August 2, 2016
The Burglar’s Guide to Your Home
How likely is it that your home will be broken into? The architecture of your dwelling can abet burglary, and you probably don’t even know it.
Images Courtesy The U.S. National Archives/Flickr
This article was adapted from A Burglar’s Guide to the City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) by Geoff Manaugh.
Why particular buildings are chosen to be burglarized rather than others remains ambiguous and not easily answered. Constantly shifting factors are at play, some of which are rationally premeditated; many burglars, who may not be in the most coherent state of mind, simply make spur-of-the moment decisions.
Still, if you look closely enough, a few patterns emerge, and a helpful checklist can be developed; this is backed up by research by criminologists such as R. I. Mawby, Paul Cromwell, and James N. Olson, as well as by my own interviews with officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and the South Yorkshire Police in the UK. The likelihood that your house—and not that of the family across the street—will be burglarized can come down even to the nature of the local streetscape. A complex neighborhood street plan, full of curved roads, dead ends, and culs-de-sac, can deter prospective outsider burglars by reducing their ability to navigate. If burglars don’t know where they are—if they don’t know how to get away in a hurry without making wrong turns or doubling back upon themselves—then they’re substantially less likely to try to break into a house there.
The caveat, however, is that everything described above also explains why police patrols can be so thin in those neighborhoods. Burglars will, ironically, have more time to get away and are also far less likely to be caught in the act by a police car coincidentally driving by. During an afternoon spent with the Burglary Special Section of the LAPD—a tight crew of veteran detectives assigned to some of the country’s most difficult burglary investigations, involving everything from diamond thefts to stolen Picassos—I met an enthusiastic detective third grade named Chris Casey. Over multiple conversations with Casey about burglary in Greater Los Angeles, I filled nearly half of the notebook I had been using at the time—a notebook I’d been expecting to last me through several weeks’ worth of reporting—with stories about returned-merchandise schemes targeting Home Depot, San Fernando Valley pawnshop burglary rings, and even a man whom Casey and his colleagues had dubbed the Copper King committing industrial-scale retail fraud from a warehouse-size machine shop somewhere in Los Angeles.
One of the high points of Casey’s career, he told me, had been a burglary case back in the 1990s, when a prized baseball signed by Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax was stolen from a home in the Hollywood Hills. Casey and his partner at the time, Detective Mike Fesperman, convinced Koufax to sign another baseball for the bereaved homeowner; it arrived in a protective plastic case. Casey still laughs when he tells the story. But he was unequivocal that—as the theft of a baseball from a home even in the mazelike, twisting streets of the Hollywood Hills shows—burglars will go where the money is (or the autographed baseball). They’re not going to waste time overthinking something like the local street layout, especially if they just need quick cash.
Nonetheless, let’s continue with the checklist. Is your house on a cul-de-sac? If so, you’re less likely to be hit, as a burglar can easily be boxed in: the police only have to block one street. Or is your house on a corner? Bad news: Houses on corners are more likely to be broken into, as they offer multiple escape routes and clear lines of sight in all directions, allowing burglars to look out for returning residents or a patrolling cop car. Is your house set back farther from the street than the other houses around it—perhaps even within a ring of large bushes or luxuriant trees? If so, you’re more likely to be a target—lush landscaping offers prospective burglars the same privacy as it gives you, wandering around in your robe at night, glass of bourbon in hand. The importance of clear visibility both into and out of your home was strongly emphasized to me by Mark Saunders, one of five crime prevention design advisers working full-time with the Surrey Police in England. Saunders’s role is to provide guidance to local homeowners on how to discourage the attention of passing burglars, even offering architectural input into how suburban homes and downtown business districts should be designed to deter future crime.
Any golden rule is fallible when it comes to predicting or deterring burglary.
Perhaps your house is close to a freeway on-ramp, bus stop, subway station, or train depot. If so, it is more likely to be burglarized—think of all those strangers coming and going through your neighborhood, given such an easy way to get both in and out. If that just sounds like a cynical attack on public transportation—access to public transit often makes land values fall out of fear of itinerant criminals—take heart from the conclusions of a study written by former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development Henry Cisneros suggesting that pedestrian-friendly environments are less likely to be targeted by criminals. While his research offers a great argument for rethinking neighborhood design, it also somewhat ominously implies living in a community where everything you do is under surveillance. “To deter crime,” Cisneros explains, “spaces should convey to would-be intruders a strong sense that if they enter they are very likely to be observed, to be identified as intruders, and to have difficulty escaping.”
Further on the checklist, is your house near a school—and thus more likely to receive police patrols or to be carefully watched by paranoid parents? Is a park or a forest nearby—offering a broad swath of darkness into which a burglar can quickly disappear? Does your house have a back door or a garage? Those are common routes of entry for residential burglars. Further, is your back door a sliding glass door? Sliding doors can easily be popped off their tracks without breaking the glass—then just as easily reset upon departure. Perhaps burglars have already broken into your house using this all-but-undetectable method of entry and you just haven’t yet noticed what they stole.
None of these factors are universal, and you have probably begun to see the contradictions already: A pedestrian-friendly neighborhood might offer a degree of protection from burglary—unless a subway stop or a train station is nearby. Grids are bad—unless you live on a cul-de-sac. Lush landscaping gives burglars more privacy once they’ve broken into your house—unless those trees also seem likely to prevent them from seeing whether the police are on their way. Any golden rule is fallible when it comes to predicting or deterring burglary. To say that walkable, nongridded urban environments are somehow resistant to crime would make absolutely no sense in England. England is hardly a global hot spot for rationally gridded, car-centric towns, yet it boasts one of the highest rates of burglary in the European Union. Italy, another nation not known for its automobile-dependent, gridded megacities, is a close second for residential burglaries. (In some years, it is worse than England.) On paper, both countries should be nearly burglary-free.
When seen through the eyes of a burglar, many architectural features take on an unexpected dual role. Such things as back doors and side windows often double as potential getaway routes, and many experienced burglars will only target houses with at least two points of exit. Burglars have been known to walk through a house and, before stealing anything at all, unlock another door from within or pop open a window, thus ensuring a quick escape.
Even the type of glass in your windows matters. Do you have storm windows, for example, thus doubling or even tripling the amount of glass a burglar would have to shatter? Multiple panes make so much noise when broken and pose so much more of a safety risk that good windows can deter even the bravest criminals. Some burglars will carry a roll of tape, throwing up a quick X across a window—as if anticipating a hurricane—before shattering it. That way, broken pieces of glass will just hang there, stuck in a web of tape, far less likely to fall and noisily shatter. In one unsettling example, criminologists Cromwell and Olson met a burglar who had once worked for a glass-repair company; his specialty had been in expertly replacing whole windowpanes, which gave him the idea that he could use his skill and training for nefarious purposes. He could remove an entire windowpane without causing any visible damage, then reaffix it in its frame on his way back out. You might never even notice that you’d been burglarized.
Now, what about the actual layout of your house? If it is architecturally unique or in any way confusing, it can be a less tempting target. But if you live in a suburban development where only two or three original home plans were used, then once a burglar knows these few, he or she knows all the houses—down to where the bedroom closets are and where safes or jewelry cabinets are most likely to be kept. Your neighbor’s weakness is your weakness, too. The same is true for large apartment complexes, where each unit’s floor plan will be repeated from floor to floor, giving burglars advance knowledge of where to look and greatly decreasing the amount of time they will need to spend inside the building. Repeat burglaries in the same building are so common as to be expectable, and this is sometimes considered proof that burglars, familiar with a given house, its floor plan, its entries and exits, will go back to what they already know.
Think that means you’re safe because you live in an unusual home or apartment? Often all a savvy burglar needs to do these days is look at the website of your home builder or the property agency in charge of your apartment building to pull up a floor plan; these innocuous online tools ostensibly made for real estate bargain hunters are also amazingly helpful burglars’ guides.
Alternatively, perhaps the burglar has already been inside your house and is already familiar with its layout. Perhaps he or she once delivered a package there, did housework for you (or the previous owner), decorated one of your children’s bedrooms, fixed the plumbing, painted the living room, or performed any number of other home renovations—perhaps even because he or she is one of your friends or family members. Do you keep track of everyone who comes and goes, and do you really know where all your extra sets of house keys have gone?
One burglar interviewed by sociologists Richard T. Wright and Scott Decker for their book Burglars on the Job: Streetlife and Residential Break-Ins (Northeastern, 1994) said that he used to work as the family gardener at a particular house; he had a duplicate key cut for access to the house, but he had since used the key over and over to reenter the house and steal things. Incredibly, the house had changed ownership twice after he was last employed there nearly ten years before, but the door lock had never been replaced; this meant that the ex-gardener no longer had any connection to the new homeowners. His methods were equally devious, making his crimes hard to detect. He would steal only one thing at a time, which made it all but impossible to tell if something had been stolen or simply misplaced, if your kids had innocently moved it, or if your spouse had put it away somewhere without telling you. You might think it’s memory loss or early-onset senility; it’s actually a patient burglar robbing you and your family in slow motion.
A burglar’s typical list of considerations gets slightly more obvious from here. Do you own a dog? BEWARE OF DOG signs are, in fact, effective deterrents. Is anyone currently home? If not, are your neighbors around and likely to see something? Do you have a burglar alarm? One burglar explained to Wright and Decker how he would react to burglar alarms—and it certainly wasn’t with the desired level of fear. If anything, alarms signal to burglars that you own something worth protecting and that your house is thus a good target. As that same burglar reasoned to Wright and Decker: “If they got alarms, then you can look for gold and silver and tea sets. If there’s an alarm on the first floor, it probably ain’t hooked to the top floor. If it’s hooked to the top floor, then it ain’t hooked to the attic or it’s not hooked to the exhaust system.” In that case, following a rigorous process of elimination, he would just go in through the exhaust system. Every building is a puzzle for a burglar to pick apart.
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