Security issue: Burglary

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Gaining access by forcing a window

Burglary is the crime of illicitly entering a building or other property with the intent to commit an offence, particularly (but not limited to) theft.


Burglary involves a criminal (most commonly referred to as thief) entering a building or part thereof, that is not freely accessible without permission. All kinds of methods of gaining access are possible, gaining access by ramming a vehicle through a wall or entrance is covered in the security issue Ram raid.

Contributing circumstances

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

Contributing Circumstance Influence Description
Lack of surveillance. Decreases risk of detection. A low level of surveillance, particularly round-the-clock surveillance, decreases the perceived risk of detection for a perpetrator and thereby increases the attractiveness.
High levels of burglary in the vicinity. Increases likelihood of targeting. The distance to known places where offenders live matters. On average, burglars travel 2,6 km to commit their crimes[1] and the odds of a neighbourhood’s being chosen increases by a factor of 1.67 for every kilometre closer to the burglar’s home it is located[2].
High levels of unemployment Increases likelihood of targeting High levels of unemployment are associated with higher levels of burglary[3].
Low levels of ownership Decreases the inhibitions for committing the crime Uncertainty of ownership can reduce responsibility and increase the likelihood of crime and anti-social behaviour going unchallenged[4].
High expected levels of drug- or alcohol abuse Reduces inhibitions for crime The presence of regular abusers of alcohol or drugs has a strong correlation with the occurrence of burglary, often thought to be caused by the need for financing an addiction. Studies show that about 40% of all burglary is committed under the influence of alcohol[5].
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 impossible and lead to greater effects of incidents.
High percentage of single family detached homes Increases the perceived reward and vulnerability Single family detached houses are often attractive targets – with greater rewards – and more difficult to secure because they have multiple access points [6].
Concentration of residential units Increases attractiveness Burglars are attracted to areas where potential targets are plenty and concentrated. The greater the number of residences in a neighbourhood, the more likely it is that the neighbourhood will be selected for burglary[2].
Large residential areas Increases attractiveness of area The number of residential units in a neighbourhood influences the chance of this neighbourhood to be chosen by burglars. When the number of residential units in a neighbourhood increases by 1000, the odds of being chosen rises by a factor of 1.35.[2]
Increased ethnic heterogeneity unknown Ethnic heterogeneity is associated with higher levels of burglary. A study[2] showed that an increase of 10% in heterogeneity in a neighbourhood makes it a factor 1.15 more likely to be chosen by burglars.
High amounts of traffic Increases the visibility of targets Houses near major thoroughfares are more likely to catch the attention of burglars passing by. Moreover, it is more difficult to distinguish residents and visitors from strangers in heavily travelled areas.[6]
Multiple accesses and exits to neighbourhood Decreases the risk of apprehension Multiple access ways, particularly when limited in surveillance, provide good access and exit opportunities for criminals. Alleys, for example, provide both access and escape for burglars, and limit visibility to neighbours. In addition, large side yards facilitate access to the backs of houses.[6] Mobility considerations in this context must be balanced with wider urban planning principles which advocate permeability, accessibility and connectivity[7].


Social impacts

Burglars know exactly how to find the weak spots around domestic objects. They only need a few minutes to search the object, take the valuables and get out. The modus operandi, in principle, is not to encounter the residents of the property where they break-into, nor to commit violence. Because of the absence of violence, it does not lead to severe psychological distress as is the case of robbery and raid. Still, burglary in the home is a huge invasion of privacy and often has much impact on citizens' general perception of (in)security and increase their general perception of risk. The shock is different for every victim and may depend on the severity of the event, previous experiences and reactions from the social environment.

The social impact could be, resilience enhancement both on an individual and community level, for instance by taking burglarproof measures and increase social control. Also, social media initiatives emerge like ‘How safe is my neighborhood?’[8] that plot the burglaries or attempts within a certain period onto a map. The aim to increase awareness and stimulate residents and owners to take preventive measures. The downside is that these initiatives stir up feelings of insecurity and could lead to a less positive view of the district concerned.

Economic impact

Property crimes such as burglary lead to considerable costs in both a direct (primary) and an indirect (secondary) way[9]. The direct economic impact of burglary in a dwelling crimes are for about 10% the result of preventive measures (security and insurance), and for 55% the result of physical damage and mental harm. The remaining part are costs in response to crime (detection and prevention, enforcement, trial, support)[10]. Burglary is a high-volume crime. In England and Wales, burglary in a dwelling makes up for about 7% of the estimated volume of offences against individuals and households[11]. The average total cost per burglary are estimated to be about £3,250 (in 2003 prices)[10]. This is relevant knowledge for urban planners, since the cost of security measures can be earned back with a reduction of the frequency of burglaries in dwellings, the economic impact of security measures. In addition, the social costs of burglaries are relatively modest compared to violent crime such as homicide, robbery and sexual assault.

Burglaries do not just create direct costs, but also have a lasting social and economic impact on the entire area (secondary economic impact of crime). Obvious examples of these secondary economic effects are reduced house prices and costs of void properties. In general, crime prone areas with a long-standing reputation for suffering from much crime are frequent subjects of high mobility of residents, vandalism, empty lots and buildings, businesses with extreme security measures, etc. The perception of security is a relevant issue in case of frequent burglaries, since signs of broken windows, makeshift security measures around dwellings, blaring alarms and continuous police surveillance do not help to make people feel safe, even though the actual frequency of criminal events has declined. In addition, one could consider the opportunity costs of police and other public services (like health care services for victim support). In sum, property crimes such as burglary act like a tax on the entire economy. It discourages investments by private residents, businesses and public authorities.

Security measures will mitigate the costs of burglaries, but burglars will adapt quickly to preventive security measures in accordance with the economics of criminal behaviour. Although there is no real scientific consensus with respect to the causal relationship between the socio-economic background and property crime like burglary, Australian research, for example, illustrates that long term unemployment amongst young male adolescents has a substantial effect on property crime rates[12]. Two German economists Enthorf and Spengler (2002)[13], however, find that planning-intense offences like breaking and entering, robbery and violence, respond relatively slow to changes in the socio-economic conditions compared to other types of crime like drug and alcohol abuse and violent crime[14]. With the help of economic tools such as social cost-benefit analysis it is possible to overview the costs and future benefits of security measures in order to decide which types of measures are best suited for a specific urban planning situation.

Mobility impacts

Mobility can be considered as the accessibility of an area or building. The rate or means of entry or exit to an urban object is also called access and egress. A building perimeter is the area surrounding any building or event venue that will require controlled access. The building perimeter may be as near as the entrance gate(s) or curb surrounding a building or as far away as several blocks.

  • Recognize your weaknesses - where in your building or perimeter unwanted influences can gain access.
  • Identify Individual Access Needs: Determine who may need access to the building.

These should be identified before putting your transportation system in place as they have a direct impact on how your system will be managed and designed[15].

Normally, breaking and entering does not have mobility impacts on larger traffic scale, though mobility is a necessary condition for the person(s) breaking and entering in order to reach and get away from the location of issue. The possibilities to reach a certain location, e.g. by public transport, or different road alternatives (over land or water), determine the accessibility of the location. The risk of burglary can be reduced by directing traffic flows in such a way that it is more difficult for burglars to reach their target. As indicated above, multiple accesses and exits to a neighbourhood will increase the risk of burglary because it provides good access and exit opportunities for criminals. Also high amounts of traffic are negative since it increases the visibility of targets. That said, such considerations must be balanced with the underlying urban planning principles which advocate permeability, accessibility and connectivity for pedestrian, bicycle and other vehicular movement from point A to point B. This is particularly the case for large residential areas, where there are limited local services and facilities.

The damage done from the breaking could have impact on the mobility within the building; a broken access door can greatly hinder access for the regular visitors.

A secondary impact could be that if the police would chase the suspect, the traffic would be disrupted, since the normal traffic needs to give way to the police car. Also the suspect could disrupt the traffic when fleeing.

Safety impacts

A burglary can result in loss of safety for the inhabitants, as a result of the breaking incurred.

  • The breaking of windows, doors, and other barriers between the inside and outside of the building means a loss of shelter from the elements for the inhabitants.
  • The breaking of safety structures such as fire-retardant doors, sprinklers, etcetera can mean a decreased protection against fire.
  • When the burglar encounters an inhabitant when burgling, this can result in physical injuries, mental trauma and sometimes even death.


Potential measures that can mitigate the likelihood or impact of burglary include:

  • Target hardening can greatly increase the effort needed for criminals to enter the object and thereby reduce the attractiveness of an object. The use of alarms, resilient builders hardware, rollershutters or anti-climbing measures can increase the time needed to enter, thereby increase the risk of detection and reduce the attractiveness for and likelihood of burglary.
  • Surveillance can be effective to detect crime and if overt, to deter potential criminals by raising the perceived risk of apprehension. It can incur high costs if implemented as dedicated observers, either on location or remote. A more natural form of surveillance is surveillance by the inhabitants (also known as 'natural surveillance'), which can also be effective, provided that the commercial area is inhabited and the inhabitants have a good surveillability.
  • Intervention force is needed to make detection measures, such as alarms or surveillance, effective.
  • Directing traffic flows can be effective in preventing unneccesary traffic in a neighbourhoud, reducing the visibility of potential targets to criminals. Study shows that targets are most likely to be chosen in likely travel directions of potential offenders[2].
  • Target removal By removing particularly vulnerable objects, burglary can in some case be effectively reduced. An example is a package of measures to prevent repeat victimization of houses on a public housing estate in Britain, including the removal of gas and electric coin meters which were frequent targets for theft, which reduced burglaries on the estate from 526 in the year before intervention to 132 three years later[16].
  • Ownership is an important aspect in the prevention of unauthorized entry by creating a clear distinction between public and private space. By providing a clear distinction between public and private property, unwanted entry is more easily detected and requires a greater mental effort which reduces the number of opportunities for crime.
  • Maintenance and designing for easy maintenance can be used as the removal of a crime motivator, as deterioration can be an incentive to various forms of crime.
  • Removing means can contribute to a more secure environment by making sure any materials that might be helpful for burglars are kept out of reach. An urban planner can contribute by ensuring secure storage places for climbable garbage containers, ladders, tools, etcetera and making sure external electricity outlets can be switched off from the inside, as these can be used by burglars to power their burglary tools.

Footnotes and references

  1. Rhodes, W. M., & Conly, C. (1981). Crime and mobility: An empirical study. In P. J. Brantingham, & P. L. Brantingham (Eds.), Environmental Criminology (pp. 167–188). Beverly Hills7 Sage.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Bernasco Wim and Nieuwbeerta Paul, How do residential burglars select target areas? A new approach to the analysis of Criminal Location Choice, Brit. J. Criminol. (2005) 44, 296-315
  3. Kepple NJ, Freisthler B., Exploring the ecological association between crime and medical marijuana dispensaries.,J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2012 Jul;73(4):523-30
  4. Home Office, Safer Places. The planning system and crime prevention, 2004
  5. Greenfeld, Lawrence A, Alcohol and crime, an analysis of national data on the prevalence of alcohol involvement in crime, U,.S. Department of Justice, Office of justice Programs, April 5-7 1998, Washington D.C.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Lamm Weisel Deborah, Burglary of Single-Family Houses, Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Guide No. 18
  7. Murphy, N. (2013) 'The New City' lecture. Cambridge University Department of Architecture. Available at: Accessed on 12 March 2013
  9. Primary economic impact (or direct effects) are generally defined as the initial, immediate economic output generated by a specific cause (in this case a criminal offence). Secondary economic impact (or indirect effects) are generated each time a subsequent transaction is made, for example, the impact of crime on the real estate value in the neighbourhood.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Home Office, Research, Development and Statistics Directorate (2005): The economic and social costs of crime against individuals and households 2003/04.
  11. This excludes crimes against commercial and public victims (source: Home Office, Research, Development and Statistics Directorate (2005): The economic and social costs of crime against individuals and households 2003/04.).
  12. See, e.g.: Chapman, B., D Weatherburn, C.A. Kapuscinski, M. Chilvers and S. Roussel (2002): Unemployment duration, schooling and property crime. CEPR Working paper
  13. Entorf, H., H. Spengler (2002): Crime in Europe; Causes and Consequences. Springer-Verlag Berlin.
  14. According to the authors, this may reflect that in a first response to unfortunate social and economic developments some of the affected might become attracted to alcohol and drug abuse, which in a later phase has to be financed with criminal activities by committing property crimes like breaking and entering.
  16. Clarke Ronald V., Situational Crime Prevention. Successful Case Studies. Second Edition,1997