One way to understand what motivates and deters burglars is to ask them. UNC Charlotte researcher Joseph Kuhns from the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology did just that. He led a research team that gathered survey responses from more than 400 convicted offenders that resulted in an unprecedented look into the minds of burglars, providing insight into intruders’ motivations and methods.
The study, “Understanding Decisions to Burglarize from the Offender’s Perspective,” was funded by the Alarm Industry Research and Educational Foundation (AIREF), under the auspices of the Electronic Security Association (ESA), the largest trade association for the electronic life safety and security industry.
"This study broadens our understanding of burglars, their motivations and their techniques," Kuhns said. "It also helps us to understand gender differences in offending motivations and techniques. By asking the burglars what motivates and what deters them, we believe this research can help people better understand how to protect themselves against these crimes and help law enforcement more effectively respond.”
In addition to Kuhns, other researchers were Kristie Blevins, Ph.D., Eastern Kentucky University; and Seungmug “Zech” Lee, Ph.D., Western Illinois University. UNC Charlotte students Alex Sawyers and Brittany Miller also assisted.
The researchers delved into the decision-making processes and methods of 422 incarcerated male and female burglars selected at random from state prison systems in North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio. This investigation explored offender motivation; target selection considerations; deterrence factors; burglars’ techniques; and gender differences in motivations, target selection and techniques.
- When selecting a target, most burglars said they considered the close proximity of other people - including traffic, people in the house or business, and police officers; the lack of escape routes; and signs of increased security – including alarm signs, alarms, dogs inside, and outdoor cameras or other surveillance equipment.
- Approximately 83 percent said they would try to determine if an alarm was present before attempting a burglary, and 60 percent said they would seek an alternative target if there was an alarm on-site. This was particularly true among the subset of burglars who were more likely to spend time deliberately and carefully planning a burglary.
- Among those who discovered the presence of an alarm while attempting a burglary, half reported they would discontinue the attempt, while another 31 percent said they would sometimes retreat. Only 13 percent said they would always continue with the burglary attempt.
- Respondents indicated their top reasons for committing burglaries was related to the need to acquire drugs (51 percent) or money (37 percent), which was often used to support drug habits. Only one burglar indicated interest in stealing firearms, which is a common misperception.
- About half reported burglarizing homes primarily, while 31 percent typically committed commercial burglaries.
- Most burglars reported entering open windows or doors or forcing windows or doors open. About one in eight burglars reported picking locks or using a key that they had previously acquired to gain entry.
- About 12 percent indicated that they typically planned the burglary in advance, 41 percent suggested it was most often a “spur of the moment” event, and the other 37 percent reported that it varied.
A considerable portion of the research dealt with differences between male and female burglars. For example, men tended to plan their burglaries more deliberately and were more likely to gather intelligence about a potential target ahead of time. Women appeared to be more impulsive overall, engaging in “spur-of-the-moment” burglaries.
Women also indicated a preference for burglarizing homes and residences during the afternoon, while men tended to focus on businesses in the late evenings. Drug use was the most frequently reported motive given by women, at 70 percent, while men cited money as their main motivation.
In one consistent finding across males and females, alarms and surveillance equipment had similar impact on target selection. However, female burglars were more often dissuaded from attempting a burglary if they noticed signs suggesting that a particular location was protected by alarms.