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Understanding and Predicting Crime “Hot Spots”

Former felons share knowledge about how (and where) criminals plan their crimes

MPRC extends a warm welcome to Dr. Lauren Porter, who joined the faculty at the University of Maryland in the fall of 2014. Dr. Porter is a criminologist whose work focuses on how incarceration affects people’s mental and physical health, and what causes crime “hot spots” to develop.

Dr. Porter’s current project, funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, investigates the factors involved in the development of crime “hot spots”, or places within neighborhoods where crimes regularly occur. Porter is part of an interdisciplinary team that conducts ride-alongs with ex-criminals, police officers, and neighborhood residents in order to learn about their perceptions of their neighborhoods and their expectations of where crime is most likely to occur. Participants first document their perceptions of crime-saturated locations by marking these spots on maps provided by the researchers. Participants then elaborate on “hot spots” during ride-alongs. During rides, video and GPS data is also recorded, allowing Porter and her colleagues to overlay narrative data with visual information and GPS coordinates. This methodology allows them to create a “perceptual map” of high-crime neighborhoods and to also search for visual, or environmental, patterns across places that participants identify as crime-prone and/or dangerous.

“The places we might assume are crime-saturated are not always,” says Dr. Porter. In Porter’s study, police officers and former criminals frequently have different ideas about the factors that make a certain location a likely spot for crime to occur. Police officers, residents, and former criminals all agree that abandoned, neglected houses are one element that encourages crime, because criminals perceive these as places where owners are less invested in their property and therefore less likely to call the police.

But ex-offenders say that when they choose a location to commit a crime, they also take a number of other factors into account—such as street lights, visibility, and proximity to potential escape routes. Dead end alleys with poor street visibility are likely places for certain types of crime, such as drug dealing and prostitution, but burglars are more likely to choose places on corners or near highway on-ramps because of the need for a quick getaway. Offenders tend to avoid places that have a higher perceived risk of being caught—such as school zones, houses with dogs, and areas where owners take good care of their property and may be more likely to call the police.

By overlaying official crime data with narrative and visual data the researchers hope to uncover themes across hot spots. For example, video data could reveal that places with high volumes of litter are more crime-prone and interviews with ex-offenders could suggest that houses with tall vegetation attract burglary. While the first phase of the research is inductive, in the second phase of the project Porter and her colleagues will use these data to predict hot spots in other locales.

Dr. Porter hopes that the project will aid law enforcement by contributing to a better understanding of why crimes happen in certain places and not others, and where crimes are most likely to occur in the future.