Study Shows Burglars Avoid Alarm Systems

A new AIREF-funded study scientifically supports the industry’s assertion that alarm systems deter burglars. More than four in five incarcerated respondents say they would try to determine if an alarm was present before attempting a burglary. And the presence of an alarm system would cause more than half the intruders to abort.

Research seeking to understand the criminological and deterrent factors associated with burglary and burglars’ decision-making processes has been conducted through victimization surveys, interviews or surveys with active or incarcerated offenders, and analyses of crime, census and land use. While the contribution of knowledge gained through these techniques is significant, the number of studies concerning burglary is limited. Further, many studies have been conducted in countries other than the United States, and few examine differences based on demographic characteristics such as gender.

A new, groundbreaking study, “Understanding Decisions to Burglarize From the Offender’s Perspective,” used a sample of convicted burglars in North Carolina, Ohio, and Kentucky to expand the knowledge base concerning the motivation and techniques used by burglars as they select their targets and carry out their crimes. Additionally, this research — sponsored by the Alarm Industry Research & Educational Foundation (AIREF) and conducted by Doctors of Philosophy from Eastern Kentucky University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Western Illinois University — examined what factors, such as burglar alarms or locks, deterred burglars from committing the act. Further, data were collected from both male and female burglars, which provided significant insight into the similarities and differences in motivations and actions based on gender.

Building on past research, this study closely examined the decision-making processes of 422 randomly-selected incarcerated male and female burglars across the three states based on the results of a self-administered survey designed specifically for this study. The central research questions that guided the project included the following: What motivates burglars to engage in burglary? What factors are considered by burglars during target selection? What deters burglars from burglarizing specific targets? What techniques do burglars use when engaging in burglary? Are their gender differences in burglary motivations, target selection and techniques?

By venturing inside the minds of actual perpetrators, this unique study provides fascinating insights. According to the findings, a majority of burglars considered the presence of deterrents such as alarms, outdoor cameras and other surveillance equipment when choosing a potential residential or commercial target. Approximately 83% of the offenders said they would attempt to determine if an alarm was present before attempting a burglary, and about 73% said they would seek an alternative target. Among those who discovered the presence of an alarm while attempting a burglary, half reported they would discontinue the attempt, while another 37% said they would sometimes retreat.

Who Took Part in the Research

All of the individuals who participated in this study were serving a prison sentence for burglary or breaking and entering at the time of the survey. Of the 422 surveys completed, about 56% were completed in Ohio, 23% were completed in North Carolina and the other 21% were completed in Kentucky. The inmates who participated in this research ranged in age from 18-64 (mean = 32.9).

Approximately 65% of the final sample was male. Two-thirds (67%) of the sample respondents were Caucasian, 25% were African American, and the remaining individuals were mixed or other races. About 63% reported being single and never married at the time of the current arrest, 7% were separated, 9% were married, and 13% were divorced.

This sample of burglars appeared to be broadly involved in crime and consistently involved in burglary. First, it is clear that many in the sample of burglars were seasoned offenders. The overall sample of respondents reported being arrested from one to more than 100 times in the past (mean = 12.9 arrests). Age of first burglary arrest ranged from nine to 50 (mean age = 23.6) while the reported age when first engaging in a burglary ranged from six to 50 (mean age = 21.8).

It is also evident that some burglars were involved in other forms of serious crime over the course of their offending careers. About 8% reported they had been charged with homicide, 12% with robbery, and 7% with assault at some point in their past. On the other hand, in excess of 54% reported that burglary/breaking-and-entering was the most serious crime that they had been charged with to date.

Most Seek Drugs and/or Money

Past literature suggests there are multiple motivations for engaging in burglary including drugs, money, foolishness and thrill-seeking. Within this sample it was quite apparent that drug and alcohol use were, at minimum, correlated to involvement in burglary. In many cases, it was the direct cause and a primary motivator for males and females alike.

Within the entire sample, 88% of respondents indicated that their top reason for committing burglaries was related to their need to acquire drugs (51%) or money (37%), although many reported needing the money to support drug problems. Crack or powder cocaine and heroin were the drugs most often reportedly used by these offenders and these substances were often being used in combination with other substances, including marijuana and alcohol, during burglary attempts.

Only four respondents reported not using any drugs or alcohol in their lifetime. More than half of the burglars had used alcohol, marijuana, and powder or crack cocaine in their lifetimes, and half of the sample reporting using more than five drugs to date (mean = 5.5). Additionally, 73% of the sample indicated that they had used drugs and/or alcohol while engaged in a burglary at some time in the past and many respondents reported using multiple drugs and/or alcohol while doing so. Cocaine and heroin were the drugs most often reportedly used by these offenders and these substances were often being used in combination with other substances during burglary attempts.

When asked how income accumulated from burglaries would be spent, drug use was the most frequently reported answer (64%) followed by living expenses (49%), partying (35%), clothes/shoes (31%), gifts (17%) and gambling (5%). See Table 1 on the right.

How Intruders Plotted Their Break-ins

Some items on the questionnaire asked sample prisoners about their experiences during the year before their most recent arrests. About half of the burglars reported engaging in at least one residential burglary and about a third reported engaging in at least one commercial burglary during that 12-month period. When asked about how they arrived at their targets, most of the burglars relied a vehicle. More often it was their own, but sometimes the vehicle belonged to a family member or a friend. About one in eight reported using a stolen vehicle during the course of a burglary.

There was, however, substantial and wide variation in the distance driven prior to engaging in a burglary, with some traveling hundreds of miles or across state lines. This was presumably in an effort to minimize identification and capture. Others reporting walking or driving just a couple blocks away. The range of distanced traveled to a target was half-a-mile to 250 miles.

Although some individuals drove many miles to reach their targets, less than a third of the offenders reported they collected information about a potential target prior to initiating a burglary attempt, suggesting that most burglars are impulsive to some degree. When asked about planning burglaries, about 12% indicated that they typically planned the burglary, 41% suggested it was most often a “spur of the moment” event/offense, and the other 37% reported that it varied.

When planning did occur, nearly half (49%) sugge
sted that the burglary occurred within one day and 16% indicated that the planning process took place for one to three days. There were not significant differences in substance use involvement between those who were more deliberate planners and those who were not.

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