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Crime Patterns and Spatial Choice: Theories, Models and Some Evidence

Publication date: Feb 11, 2013 02:05 PM

Start: Jul 16, 2012 12:00 AM

Wim Bernasco, The Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR)

Most behavior of interest to social scientists is choice behavior: deciding to take a course of action while forgoing alternative options. Criminology is no exception. This presentation deals with the spatial choices that offenders make: where to go, how far to travel, in what direction, and how? In geographical and environmental criminology, these questions have traditionally been studied in research traditions isolated from each other. Journey-to-crime research, for example, explores how far offenders travel to crime, but has not really investigated where they go. Ecological studies of variations in crime rates have emphasized the role of attractive criminal opportunities, but they have ignored that offenders must know about such opportunities in order to profit from them. Recently, the spatial discrete choice framework was introduced in geographic criminology. It explains the offender’s choice of where to commit an offense, and it integrates the study of spatial crime distributions with journey to crime research. Developed in micro-economics, it is firmly rooted in principles of rational choice and utility maximization, and requires input from more substantive theories, such as crime pattern analysis from criminology, learning theory from psychology, or foraging theory from behavioral ecology. A number of recent applications address criminal location choice in burglary, robbery and other crimes. They have demonstrated that the spatial discrete choice framework can successfully describe spatial decisions as a function of characteristics of the target locations and the characteristics of the offender. In particular, the findings show that offenders are attracted to places that are accessible to them (e.g. nearby their homes), where the expected profits of crime are high while the risks of apprehension are low. Other applications have established that social barriers inhibit the journey to crime, that highways can deter short journeys to crime but facilitate longer journeys to crime, and that former anchor points (past homes) play a role in offenders’ crime location choices. Like all questions pertaining to geography, the spatial discrete choice framework is saddled with the challenge of defining the appropriate spatial unit of analysis. New developments in the area of crime location choice include a focus on small spatial units of analysis (such as street segments), the assessment of spatial spillover effects, repeat crime location choice, and crime location choices that are conditional on time.


Dr Wim Bernasco is a senior researcher at the NSCR.  His current work focuses on spatial aspects of criminal activities, including variations in crime and delinquency between neighbourhoods, offender travel behaviour and target selection.  He was the first researcher to employ McFadden’s discrete choice approach in the study of where offenders choose to offend and has published several seminal works on this topic.