Security issue: Assault

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A street fight

Assault, in the use of Securipedia, is a crime that involves causing a victim to experience any type of violence or fear thereof, except for sexual violence, which is covered under Sexual assault.


The specific meaning of assault varies between countries, but refers to an act that causes another experience immediate and personal violence or fear thereof. In a more limited sense it is to fear or experience a threat of violence caused by an immediate show of force. In legal terms, assault is a crime which involves causing a victim to fear violence, and is often distinguished from battery, which involves physical contact. For the use in this Securipedia, the broader definition of assault is used, meaning that battery will be included in the use of the term assault. Sexual assault is considered separately.

Assault accounts for a relevant part of the total of recorded crime, e.g. for about 20% in the UK [1] as well as in the US [2].

Contributing circumstances

Known circumstances to influence the likelihood or effect of assault, are presented in the table below:

Contributing Circumstance Influence Description
Use of alcohol and/or drugs Increases level of aggression. About one-third of the recorded assault cases are related to the use of alcohol or drugs[3]. The excessive use of alcohol and consequently the access to alcohol in bars, cafés, dance clubs and other places of entertainment, but also liquor dealers or discount stores selling alcohol in places where alcohol is consumed in the street are therefore important contributing circumstances for assault as security issue. Be aware that the type of establishment, as well as the way they are clustered can be of great influence on the extent that assault may result. A practical guide to assessing this can be found on the website of the Centre for Problem-Orientated Policing [4].
Concentration of alcohol serving establishments Increases probability of intoxication Research has shown that if bars are concentrated or close together this increases the amount of violence, typically at closing times. The reason is twofold: an increased availability of liquor it brings together various and distinct groups of people[5].
Large crowds Increases likelihood of conflict. Rival fan groupings at a sports game or concert goers are typical examples. In July 2012, an outdoor concert at Dublin's (Ireland) Phoenix Park resulted in a litany of incidents including assaults, public order offences, and drugs seizures. The concert was attended by c. 45,000 people, and a subsequent report by the police force (An Garda Siochana) found that the park was not a suitable venue for 'outdoor electric music concerts'[6].
Activities that arouse excitement or competitive situations Increases aggressive behaviour The high emotions that arise during competition (e.g. in bars—whether patrons are watching sporting events on television or competing themselves in pool, darts, or other typical bar games) can turn to anger and frustration[7].
Abandoned/secluded areas and low traffic volumes (cars and/or pedestrians) Decreases likelihood of detection. A decreased perceived risk of detection decreases the perceived need for restraint of unwanted behaviour.
Increased levels of physical assault in the vicinity Increases the likelihood of offenders. The presence of people who have shown violent behaviour in the vicinity increases the chance of them visiting the area.
Low level of social monitoring Decreases level of social correction. A decreased perceived risk of detection and correction decreases the perceived need for restraint of unwanted behaviour.
Low level of physical monitoring (e.g. cameras) Decreases likelihood of detection. This reduces the possibilities of intervening and increases the likelihood of the conflict escalating. Low levels of physical monitoring contributes to less enforcement of the law, which undermines other efforts to prevent assault and other crimes occurring.
Long reaction times or inadequate action of intervention force Decreases likelihood of apprehension. Untimely or inappropriate reactions to violence lead to a perception of little control, which will increase perceived risk for the public and decrease perceived risk for the perpetrators. Also, reducing the impact of an assault (by timely intervention) will also be impossoble and lead to greater effects of incidents.
Presence of vulnerable groups Increases the likelihood of conflict. This may include communities made up of groups with different ethnic or racial backgrounds, or areas where there is a high distribution of elderly people, etc. In gender equality studies, research into the vulnerability of women in urban spaces is often conducted. Often, women, through fear, feel it necessary to consider where they are going (from point A to B through the urban environment), at what time, with whom they will travel, and even what they will wear.
Incompatible zonings Increases of the likelihood of conflict. Incompatible zonings, and activities therein, can increase the likelihood of vulnerable groups and potential offenders meeting. The composition and compatibility of adjoining land uses should be sufficiently considered by urban planners.
Low levels of social capital Likelihood of offences. A low level of social capital within the community (trust, friendliness, civic involvement, etc) often reflects in elevated street levels of crime, including assault[8].
Affluence and deprivation / unemployment Increases the likelihood of conflict. Together with alcohol consumption, poverty (which correlates with high levels of unemployment) is one of the few socio-economic causes that increases the risk of vulnerable groups such as women, children, adolescents and homosexuals[9] becoming victims of physical violence.


Social impacts

The psychological and emotional impact of an assault, may be compared with the impact of raid and carjacking and, hence, may lead to psychological distress, including fear, anger and depression. The social impact is, that a generalized fear for repetition and/or an amplified feeling of insecurity may lead to avoiding coping styles and difficulty of enjoying of social activities. The objects and areas that are avoided will be related to the background of the assault. An assault may take place because of one’s sexual orientation, ethnic origins, or emerge as senseless violence often encountered in youth culture and nightlife. An important effect of assaults taking place regulary in an urban environment is, that it may lead to a perception of insecurity and risks. The subjective level of risk can decrease quality of life and overall feeling of wellbeing within the urban community. This may be amplified when the victim also experienced a bystander effect. The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. Several variables help to explain why the bystander effect occurs. These variables include: ambiguity, cohesiveness and diffusion of responsibility. Also the risk perception of becoming an victim yourself as responder plays an important role[10]. The best way to respond is to alert the police.

There are checklists available from research that help in addressing social aspects of security issues such as assault. An important factor is increasing the probability of detection, for instance with the use of security camera's. A recommendable method to involve citizens in urban planning that "designs in" those social aspects is the safety audit, which focuses on local and context-specific solutions to address security issues.

Other helpful texts on the social impact of assault can be found on the pages of cultural criminology, environmental design and sociospatial perspective.

Economic impact

The direct costs of an assault is for a major part (±70%) attributable to the monetary value of inflicted harm to the victim (most of all in terms of mental harm, but also physical harm). Moreover, assaults cause responsive costs by the public authorities who are responsible for the prosecution, trial and enforcement of the offender(s).[11] There are no real prevention costs from a macro-economic point of view in terms of insurance fees, but there are some intangible costs such as prevention measures taken by individuals, who, for example, after a night out take a taxi home in stead of walking home by themselves.[12]. A study by SEO[13], a Dutch economic research agency, illustrates that the direct impact of an assault is relatively high compared to the average costs of e.g. vandalism, but far less than e.g. sexual offences and murder (which occur far less frequently though). Violent crimes like assaults, however, also have a negative long-term impact on the mental health of the victim, causing higher health costs and loss of productivity.

In addition, assaults do not just create costs for the victim and public authorities, but can also have a negative impact on the whole area or local community, the so-called secondary economic impact of crime. Crime prone areas with a long-standing reputation for suffering from much crime are subjects of high mobility of residents, vandalism, empty lots and buildings, businesses with extreme security measures, etc. In addition, one could consider the opportunity costs of police and other public services (like health care services for victim support), and the long term health costs and decrease in income of victims and their due to the traumatising impact of assaults.

Mobility impacts

The mobility impacts depend on the size of the assault. In most cases, if it concerns only a few people, the mobility impact on the traffic flows or transportation system will be negligible.

Where the assault would lead to an obstruction of the road, traffic flows will be deteriorated, depending on the obstruction and the degree of robustness of the road network. For example, an assault in Dublin, Ireland in December 2012 resulted in one of the city centre's busiest traffic routes being diverted for an extended period while an police investigation was undertaken.

Where the assault would lead to an obstruction of a location of interest, people flows towards this location will be deteriorated. Depending on the type of location (e.g. a household or a commercial business) this obstruction will have an economic impact.

When people are injured or in danger, emergency services will be called to assist. These include the police, ambulances or fire brigades. The emergency services need to know the best route to the incident location, taking into account possible obstructions. Incident management assists in reducing the duration and impact of incidents.

Safety impacts

The safety impact of assault is minor; although the mental or physical damage of the victim can be substantial, the act of assault usually does not influence the level of safety (risk due to non-intentional causes).


Assault, be it domestic violence or some other form of assault, often occurs as a result of personal situation and conflict between persons with different views, or where alcohol or drugs have heightened emotions/aggression. From an urban planning perspective, a useful and practical aid in decision-making and policy formulation is enhanced interaction between the law enforcement agency and the planning sector. For example, by acquiring the spatial datasets of incidents of reported assault, it may be possible for planners to create a 'hotspots' map of area within the urban environment where a higher proportion of assaults have occurred over time. From this, urban planners could consider what measures could address this problem, and could direct resources where available.

Potential measures that can mitigate the likelihood or impact of assault, are:

  • Directing traffic flows can be effective in separating potential offenders from vulnerable groups and/or locations less controlled or controllable.
  • Surveillance can be effective on a specific offence (in preventing it or reducing its consequences), but can also be effective in reducing repeat offences if detection is swiftly followed-up by an appropriate intervention. A highly visible form of surveillance can also raise the perceived risk and act as an inhibitor. In a Stockholm-based study, surveillance cameras were installed in the subway stations at different points in time. Difference-in-difference analysis revealed that the introduction of the cameras helped to reduce crime by approximately 20% in busy stations[14].
  • Intervention force is required to intervene and make surveillance effective.
  • Target removal can be achieved by removing circumstances that make people vulnerable, or designing out for vulnerable groups. The ethical aspect of doing so should be always be considered. Secluded areas make people more vulnerable to assault and should be avoided in the design of an area. By designing the road network such that traffic flows are spread over the whole area, secluded areas can be prevented. Traffic simulation models (e.g. Urban Strategy, Dynasmart) can help with this by estimating traffic flows for alternative road designs.
  • Controlling disinhibitors such as alcohol can directly decrease the problem. A careful design with compatible land uses and activities is important.
  • Creating awareness / stimulating conscience can act as an inhibitor, especially if adopted by the general public.
  • Screening where possible and ethical, can act as an effective way to exclude known offenders.
  • Access control can be employed in combination with screening to prevent unauthorised access.

Footnotes and references

  1., page 28
  2., table 1
  3., table 32
  5. Spicer Valerie, Reid Andrew A., Ginther Jordan, Seifi Hasti, Dabbaghian Vahid, Bars on blocks: A cellular automata model of crime and liquor licensed establishment density, Computers, Environment and Urban Systems 36 (2012) 412–422
  7. Scott Michael S. and Dedel Kelly, Assaults in and Around Bars. 2nd Edition, Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Guide No. 1, August 2006
  8. Eibner, C. and Evan, W. (2001) Relative Deprivation, Poor Health Habits and Mortality. Available at:
  9. See e.g.: Straus, M.A, and R.J. Gelles (2009); Zavaschi, M.Z. et al. (2002); Huebner, D.M. et al. (2003)
  11. In general, there are three types of costs of crime: Preventive costs in anticipation of assaults (e.g. private security measures); Material and immaterial costs as a consequence of assaults (e.g. physical damage, repairs, medical costs, mental harm); and responsive costs to assaults (e.g. the costs of detection and prevention, prosecution, support trial, etc.)
  12. These costs are very hard to quantify since they also serve other goals. Driving home by taxi, for instance, is not just safer but also more comfortable than by foot or bike.
  13. SEO (2007): De kosten van criminaliteit. [The cost of crime].
  14. Priks, M (2010) The Effect of Surveillance Cameras on Crime: Evidence from the Stockholm Subway. Stockholm: Department of Economics, Stockholm University, 106 91