into the University’s Ashmolean Museum and stole Cezanne’s landscape painting View of Auvers-sur-Oise. It is worth three million pounds and is listed by the FBI as one of the top ten art crimes which remains unsolved. Two years later in December 2002, thieves climbed a ladder onto the roof of the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and stole two paintings worth $30 million which the FBI also include on its top ten list.
Preventing theft from galleries starts with controlling access to the building and can involve securing painting to the frame, alarms, cameras and security guards. Art is often stolen by museum employees, so adding more personnel can also make a museum more vulnerable. Hardening a gallery by preventing thieves from breaking through windows and ceiling glass would have prevented many high-profile art thefts. Galleries are also employing better electronic security systems which can even use video to analyze suspicious activity near artworks.
So what does crime prevention tell us about prevention strategies in general? It all comes back to the things that never happened, the man who wasn’t there, who wasn’t there again today. When a child does not take up smoking, there’s no proof it never happened. When a young man turns from crime to legal employment, there is no record in police computers. Prevention is all about making itself invisible.
But if you know where to look, it is very visible. Effective crime prevention is multi-layered, starting with simple strategies to harden a target. In the case of bike locks, that means literally making bike locks stronger. In the case of art galleries, it means identifying all the weak points in security and single-mindedly closing opportunities for art theft. Layers of protection include securing art behind strong glass cases, ensuring sufficient security guards are present, monitoring entrances/exits, blocking windows and roof access, alarms, cameras and restricting access outside of business hours. Next time you visit an art gallery, look for all the layers of security that are visible. There may be others you cannot see.
I explore other types of prevention and a strategy to prevent bad things from happening in a book I’m working on which I have tentatively called How to Prevent Anything: Learning from the Lessons Written in Blood
[i] Gash, Tom (2016-05-04T23:58:59.000). Criminal . Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. [ii]https://www.statista.com/statistics/194213/crime-clearance-rate-by-type-in-the-us/ [iii]https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-01/why-burglary-has-declined-in-the-u-s?in_source=embedded-checkout-banner [iv] https://www.forbes.com/home-improvement/home-security/home-invasion-statistics/ [v]https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/reviews/best-bike-lock/#what-about-the-hiplok-d1000 [vi] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 169). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. [vii]https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/murder-rate-by-country [Acessed August 21, 2023] [viii] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 174). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. [ix] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 176). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.