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Law and Crime

Dealing With Failure in Crime Prevention

How to minimise ‘failings’ and how to live with them.

Key points

  • Failure is not an unequivocal outcome, and failure is not simply the opposite of success.
  • We can minimise the chances of failings in crime prevention projects.
  • We need to know what success might look like before we begin a crime prevention project.

Recently, I was asked to present, at a problem-solving conference, my take on 'failure' and how to live with it. Although my first reaction was 'why have they asked me?', I soon realised that they meant ‘failure’, not in a universal sense, as nobody can fail at absolutely everything (e.g., how do you eat your breakfast or read a book in a 'failing way'?), but more specifically as it relates to trying to prevent and reduce crime. More at ease, I soon realised that this was something with which I have a lot of experience.

What is 'failure'?

I accepted the challenge, and immediately asked myself the following question, what do we mean by ‘failure’, ‘failings’ or ‘to fail’? According to the Oxford Online Dictionary:

  • Failure: a lack of success in doing or achieving something
  • To fail: a lack of success in doing or achieving something
  • A failing: a weakness or fault in somebody/something

Although no difference is detectable between the two definitions for failure and to fail (which is probably obvious now with hindsight), I was drawn more to the definition of ‘failing’: a weakness or fault in somebody or something. I took this to mean that a so-called ‘failing’ crime prevention intervention, might not have been a total failure, just that it had a failing or two. That is, it might work with a bit of a re-work and a tweak or two, which is a far more optimistic appraisal and one that I would stand more chance of living with.

Are failure and success just opposites?

A next question is whether failure and success are two sides of the same coin. Put simply, if you fail then you do not have success. With no intention of starting a philosophical argument (or indeed any argument at all), it seems to me that failure and success should be seen more as being the opposite ends of a continuum rather than binary. Again, some elements of a crime prevention initiative might indeed have been ‘successful’, such as increasing community engagement by raising local awareness of crime concerns in a particular area, whereas some elements were found ‘failing’, such as not achieving a statistically significant treatment effect in a Randomised Control Trial (RCT). The simple point I make is that again, total failure of a crime prevention initiative may not actually be an accurate or indeed a fair assessment.

10 tips for minimising failings in crime prevention projects

In a spirit of helpfulness, I offer 10 tips for how to minimise the chances of abject failure by focusing on how we might reduce potential failings in crime prevention interventions, projects, and initiatives. In no particular order:

  1. Don’t do nothing and hope that the problem will go away. This is unlikely, although if you have a carpark which experiences a particularly high rate of vehicle crime, then most people will park somewhere else and the offenders will do likewise. Crime will likely be displaced to other carparks, rather than reduced. The problem is unlikely to be solved.
  2. Don’t just do the same thing you have always done and hope for a different outcome. This is very close to Einstein’s definition of stupidity. The problem is unlikely to be solved.
  3. Don’t use ‘what works’ as a shortcut for problem solving. Look at potential responses to your crime problem, but do not expect them to work in every circumstance. For example, if it was successful in a particular area of a particular town in a particular country, it is not a given that it will work in your particular area, in your particular area of town, in your particular country. There are no ‘one-size fits all’ solutions, so analyse your problem, get a grasp of what is causing it (underlying mechanisms) and then pick the most appropriate response. The problem might be solved.
  4. Don’t just do something because you need to be seen to be doing something. This is likely to be a waste of time and resources. The problem is unlikely to be solved.
  5. Do work out what the successful outcomes are in advance. Know how you are going to measure success and don’t just limit this to a reduction in recorded crime or calls for service. Often, successful elements of projects include the mobilising of public consciousness about a crime problem or involving local community members in crime prevention initiatives. These are ‘wins’ which can be invaluable to future projects in the future. The problem might be solved.
  6. Do avoid implementation failure (or don’t just make a half-hearted attempt). Examples include when a ‘scatter-gun approach’ to a crime problem sees a squillion different interventions aimed at the problem, with no real way of determining what (if anything) had a positive (or successful) effect, or relying on somebody who you have never met or spoken with to collect data for you, without telling them why it is necessary. The problem might be solved.
  7. Do start from the right place. Make sure that you have a good understanding of the problem at hand, for example know who resides in a particular ‘hotspot area’, don’t just guess, or you may be doomed to failure from the start. The problem might be solved.
  8. Do avoid hindsight bias. Don’t beat yourself up about what you didn’t know at the time. We all learn. The problem might be solved (eventually).
  9. Do know about Locus of Control (Rotter, 1966). See my previous post. If many people residing in a high crime area have a high external locus of control, then they will be unlikely to be enthusiastic about your crime prevention initiative. The problem is unlikely to be solved.
  10. Don’t throw in the towel just yet. If your crime prevention idea or initiative does not appear to work, do not resign it to the scrapheap too hastily. Re-visit it. Re-think it. Try again. Failure lived with successfully!

This is just my take on things. I hope it helps.


Rotter, J.B (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement". Psychological Monographs: General and Applied. 80 (1),1–28.

Roach, J (2023) Practical Psychology for Policing. Bristol, UK: Policy Press (published January 2023).

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