Evaluating the effectiveness of situational crime prevention techniques: A focus on burglar alarms.



Evaluating the effectiveness of situational crime prevention techniques: A focus on burglar alarms.

Situational crime prevention emerged in the 1980s as an innovative approach to crime disruption, shifting the focus from the offender towards the circumstances that have made that crime possible. According to situational crime prevention (SCP), crime should be viewed as product of an interaction between motivation and situation (Clarke, 2017). Often, a motivated offender may not engage in a specific activity since specific situational factors may buffer his criminal drive. In this sense, situational prevention seeks to increase the risks and reduce the rewards associated with that specific type of crime, making the crime less palatable to the offender (Clarke, 1995). In a nutshell, the core principle of SCP is to manipulate criminal opportunities through the use of deterring measures such as surveillance, target hardening and environmental management (Lee, 2010). 

Over time, SCP has significantly increased thanks to its recognized effectiveness and is currently used for preventing and disrupting a wide range of criminal activities. Cornish and Clarke (2003) state that when trying to prevent crimes and specifically burglary, increasing the risks for the potential thief acts as a powerful deterrent, since the fear of being caught outweighs the motivation to break into a house. For this reason, burglar alarms have slowly grown to be one of the most effective measures of formal surveillance, suggesting that this type of measure effectively reduces the likelihood for a house of being burgled. (Cornish and Clarke, 2003). This has led burglar alarms to become one of the most popular security devices used in households (Lee, 2008; Tseloni et al, 2014).

Following this idea, past literature and previous research have publicized articles to demonstrate the positive effect of burglar alarms in reducing burglary attempts.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program has reported that burglars are most attracted to homes that do not have burglar alarms or other security systems (FBI, 2017). In fact, households with no security devices are 3 times more likely to be robbed, suggesting that security devices such as burglar alarms seem to have an influence in the decision-making process of a thief (FBI,2017; Police Uk, 2016). More specifically, Lee and Wilson (2013) looked solely at the impact of burglar alarms on residential burglary. The study was conducted by cross-examining data of residential burglar alarms permit records and of burglary incidents, using a spatial and geographical analysis software. It was found that dense concentrations of residential of alarm installations are isolated from hotspots of burglary incidents, thus suggesting that burglar alarms have a beneficial impact by deterring house thefts (Lee, 2008; Lee and Wilson, 2013). Recent qualitative research has also supported the beneficial effects of burglar alarms. By interviewing more than 20 prolific incarcerated burglars, Armitage (2017) found that surveillance security and ADT burglar alarms were seen by the offenders as the most effective strategies in preventing house break-ins.

However, some academic experts have argued that burglar alarms do not decrease burglary risk. Several empirical studies show that in fact, burglar alarms might even increase the likelihood of a house of being burgled. Tseloni et al (2014) found that burglar alarms and dummy alarms appear to increase the risk of attempted burglary, implying a counter-productive effect. This finding is explained by the fact that burglar alarms, alone, may give a sense of false protection, thus making households more ‘careless’ from a security point of view (Tseloni et al, 2014). Further studies have looked more into this counter-intuitive result in order to discover additional explanations. Tilley et al (2015) analysed and compared households with the same security devices but differed in the presence of burglar alarms. In doing so, the marginal effects of burglar alarms are calculated. They (2015) concluded that although there is not enough evidence to conclude that burglar alarms have a counter-productive effect, alarms are less effective than window locks or CCTV, since they do not create any physical obstacle nor increase the risks for a potential burglar of approaching the property.

Skudder et al (2017) observed that, in fact, burglar alarms have a low environmental performance compared to other security devices. This finding, previously supported by Tseloni et al (2014), shows that burglar alarms are the least desirable individual measure since they are not so effective in burglary prevention and offer less protection than no security at all. Also, it was found that the preventive effects of burglar alarms has changed over time. Unlike recent years, in the period from 1992 to 1996 burglar alarms used to prevent burglaries effectively (Skudder et al, 2017). Thus, it appears that research concerning the effectiveness of burglar alarms is far from being consistent and is permeated by contrasting evidence, as some studies demonstrate its effectiveness and others do not.

Moreover, there have been few scientifically rigorous studies which have inspected the effectiveness of situational crime prevention products such as burglar alarms (Jacobson, 2003; Lee, 2008; Tseloni et al, 2017; Skudder et al, 2018).

Yet, despite this lack of scientific thoroughness, burglar alarms have been steadily increasing, becoming one of the most used SCP measures against household break-ins. This leads to question whether the prevalent use of burglar alarms has been justified by empirical research or is a consequence of a society that relies too much on private security entities, that sometimes over-sell security products for mere profit (Garland, 2015). 

By acknowledging the lack of scientific research in addition with vague and contrasting findings,.

contributing to the creation of a ‘securitization of society’. According to Garland (2015), society has shifted from monopolized system of crime control into becoming a hybrid system in which security is delivered jointly by different multiple actors and agencies.


Armitage, R. Burglars’ take on crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED): reconsidering the relevance from an offender perspective. Secur J 31, 285–304 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41284-017-0101-6

Home Office. 2016. Modern crime prevention strategy. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ modern-crime-prevention-strategy. Accessed January 2021.

Lee, S. (2008). The impact of home burglar alarm systems on residential burglaries. Rutgers The State University of New Jersey-Newark.

Skudder, H., Brunton-Smith, I., Tseloni, A. et al. Can burglary prevention be low-carbon and effective? Investigating the environmental performance of burglary prevention measures. Secur J 31, 111–138 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41284-017-0091-4

Tilley, N., Thompson, R., Farrell, G., Grove, L., & Tseloni, A. (2015). Do burglar alarms increase burglary risk? A counter-intuitive finding and possible explanations. Crime Prevention and Community Safety, 17(1), 1-19.

Tseloni, A., Thompson, R., Grove, L., Tilley, N., & Farrell, G. (2017). The effectiveness of burglary security devices. Security Journal, 30(2), 646-664.

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