Australian Institute of Criminology

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Executive summary

The Crime Prevention Division (CPD) of the NSW Department of Attorney General and Justice (DAGJ) contracted the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) to undertake a systematic review of crime prevention interventions suitable for implementation by local government. The purpose of this project was to identify crime prevention interventions that were supported by evidence of effectiveness and that could be implemented by local government to address the following priority crime types:

  • non-domestic violence related assault;
  • break and enter—dwellings;
  • stealing from dwellings;
  • steal from motor vehicle;
  • malicious damage;
  • steal from person; and
  • steal from retail store.

The findings from the AIC’s comprehensive review of the evidence base on the prevention of these crime types are presented in this report.

Review methodology

This project aimed to address the following key research questions:

  • What crime prevention interventions are effective in addressing the priority crime types?
  • Which of these interventions are appropriate for, and may be implemented by, local government or the NSW CPD?
  • What are the key characteristics of effective crime prevention interventions?
  • What are the key requirements for the successful implementation of those interventions that have been identified as being effective?

This involved the development of a methodological framework for the systematic review of prevention strategies that combined elements of both experimental and theory-based research designs and approaches to evaluation. The AIC used the following criteria in selecting studies to be included in the review:

  • The study needed to meet level two on the Scientific Methods Scale (SMS), insofar as there was a measure of crime before and after the program was implemented (based on recorded crime, survey or self-report data).
  • There needed to be a measure of at least one of the priority crimes before and after the intervention had been applied or, in the absence of this measure, a general measure of crime for the target group or area (for projects that specifically target one of the priority crime types).
  • Data used to measure key outcomes needed to be both valid and reliable.
  • There needed to be a sound theoretical basis underpinning the intervention that had been evaluated (as determined by the research team, using the theory underpinning the different approaches to crime prevention presented in this report).
  • The evaluated strategy needed to have been implemented by a community-based organisation (such as a local government) or delivered at the local level and to be appropriate to the NSW context. This included strategies for which local government were the lead agency with primary responsibility for implementation, those for which local government could contribute to in some capacity (albeit in a supporting role) and those that might be included in a local government crime prevention plan.
  • There was sufficient information to enable the research team to determine the mechanisms that had been ‘activated’ by the intervention.
  • There needed to be evidence that the intervention had been implemented as it was designed (ie implementation fidelity) so that outcomes could reasonably be attributed to the intervention(s) described.
  • There had been some accounting for, or an attempt to reject, alternative explanations for the outcomes that were observed, based on additional supporting evidence (not limited to the use of a comparison group).

In addition to collecting basic information about the intervention(s) that were delivered, the outcomes that were observed and the research design used in the evaluation, populating the framework required additional information to be collected on the context in which the strategy had been implemented and the mechanisms underpinning the intervention(s) that were delivered. The review also identified the requirements for effective implementation for each of the crime prevention strategies examined. The AIC research team then undertook a rigorous and comprehensive review of published and unpublished research, evaluation and review studies in accordance with this framework.

The AIC provided the NSW CPD with a summary of the evidence in support of interventions for each priority crime type. A number of preferred intervention types were selected that could be implemented by local councils, with the support of the CPD, in areas with a significant crime problem. The findings from this review have informed the development of a number of factsheets and handbooks to assist local government to select, adapt and implement the preferred interventions.

Role of local government in crime prevention

A brief review of the role of local government in crime prevention was undertaken to help inform the selection of strategies that would be suitable for implementation by local government. Local government is a key player in community-based crime prevention. Councils are responsible for a range of services related to crime prevention, including managing public space and building design, providing a range of community services and developing policies that affect local businesses. More recently, there has been increasing pressure on local government to contribute to the delivery of a variety of social services and to engage in social planning.

Local government are often involved in developing and implementing a range of crime prevention initiatives, frequently in partnership with other stakeholders such as police and non-government organisations. Local government are also a lead agency in the development of local crime prevention plans, which identify and prioritise concerns about community safety and crime prevention in a local government area, and identify key action areas and responsibility for these actions.

Non-domestic violence related assault

The review highlighted that there are various forms of non-domestic violence related assault that take place in different contexts. They differ in terms of the types of violence, the location of violence and the groups that are affected. The responses to the different forms of violence vary accordingly. The review identified strategies targeting the following forms of violence:

  • alcohol-related violence in entertainment precincts and licensed premises;
  • gang-related violence;
  • youth violence;
  • violence in Indigenous communities;
  • violence revolving around a particular event or location; and
  • violence in residential neighbourhoods.

There was considerable variation across the different forms of non-domestic violence related assault in terms of the number of evaluations meeting the project inclusion criteria that could be located by the research team.

In total, 41 studies met the criteria for inclusion in the review. Therefore, it was possible to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of interventions (or combinations of interventions) and their impact on non-domestic violence related assault. The most common intervention types identified among those strategies that were supported by evidence of effectiveness were:

  • community-based multifaceted strategies targeting alcohol-related violence in entertainment precincts (10 strategies reviewed, 8 studies showing evidence of effectiveness);
  • strategies targeting gang-related violence that combined community patrols, awareness campaigns, community mobilisation and support services with strong enforcement by police, corrections and housing authorities (5 strategies reviewed, 3 studies showing evidence of effectiveness);
  • access control measures targeted at reducing violence by minimising conflict between groups in known high-risk locations (2 studies reviewed, both showing evidence of effectiveness, one of which also involved the application of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) principles);
  • improving street lighting in locations with high rates of violent crime, particularly in residential areas with high-density housing (7 studies reviewed, 4 studies showing evidence of effectiveness); and
  • brief interventions targeting violence among adolescents who attended emergency departments (2 studies reviewed, both showing evidence of effectiveness).

While there are some questions regarding the relevance of US-derived gang-related violence prevention measures to the NSW context, all of these strategies are suitable for implementation by local government, either as the lead agency or in partnership with police and community-based organisations. Further, large scale multicomponent strategies involving a number of different stakeholders (such as those targeting alcohol-related violence in major entertainment precincts), can be managed or coordinated by central agencies such as the NSW CPD.

Residential burglary

Thirty-two strategies met the criteria for inclusion in the review. Therefore, it was possible to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of specific interventions and their impact on residential burglary. The following intervention types were supported by multiple evaluation studies finding evidence of effectiveness.

  • Access control measures that involve actively encouraging or installing improved security measures on behalf of residents (including security devices and perimeter security):
    • In three studies, all showing evidence of effectiveness, access control measures were the sole intervention and included installing barricades and street closures, installing lockable gates in alleys or the installation of window locks.
    • In 12 studies, of which 10 showed evidence of effectiveness, access control measures were supported by other interventions.
  • Awareness raising campaigns that aim to improve awareness of risk factors for victimisation, offending ‘hotspots’ and prevention measures, including strategies with a universal focus targeting whole neighbourhoods and those targeted at high-risk households, were effective when delivered alongside other interventions:
    • In eight studies, all showing evidence of effectiveness, awareness campaigns were delivered as part of a suite of interventions.
    • Of the seven studies involving an awareness campaign that either had no effect on offending rates or the effect was uncertain, four did not involve any other intervention (the remaining strategies encountering issues relating to implementation).
  • Property marking, whereby residents are provided with assistance to record identifying information on valuable personal belongings, was involved in seven multicomponent strategies, of which five were supported by evidence of effectiveness—but was used primarily as a secondary intervention delivered in support of other intervention types.
  • Strategies that aim to improve natural surveillance appear to be an effective strategy, but are also an important by-product (intentional or unintentional) of other strategies such as CPTED, awareness raising and education campaigns. Of the seven studies involving interventions to improve natural surveillance, six showed some evidence of effectiveness and all except one comprised multiple interventions.
  • Strategies involving some form of CPTED or urban renewal component (6 studies in total), usually implemented in conjunction with another intervention (5 studies), all showed evidence of effectiveness.
  • Community patrols were an important component in three strategies, all of which were supported by evidence of effectiveness and delivered in combination with other intervention types. However, they took several different forms including security patrols, the appointment of unemployed locals to act as local guardians and neighbourhood watch groups actively patrolling communities.
  • Diversionary activities were involved in four multicomponent strategies, three of which were effective. These generally involved providing some form of alternative activity after school or during school holidays for youths at risk of becoming involved in property crime.

Stealing from motor vehicles

Thirteen studies met the criteria for inclusion in the review. Therefore, it was possible to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of specific interventions and their impact on stealing from motor vehicles. The following intervention types were supported by multiple evaluation studies finding evidence of effectiveness.

  • Access control strategies that involved improving the perimeter security of parking facilities, either through the installation of improved security measures (such as metal fencing, lockable gates and secure doors) or the presence of parking attendants during high-risk daytime periods:
    • In five studies, with four showing evidence of effectiveness, access control measures were supported by other interventions.
    • In the one study that was not supported by evidence of effectiveness, the intervention was found to reduce theft of cars but not theft from cars.
    • In one study, also showing evidence of effectiveness, access control was the sole intervention.
  • Closed circuit television (CCTV) involves the placement of cameras in parking facilities to capture images that are recorded or transmitted to monitors. In five studies, all showing evidence of effectiveness, the use of CCTV was supported by other interventions.
  • The installation of improved lighting in and around car parks was included in seven of the reviewed strategies. In six programs, lighting improvements were introduced as part of a more comprehensive approach, with five showing evidence of effectiveness. In one study, which appeared to have no impact on theft from cars, lighting improvements were the only intervention.
  • Awareness raising campaigns were delivered in support of other interventions and typically involved some form of signage to inform the community about the presence of improved security or CCTV or raise awareness among car park users of the risk of stealing from motor vehicle offences and strategies to minimise their risk of victimisation. In four studies, all showing evidence of effectiveness, awareness campaigns were delivered as part of a suite of interventions.
  • Five of the six studies that involved some form of CPTED showed evidence of effectiveness. All of these interventions were delivered in conjunction with other strategies.

Malicious damage

Only a small number of strategies that aim to reduce malicious damage have been evaluated. Overall, the review identified only 11 strategies that met the criteria for inclusion. Therefore, any conclusions made about the effectiveness of specific interventions and their impact on malicious damage should be interpreted with caution.

The following intervention types were supported by a small number of evaluation studies finding evidence of effectiveness.

  • Strategies involving some form of CPTED (3 studies in total) all showed some evidence of effectiveness. All three were delivered alongside other measures, the most common being community patrols and/or police enforcement.
  • Community patrols were an important component in four strategies, all of which showed some evidence of effectiveness. Interventions typically involved engaging local residents to perform patrols of high-crime areas, such as residential estates that had been abandoned or had a low residential population, either as a volunteer or paid employee. A professional security guard detail was also used in one of the reviewed strategies. Community patrols were delivered as part of a broader, multifaceted strategy in three studies. The fourth involved the use of community patrols delivered in isolation.
  • Access control measures were used in three of the reviewed strategies and all demonstrated evidence of effectiveness. The interventions typically involved the installation of improved security measures on behalf of residents, such as fencing and security doors. All three interventions were supported by other measures.
  • Three of the reviewed strategies involved upgrading or installing street lighting in crime-prone streets and/or areas. Two interventions were implemented as part of a multifaceted strategy and both demonstrated evidence of effectiveness. One intervention was implemented in isolation and had a minor impact on malicious damage offending rates.
  • An education-type project was used in two strategies and both demonstrated evidence of effectiveness. Both interventions aimed to raise the target population’s awareness of the implications of their actions in either facilitating or committing malicious damage offences. Both educational projects were implemented as part of a broader, multifaceted scheme.

Stealing from person

Very few strategies that aim to reduce stealing from person offences have been evaluated. Overall, the review identified only five strategies that met the criteria for inclusion. Therefore, any conclusions about the effectiveness of specific interventions and their impact on stealing from person offences should be interpreted with caution.

The following intervention types were supported by a small number of evaluation studies finding evidence of effectiveness.

  • Two strategies involved an awareness campaign, both of which appeared to be effective in reducing theft rates. Both interventions were used as part of a broader, multifaceted program.
    • In one of the strategies, the awareness campaign involved project staff working with retail store management to identify risk factors for customer bag theft (ie security audit).
    • In the other strategy, the purpose of the awareness campaign was to inform the public about the primary intervention and provide potential victims with information about how they could avoid theft.
  • CCTV was used in three strategies, two of which appeared to be effective in reducing personal theft. One effective strategy involved the use of CCTV as part of a multifaceted strategy and the other effective strategy involved the use of CCTV as the sole intervention.
  • CPTED was used in two strategies as part of a multifaceted program; one appeared to be effective in reducing theft rates and involved redesigning spaces to provide increased surveillance opportunities. Further research is required to determine the effectiveness of CPTED as a theft prevention strategy but, given the lack or research into effective strategies to prevent steal from person offences, it may still be regarded as a promising approach.

Stealing from retail stores

Sixteen studies met the criteria for inclusion in the review. Therefore, it was possible to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of specific interventions and their impact on stealing from retail store offences. The following intervention types were supported by multiple evaluation studies finding evidence of effectiveness.

  • Awareness campaigns were used in nine strategies and involved providing retail staff or customers with information about a crime prevention initiative or skills to avoid victimisation, informing customers about harms caused by retail theft and publically identifying ‘hot’ merchandise, or conducting a security audit of the business to identify potential risk factors for shoplifting.
    • Seven appeared to be effective in reducing shoplifting. Two of these had an immediate impact on shoplifting rates but this effect deteriorated over time.
    • Three of the effective strategies involved awareness campaigns as part of a multifaceted strategy.
  • Access control measures were used in seven strategies, six of which appeared to be effective in reducing retail theft. One had an immediate impact on shoplifting rates but this effect deteriorated over time. Interventions typically involved attaching Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) and/or ink tags to commonly stolen merchandise or on a storewide basis, supported by stocktake counts of merchandise performed by security personnel or staff. Four of the effective strategies were accompanied by other intervention types.
  • Four of the reviewed strategies used an education-type project, all of which appeared to be effective. Interventions typically involved teaching retail staff how to identify suspicious consumer behaviour and how to respond to suspected retail theft. Education was always accompanied by other intervention types.

Requirements for implementation

A common theme across a significant proportion of evaluated strategies was the use of situational approaches to crime prevention. These are supported by a strong theoretical framework and a range of established techniques. The situational crime prevention literature also provides clear guidance on how to implement effective crime prevention strategies and is a common approach adopted by local government. The interventions identified are therefore suitable for local government implementation and adaptation (such as those targeting retail theft, where local government can provide information on effective strategies to store owners and operators).

In addition to providing financial support to local government through grant funding, central agencies such as the NSW CPD are often responsible for the management and coordination of large-scale strategies targeting high-risk areas with an identified crime problem. This is particularly the case where a prevention strategy involves a range of state government (eg housing, education and criminal justice), local government and non-government agencies delivering a number of interventions in combination to address multiple risk factors. They have also been responsible for the development of resource materials that can be used by local government and other agencies in local initiatives (eg security audits and signage).

In order to develop practical guides to assist local government to select and then implement suitable interventions to address local crime priorities, the AIC review collected information on the characteristics of successful strategies and on the requirements for implementation. It was possible to identify a number of common factors among those strategies that were successfully implemented and reviewed as part of the current project; they fall into the following categories:

  • a thorough and systematic analysis of a range of data sources to identify significant crime problems and to understand their causes and risk factors;
  • community engagement and consultation in the development of the strategy (including but not limited to residents, business operators, local service providers etc);
  • strong interagency partnerships, led by a driver responsible for maintaining project momentum and implementation; and
  • availability of appropriate expertise, technology and resources.

The application of these generic principles to the preferred intervention types is described in detail in the relevant factsheets and handbooks, along with a number of examples to demonstrate how these principles have been applied in practice.

Limitations of systematic reviews

There are a number of limitations with the methodology used for this review (and systematic reviews more broadly) that need to be acknowledged:

  • The majority of evaluated strategies involved multiple interventions delivered as part of a multifaceted, comprehensive program. Therefore, isolating the intervention or interventions that were most effective or determining the relative contribution of each intervention type to the overall effectiveness of strategies involving multiple interventions is difficult.
  • The integration of theory with the experimental method may not entirely overcome some of the methodological limitations that are associated with the absence of a comparison group and specifically, threats to internal validity.
  • The quality of evaluations varied considerably between the priority crime types. The strength of evidence in support of interventions targeting the different crime types therefore varies as well.
  • The focus on evaluations for which there was a measure of one of the priority crime types is likely to have biased the results towards those interventions that deliver short-term outcomes and is likely to have contributed to a greater focus on those interventions that involve the manipulation of situational factors for crime (ie situational crime prevention). Programs targeted at offenders (or people at risk of offending) frequently report on general individual-level outcomes such as self-reported delinquency (for juveniles), arrests and reoffending.
  • Few studies had results that suggested the intervention had been ineffective in reducing the targeted crime problem, which indicates some level of publication bias and that may serve to overestimate the relative success of strategies examined as part of this review.
  • Given the short timeframe for this project, it is likely that some evaluation studies have been overlooked, particularly unpublished ‘grey literature’ and older studies.

Nevertheless, the AIC has identified a significant number of interventions that are supported by evidence of effectiveness in the prevention of the priority crime types currently being targeted by the NSW CPD and local government. It has therefore been possible to draw a number of conclusions based upon the findings presented in this report, both with respect to the effectiveness of different intervention types and the requirements for successful implementation.

Improving the evidence base for local government crime prevention

There is scope to improve the standard of evaluation in community-based crime prevention. In order to improve the evidence base available to local government with respect to effective crime prevention interventions and the requirements for their implementation, it is important that there are strategies in place to increase both the amount and quality of evaluation being conducted. This might involve establishing mechanisms to:

  • encourage local government and other community-based organisations to undertake or sponsor evaluation work;
  • appoint qualified personnel to undertake high quality evaluation studies on behalf of community-based organisations;
  • review evaluation proposals and provide input into evaluation design and methodologies developed by community-based organisations;
  • provide guidance and support to local government undertaking an evaluation, both in developing the methodology and on an ongoing basis; and
  • provide training and developing resources that help to build the capacity of those involved in evaluation and performance measurement.

Further research may seek to fill the gaps in the evidence base for local government by targeting specific intervention types for evaluation. By focusing evaluation on clusters of projects that are identified as being important and/or of interest, the knowledge base on effective crime prevention practice can be developed in a strategic and systematic way. This approach would be particularly useful for those intervention types that are common in local government crime prevention plans but for which there is little evidence of effectiveness.