Changes in design help prevent crime

Published: Monday, January 4, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 4, 2010 at 1:27 a.m.

A class of University of Florida urban design students has taken to the streets of Gainesville to fight crime.


Design tips to prevent crime

Crime prevention through environmental design uses techniques such as lighting and landscaping to prevent crime. The Gainesville Police Department's Crime Prevention Office will analyze properties in the city and offer design advice. Call 334-2439 to arrange such a visit. Here are some tips:
* Stiff door frame: A door is only as good as the solidity of the frame. If possible, use a steel door frame. Other frames can be reinforced by filling empty spaces.
* Exterior house lights: Use a combination of low-wattage (usually florescent) lights that stay on all the time at night and strategically placed motion detector lights.
* House numbers: It's easier for police to quickly locate a home if the house numbers are large and lit well. Gainesville code requires legible numbers on structures.
* Fences: Fences should have openings to allow neighbors or police to see the lot from almost any angle, thereby increasing the risk to offenders.
* Sliding glass windows: A rod placed in the lower track and screws installed in the upper track can prevent thieves from sliding or lifting the door open. Even high windows should be secured.

That doesn't mean they're donning capes and beating up bad guys. Instead, they're studying the vulnerabilities of local businesses and offering design tips that can discourage robberies and other crimes.

"You can create a safe place without making it seem like a fortress," said Richard Schneider, a professor of urban and regional planning who teaches the class.

The approach is called crime prevention through environmental design. The Gainesville Police Department has promoted the technique, working with the class as well as advising property owners on its own of changes they can make to avoid being victimized.

"We're not telling people to put up a stockade or dig a moat and fill it with gators," said Gainesville Police Lt. Art Adkins.

Instead, he said, property owners can take simple steps such as improving lighting, maintaining shrubbery and marking the border of their properties. The department's crime prevention officers provide a free analysis of properties upon their request, referring some businesses to Schneider's class.

Schneider has taught the class for more than a dozen years. The initial class analyzed an anti-drug facility in Key West, helping it strengthen its defenses in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Subsequent classes have worked with law enforcement in Alachua County. This fall, Gainesville police identified four businesses that had faced problems with crime. The Sun is not identifying the businesses by name to avoid exposing weaknesses in their security.

One business was a pizza place where an armed robbery occurred. Students identified problems ranging from poor lighting to windows that fog up, preventing workers from seeing outside. Lighting and windows can be used to help prevent crime. Adkins said police recommend keeping shrubs trimmed around windows to allow lurking criminals to be seen by those inside.

"Anonymity is the friend of the criminal," Adkins said. "It's not our friend in law enforcement."

Another issue with the pizza place was graffiti, trash and a broken fence on the property. Such problems fall under the "broken windows" theory of fixing small problems to prevent a bigger one from occurring.

A problem such as a busted fence says that "nobody cares about this place and maybe if nobody cares, nobody's watching," Schneider said.

Territorial integrity is another issue. In addition to fences that guard against access, gardens and low hedges can mark a boundary and indicate to others to stay away. "A lot of this stuff is psychological because we're dealing with human behavior," Schneider said.

Signs can be another psychological technique. Some signs are functional, such as a trespassing warning that allows an arrest to be made if someone trespasses. Others can just be intended to scare off criminals.

"A sign is cheap and makes people think," Schneider said.

He recommends a "beware of the dog" sign - even if no dog is inside - rather than a sign advertising an alarm system. The latter can signal criminals that something worth stealing is inside, he said.

In addition, Schneider said it's vital to communicate with neighbors so they have a sense of something seems amiss when you're away. Preventing crimes from occurring is important because once a house is burglarized, he said, it's more likely to be hit again.

"You're more likely to be a victim if you've been a victim," Schneider said.

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