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Breaking and Entering: An Ethnographic Analysis of Burglary

NCJ Number
P F Cromwell; J N Olson; D W Avary
Date Published
130 pages
This study determined the extent to which residential burglars use rational processes to select burglary targets, and what environmental factors represent discriminative cues in the target selection process.
Thirty active burglars in an urban Texas metropolitan area were recruited as research subjects. They were promised confidentiality, anonymity, and a stipend of $50 for each active burglar they referred to the study. Subjects were asked to reconstruct their past burglaries as nearly as possible. It was found that burglars employ a 3-component decisionmaking strategy. The burglar assumes that each proposed target site contains at least some minimal potential gain, determines whether the target site can be broken into without being seen and reported, and determines whether the target site can be broken into readily. Burglars use environmental cues to assess risk factors, cues that indicate the surveillability of the target site, whether the target site is occupied, and the degree of difficulty in breaking and entering. Burglars tend to be opportunistic rather than rational and are easily deterred or displaced from one target site to another. Situational factors such as the presence of a dog, an alarm system, security hardware, and alert neighbors may be the most effective deterrents. Drug use and burglary are interrelated; burglars commit their crimes to obtain money to buy drugs, and they also use drugs to initiate and facilitate the commission of burglaries. Because the rational choice decision model does not adequately explain variance in burglary, a cognitive-behavioral approach may be needed to analyze the burglar's decisionmaking process and to design appropriate crime prevention strategies. Appendixes provide further information on issues related to ethnographic criminology research and biographies of selected study informants. 76 references, 14 endnotes, 7 tables, and 2 figures


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