The Police Chief, the Professional Voice of Law Enforcement
Advanced Search
September 2016HomeSite MapContact UsFAQsSubscribe/Renew/UpdateIACP

Current Issue
Search Archives
Web-Only Articles
About Police Chief
Law Enforcement Jobs
buyers Your Oppinion

Back to Archives | Back to January 2010 Contents 

Thinking Like a Thief Is the Key to Crime Prevention

By Jeffrey Dingle, Senior Instructor, LSI, Nicholasville, Kentucky

nderstanding crime prevention starts with defining what is crime prevention in today’s world. That seems like an easy thing to define—“crime prevention” is the “prevention of crime”—but in actuality it is necessary to look at the variety of knowledge that contributes to the prevention of criminal acts, and the variety of knowledge that, in the hands of a competent law enforcement professional, actually contributes to the prevention of crime.

The government approaches the general maintenance of order in society in a logical and systematic order. While definitions may vary, there is substantial agreement on the following:

  • Prevention—an action that diminishes the likelihood for something to happen or the ability for somebody to do something.

  • Intervention—the act of intervening or coming between, especially a deliberate entry into a situation or dispute in order to influence events or prevent undesirable consequences.

  • Response—something done in reaction to something else to contain and stabilize a situation or condition.

  • Recovery—the regaining of something lost or taken away.

Prevention: recognizes that the best disaster, be it natural or human-made, is the one that never occurs. While intervention is viewed by some as prevention, the fundamental difference is that prevention generally occurs before an incident. An example would be enactment and enforcement of building codes that mandate use of materials and construction techniques to attach more securely a house frame to the foundation, and the roof to the sidewalls, as a way to avoid damage that may result from high winds.

From a crime prevention standpoint, police actions do not necessarily prevent something from happening, but may simply be an action that diminishes the likelihood or ability for somebody to do something or for something to happen. Sometimes prevention is based on what an individual believes is possible or not possible, rather than what is possible or not possible. Traditional security operations dictate that operations are proactive, in that the goal is to identify potential problems and then to take steps to restrict or remove the causation so that the problem cannot occur. Traditional policing is reactive in that officers wait for a problem to occur then work to catch the perpetrator. This does not fit in well with the idea of today’s proactive crime prevention needs.

Intervention: This is a measured reply to an unfolding development. An example could be an individual who moves to harm a person or a place. In this scenario the overt act may involve moving in the direction of a target while possessing the means and methods to inflict the desired harm or damage. The act is not complete, but the intent would lead a reasonable person to believe that the crime is about to happen and police action is warranted to prevent completion. The inherent danger of using an intervention strategy is the possibility of a failed intercept as an individual advances a criminal intent from the planning toward execution stage. Some in law enforcement argue that intervening prior to an overt act lessens the opportunity for a successful prosecution. Others take the position that public safety trumps prosecutorial concerns. Is the goal to catch criminals or to prevent criminal acts?

Response: A response can take many forms, but it involves a reactive stance, acting after an incident. The challenge is gauging, acquiring, and deploying adequate and appropriate resources in a timely manner to effectively contain and stabilize the conditions that are causing harm. It is most difficult to eliminate a source of harm in advance of gaining control over the problem. Conservation of life comes before protection of property. An unfitting response can add to the number of disabilities and deaths that may result.

Recovery: While last in the government order maintenance hierarchy, recovery is frequently the most complex stage to manage while consuming massive amounts of human and financial assets. The spirit of cooperation that flourishes during the urgency of the emergency often fades in the light of restoring personal well-being, restoring public order, and repairing or replacing damaged or lost infrastructure.

Under the old school of thought, recovery was viewed as the exclusive purview of the owner of the problem. Lessons learned in more recent natural and human-made occurrences that have plagued the United States have caused public- and private-sector leaders to understand that successful recovery requires collaboration perhaps at a greater intensity than at any other stage.

Crime prevention is at the very beginning of this governmental order maintenance concept as it is related to criminal acts. This clarifies the immense value of prevention. If preventive actions are successful, there is no need for intervention, response, or recovery.

Thinking Like a Thief

What does crime prevention include? Every police officer needs to know at least as much as the bad guy knows. The knowledge to commit criminal acts is not limited to a few or those who learn the trade in prison; the knowledge now is widely communicated by various means. For example, videos that explicitly show how to open padlocks with a tool made from a soft drink can are on YouTube. Other videos show how to get drinks and food from vending machines without paying. Why does a police officer need this information? Because the local hoodlums have access to the same information on the same Internet and to be effective in preventing crime the officer must know how the crime is committed.

There are consequences for providing open source information on the Internet that previously was hard to obtain. For example, TOOOL ( is an organization dedicated to the so-called sport of lock picking. TOOOL, or the Open Organization of Lockpickers, is a growing group of enthusiasts interested in locks, keys, and ways of opening locks without keys. The law enforcement concern is the goal of this and similar organizations. While seeking to expose weaknesses in locks and locking devices and sharing this knowledge with others in a professional environment can help the industry, others with criminal intentions can obtain the same information. There are honest, law-abiding members of TOOOL, however, realistically there could be others who take this knowledge and use it to commit criminal acts.

As simple as it is to find out how to commit a crime, on the other side, there are many for-profit companies that market simple crime prevention technology to the public. For example, a new product coming on the market after five years in development is a door protection device that uses both the strength of the floor and aircraft-grade billet aluminum, the material used in U.S. fighter planes. This product is designed to prevent a forced entry, resisting blows from kick-ins, shoulder slams, and even sledge hammers. It can be installed in under 10 minutes by the average homeowner and is inexpensive to purchase. There are many companies that produce quality crime prevention products and provide information packages to crime prevention officers.

What Does a Crime Prevention Officer Need to Know?

The job of a crime prevention officer is less about actually preventing a crime and more about enabling others to practice crime prevention techniques. To be effective, a crime prevention officer needs to understand the following things:

  • Crime

  • Threat and risk assessment

  • Technology

  • Criminals

It is important to understand the technology that helps crime prevention—all of the technology, from what the local home improvement store offers to homeowners to the highly specialized prevention technology used to protect critical infrastructure.

In today’s homeland security environment, crime prevention involves areas often overlooked. For example, approximately 22 million manholes are in the United States, and the vast majority remain unsecured.1 Manholes are the access points to underground critical infrastructure and key resources. In fact, much of what allows the United States to operate goes unnoticed below ground, in the network of tunnels hidden below the community’s streets, buildings, and parks. The pipes, wires, cables, and other infrastructure that run through and underneath communities are often protected only by unsecured manhole covers. In many ways, protection of these unguarded entryways to the subterranean critical infrastructure and key resources is as simple as putting a lock on the door. This is just one of many threats and associated prevention technologies of which crime prevention officers are required to develop awareness.

As another example, basic locksmithing skills are extraordinarily beneficial to a crime prevention officer. Understanding these skills helps to assess a facilities’ security. Locksmithing requires a certain degree of mechanical aptitude, but it mostly requires knowledge (an understanding of how locking devices work) and tools. Locksmithing typically involves highly specialized tools. With the knowledge and tools, a person can open just about anything, including commercial doors and burglar-resistant safes. The knowledge is easily obtainable. The trade can be learned from a locksmith or a two-week course in one of several locksmithing schools in the United States.

There are companies that teach fundamental locksmithing. Many offer methods of entry classes, which basically constitute a burglary school. In these schools officers are taught how locks are opened both by force and surreptitiously. The benefit is understanding how criminals operate, which is the most basic step in preventing a person from committing a crime. Thinking like a thief is essential in preventing crime.

In a Changing Society

Crime prevention is an essential element of keeping order in society. As officers engage better methodology to teach crime prevention, the Internet and other sources are making useful information available to criminals (either intentionally or unintentionally). Regardless of how the police may wish things to be, crime prevention remains the responsibility of the police. To be effective, the police need to know at least as much as the bad guy knows. A successful crime prevention officer needs a vast amount of knowledge, covering a large group of security-related topics. An effective crime prevention officer has to be knowledgeable across a wide arena of crime and threats and solutions. The officer needs to understand crime, understand threat and risk assessment, understand technology, and understand the criminal. Understanding how criminals operate is the most basic step in preventing them from committing crimes. $#9632;


1According to John Messer, president of Manhole Barrier Security Systems Incorporated (MBSS), in Garden City, New York (, “There are approximately 22 million manholes in the United States,” citing a study by Dr. Irwin M. Pikus, Manhole Security: Protecting America’s Critical Underground Infrastructure, November 2006.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 1, January 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

The official publication of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The online version of the Police Chief Magazine is possible through a grant from the IACP Foundation. To learn more about the IACP Foundation, click here.

All contents Copyright © 2003 - International Association of Chiefs of Police. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright and Trademark Notice | Member and Non-Member Supplied Information | Links Policy

44 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA USA 22314 phone: 703.836.6767 or 1.800.THE IACP fax: 703.836.4543

Created by Matrix Group International, Inc.®