Security issue: Vandalism

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vandalised station clock
Vandalism is the act of wilful or malicious destruction, injury, disfigurement, or defacement of property without the consent of the owner or person having custody or control. By this definition, this category includes defacement, such as graffiti. However, in order to keep this security issue limited and surveyable, this act is defined as a separate security issue. Also, wilful destruction performed by an 'organised'[1] group for a shared reason is dealt with in the security issue 'destruction by riots'. In the sense we use the term here, it will therefore only include physical damages, excluding defacement, motivated by other than rational reasons.


The stereo type vandal is a young (adolescent) man, in a small unorganised group or alone. In addition to this, youngsters prone to vandalism often appear to have a poor understanding of the impact of their behaviour on others, and are primarily concerned with the consequences of such behaviour for themselves, such as getting caught. In their view, public property in a real sense belongs to no one[2]. Vandalism appears to be useless, but one can better understand the behaviour of a vandal when considering it in the context of adolescence, when peer influence is a particularly powerful motivator. Most delinquent acts are carried out by groups of youths, and vandalism is no exception. Participating in vandalism often helps a youth to maintain or enhance his or her status among peers. This status comes with little risk since there are no winners or losers, in contrast to playing a game or fighting.[3]

Contributing circumstances

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

Contributing Circumstance Influence Description
Shops in the area Increases likelihood of being selected target Retailing and manufacturing premises have a much greater chance of falling victim to vandalism than domestic premises[4].
Crowds Increases level of aggression Vandalism is a form of aggression, and this is (amongst others) influenced by crowding[2].
Alcohol Decreases inhibitions The use of alcohol decrease the inhibitions to commit vandalism.
Presence of adolescents Increases the number of potential offenders. According to Tygert[5] and Zweig and Ducey[6], vandalism reaches its peak frequency in seventh grade, and then progressively decreases with each succeeding grade.
Vulnerable objects in area Increases number of targets. Public furniture with easy access which is easily damaged, especially if failing with spectacular effects (such as glass panes) are attractive targets for vandals.
High levels of vandalism in the vicinity Increases likelihood of targeting.. As is true for all forms of aggression, the single best predictor of future vandalistic behaviour is similar past behaviour[2]. Having known vandals in the vicinity thus strongly increases the chance to fall victim to vandalism.
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 impossible and lead to greater effects of incidents.
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.
High levels of unemployment Increases likelihood of targeting. High levels of unemployment are associated with higher levels of vandalism[7].
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[8].
Low levels of maintenance Decreases the inhibitions for committing the crime. Studies showed that low levels of maintenance and aesthetic quality are associated with high rates of vandalism[2]. Designing for easy maintenance and a (for the user) pleasing aesthetic appearance can therefore reduce the risk of vandalism.


Social impacts

Known social impacts of vandalism include changing citizens perception of (in)security and fear of crime. This usually happens in a way that has an effect on the gap between "felt" and "factual" security, since individuals tend to make - correct or incorrect - reasoning on societal security as a whole based on immediate environmental clues. This is known as the "broken glass phenomenon".

Economic impact

Vandalism leads to considerable costs in both a direct (primary) and an indirect (secondary) way[9]. The direct economic impact of vandalism are for about 14% the result of preventive measures (security and insurance), and for 75% the result of physical damage and mental harm. The remaining part are costs in response to crime (detection and prevention, enforcement, trial, support)[10]. Vandalism is a high-volume crime. In the Netherlands, vandalism and public order offences make up for about 25% of the number of offences committed in 2005.[10] This is a relevant fact for urban planners, since the cost of security measures can be earned back with a reduction of the frequency of acts of vandalism, the economic impact of security measures.

Acts of vandalism 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. Vandalism can make the local environment an unpleasant place to live and work, creating a significant negative impact on real estate value and local business revenues[11]. 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. On top of that, vandalism can lead to less public funding by local authorities (in terms of investments in social infrastructure). As a result, "crime-prone areas usually stay that way"[12]. The perception of security is a relevant issue in case of frequent vandalism, 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 theory, security measures can prevent vandalism, but not without costs. Target hardening, for example, is costly and there is always the risk of crime displacement[13]. 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 impact

Vandalism may hamper mobility and mobility related services. For example, a frequent target of vandalism are bus shelters (e.g. damaged windows). Damaged bus shelters will give an unsafe feeling to bus users while waiting at the bus. This may lead to less people using the bus.

Other examples of vandalism that impact mobility are damaging bicycles (lighting, tyre bending) or cars (tyre punctures, scratches), damaging railway catenary systems, blocking or damaging railways or roads.

Measures against vandalism with a mobility impact are lighting near roads and stations or (camera) surveillance.

Safety impact

Vandalised picnic table, showing sharp edges and unsafe for use
Destruction of safety features (such as traffic signs, fencing around dangerous areas or in child-safe playgrounds) can lead to dangerous situations and safety hazards. It can negate the functions of objects, such as providing shelter, lighting or ensuring sanitary conditions. Also, the destruction itself can generate dangerous situations by for instance broken glass, loose nails or splinters wounding people.


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

  • Hardened bus stop in Tallinn, built in brick after being vandalised repeatedly
    Target hardening can greatly increase the effort needed to vandalise the object and thereby reduce the attractiveness of an object.
  • 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 reducing the chance for potential vandals to approach vulnerable areas, reducing the visibility of potential targets to criminals. By providing clear and logical routes through an area, unnecessary passing traffic can be avoided.
  • Target removal By removing particularly vulnerable objects from high-risk locations, vandalism can in some case be effectively reduced.
  • Ownership is an important aspect in the prevention of vandalism 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 vandals 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.
  • Deflection Wise (1982) suggests that design may be employed to channel attention away from potentially damaging activities, to reduce the effects of natural processes (e.g., erosion, weathering) that vandals may augment, and to eliminate or reduce the type of environmental feedback that may serve to reinforce vandalist behaviour.
  • Consider future sight line impediments: As the landscape matures over time, unintended screens, barriers or hiding places could be created. Therefore, planting in a landscape must take into consideration the growth, final height and habit of the plants.
  • Avoid long stretches of blank walls where the space is located near a public throughway. Where this cannot be avoided access to buildings / blank walls should be made difficult through the planting of trees, bushes or shrubs.

Footnotes and references

  1. The term ‘organized’ is, in this sense, misleading. The amount and quality of this organization varies greatly between groups, from a highly disciplined, hierarchical criminal group that associates continuously throughout the week to a more casual grouping that comes on the occasion of a football match with the intention of committing violent acts.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Goldstein, Arnold P., Controlling Vandalism: The Person-Environment Duet, School oriented interventions, pp 290-321
  3. Dedel Johnson Kelly, School Vandalism and Break-Ins, Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Guide No. 35, August 2005
  4. Mirrlees-Black Curiona and Ross Alec, Crime against retail and manufacturing premises: findings from the 1994 Commercial Victimisation Survey, Home Office Research Study 146, copyright 1995, ISBN 1 85893 554 7
  5. Tygert, C. (1988). Public school vandalism: Toward a synthesis of theories and transition to paradigm analysis., Adolescence, 23, 187-199.
  6. Zweig, A., & Ducey, M. H. (1978), A paradigmatic field: A review of research on school vandalism, Hackensack, NJ: National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
  7. Kepple NJ, Freisthler B., Exploring the ecological association between crime and medical marijuana dispensaries.,J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2012 Jul;73(4):523-30
  8. Home Office, Safer Places. The planning system and crime prevention, 2004
  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 SEO Economic Research (2007): De kosten van criminaliteit [The cost of crime]
  11. Gibbons, S. (2004): The costs of urban property crime. The Economic Journal, 114 (499). ISSN 0013-0133.
  12. Pease, K & M. Gill (2011): Home security and place design: some evidence and its policy implications.
  13. The relocation of crime from one place, time, target, offence, or tactic to another as a result of some crime prevention initiative (Guerette, R.T.(2009): Analyzing Crime Displacement and Diffusion. Tool Guide No. 10.