Routine Activity Theory and the Crime Triangle

A central step towards more evidence-based conservation law enforcement is the more explicit use of crime theory, which focuses on dimensions of criminal events instead of the various background factors of criminals. Crime theory includes “opportunity theories,” which focus on the opportunity structures that potential criminals respond to and that determine whether and how a person commits a crime. Routine Activity Theory is one contemporary opportunity theory, and it is discussed here because of its usefulness in understanding the criminal process and informing crime prevention strategies.

Routine Activity Theory

Two leading criminologists, Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson noticed an important thing about crime in the 1970s: crime concentrates in space and time and among targets. In other words, crime does not occur randomly throughout the day and at random locations, but clusters at certain times, in certain places, and even among certain targets (Cohen & Felson, 1979). For example, burglaries of homes tend not to occur in the evening when its residents are more likely to be home, but instead in the middle of the day when the home is likely to be empty. Items are not stolen at random and usually are not big and clunky like a desktop computer, but easier to carry like a laptop computer.

The insights of Cohen and Felson were particularly useful to policing agencies at the time. By the 1970s, the traditional social predictors of urban crime (high poverty, poor education, etc.) had been improving, yet crime increased, including home burglary. How could this be? Cohen and Felson argued that as day-time activities had dispersed away from the home (particularly as more women participated in the workforce), leaving homes unguarded, higher crime rates followed due to more opportunities to commit. Additionally, they suggested that other social changes, such as technological advancement, facilitated criminal acts. For example, inexpensive small power tools allow burglars to enter homes more easily.

Ultimately, the work of Cohen and Felson became formalized in Routine Activity Theory, which states that patterns of offenders, targets, and guardians can cause criminal events and control when, where, and how they occur. The underlying assumption is that criminals, like everyone else, make decisions by weighing the potential reward against the potential risk, based on the limited information they have and the time they have to make the decision. When the reward outweighs the risk in their conscious or subconscious estimation, they commit the crime. This is known as the rational choice framework.

The Routine Activity Theory's crime triangle. 

The pattern described by Felson and Cohen is represented by one of the most significant and enduring frameworks for applying Routine Activity Theory: the crime triangle. This is a visual model that depicts a sort of “recipe” for a criminal event. In order for a crime to occur, a likely offender must encounter a suitable target in the absence of a capable guardian. Crime is expected to be more frequent in areas where potential offenders and targets cross paths and where guardians are absent (the overlap in the diagram). This could be a central social space, such as a shop, where a potential thief (likely offender) might happen upon an unattended purse (target). When a capable guardian is absent (i.e., when no one is nearby in the shop), a person responds to the opportunity by committing the crime (theft).

Wildlife Crime as a Routine Activity

If conservationists apply RA Theory to wildlife crime, we might begin to think of a wide-range of factors that historically have not been widely considered. For instance, we might consider how mobile cell service surrounding Kruger National Park, South Africa may facilitate communication among eco-tourists and residents, but also among poachers trying to coordinate their movements and avoid park rangers. Just as the spread of cordless power tools facilitated property crime, so too does communications technology and infrastructure for poaching.

There are two important applications that studies framed in RA Theory can provide conservationists and law enforcement. First, law enforcement can identify and target “hot spots” where most of the crime occurs. Second, inferences about criminal decision making become possible. Felson and Cohen identified a temporal hot spot (daytime) and inferred that burglars prefer an empty house, as evidenced by the fact that most burglaries occurred while homes were empty.

Charcoal on Lundazi Road, eastern Zambia Photo credit: Hans Hillewaert, Flickr.  Link .

Charcoal on Lundazi Road, eastern Zambia
Photo credit: Hans Hillewaert, Flickr. Link.

Next, we examine how a spatial analysis of illegal resource extraction can be explained with RA Theory to identify hot spots and make inferences about criminal decisions. Mackenzie, Chapman, and Sengupta (2011) found that illegal resource extraction was significantly clustered on the western side of a Ugandan village, and suggested that this concentration was explained by its proximity to a major urban center, Fort Portal. Residents (“motivated offenders”) whose routine activities include travel to Fort Portal would have more opportunities to illegally harvest shrubs or trees (“suitable targets”), would be familiar with the area and, thus, might be more confident in their ability to successfully extract resources without detection by other community members or wildlife officials (“capable guardians”). In this example, three options for intervention in the hot spot emerge: (1) enforcement staff could be deployed to the hot spot more frequently, and signage could be posted to (2) educate passers-by about the illegality of extracting resources (increasing the number of informal guardians), (3) warn would-be criminals that they are being watched (increasing the perception of being surveilled, whether or not surveillance increases), and (4) identify the damages that occur from this behavior (alerting the conscious of a would-by criminal).

Temporal analyses can be equally informative. Evidence suggests that lunar cycles influence the “when” of rhino poaching and illegal fishing. When the moon is fuller (and brighter), these activities increase, presumably due to the increased visibility. Cultural events may also influence when wildlife crime occurs. Kurland and Pires (2017) examined 40,113 incidents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confiscating wildlife products attempted to be illegally imported. They found that confiscations were not evenly distributed throughout the year, and that two spikes (in March/April and October) may be explained by celebrations for Easter and Chinese New Year.

Given the strong evidence that wildlife crime exhibits similar patterns to other crimes and that understanding these patterns is useful to practitioners, we find Routine Activity Theory to be a strong framework for studying wildlife crime with the goal of offering evidence-based input. For an elaboration on RA Theory and the specific components of the crime triangle, including how offenders, targets, and guardians are studied for prevention-oriented policy, please click here.

Selected References

  • Cohen, L.E. & Felson, M. (1979). Social change and crime rate trends: a routine activity approach. American Sociological Review. 44. Closed-Access Link.
  • Lemieux, A.M. & Eloff, C. (2014). Rhino poaching in Kruger National Park, South Africa: aligning analysis, technology and prevention In A.M. Lemieux (Ed), Situational Prevention of Poaching. (pp. 18-43). London: Routledge. Amazon Link.
  • Kurland, J., & Pires, S. F. (2017). Assessing U.S. wildlife trafficking patterns: how criminology and conservation science can guide strategies to reduce the illegal wildlife trade. Deviant Behavior, 38(4), 375–391. Closed-Access Link.
  • Mackenzie, C.A., Chapman, C.A., Sengupta, R. (2012). Spatial patterns of illegal resource extraction in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Environmental Conservation 39(1): 38-50. Closed-Access Link.

Header Photo Credit: Nithin Bolar K., Wikimedia Commons. Link