Criminology, Research

SFU’s Research Chair in Environmental Criminology, Dr. Graham Farrell, on Criminology’s “Dirty Little Secret”

February 27, 2014

Environmental criminology might not mean what you think it means. In contrast to fields that study the natural environment—and pay special attention to the function, protection and growth of biodiversity alongside the impact of human civilization and settlement—the domain of environmental criminology addresses how constructed environments and design of human-made objects impact and shift criminal activity and behaviours.

In 2013, the Department of Criminology hired Dr. Graham Farrell for the position of Professor and Research Chair in Environmental Criminology. Dr. Farrell began his research career at the University of Surrey, UK with a degree in Economics and Sociology, and completed his PhD at the University of Manchester. He has authored and co-authored dozens of books, monographs, book chapters, and journal articles. But what is remarkable about Dr. Farrell is his record of engagement and employment with numerous and well-respected public institutions in the UK, Europe, and the USA. He has held such positions as a Research Assistant for the London Crime Prevention Unit’s Home Office, an International Expert to the United Nations’ International Drug Control Programme in Vienna, and Deputy Research Director to the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C.

When asked how he came to be at SFU in 2013, Dr. Farrell speaks rather modestly, explaining he had connected with Dr. Patricia Brantingham and Dr. Paul Brantingham who run SFU’s Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies (ICURS). “I had met them now and again at conferences and at some point Pat said, ‘You should come visit [SFU] sometime.’ So I had a sabbatical from my UK University [Loughborough] in 2010 and my wife and I came and we stayed…We talked about me coming back and they found a way to make it happen.”

Dr. Farrell says another draw to SFU was the internationally-renowned department of Criminology as well as the sophisticated technology available at SFU’s Secure Data Laboratory which meets national RCMP security standards. He explains, “it’s more secure than most police departments, which is pretty unique. That’s a great resource which is attracting data and it is particularly secure …and it has established the infrastructure for the kinds of cutting edge work that ICURS is able to now take on.” In fact, environmental criminology is just one of the many areas of research at ICURS; the Institute has a distinct interdisciplinary focus, with members from Geography, Mathematics, Economics, Computing Science, and Sociology, to name a few.

In his own field, Dr. Farrell says the aim is “bringing the issue of crime prevention to environmental design by changing the environment in a way that hopefully will reduce offender’s decisions to commit crime—make it less attractive, less rewarding. This involves changing buildings’ layouts, urban layouts, and now it’s gone into a much greater level of detail going into the design of products, of interiors.”

Opposing the view that “people are driven to crime,” or “traditionally thinking of criminals’ minds,” environmental criminology instead comes at the question from the perspective of looking at what environments produce criminal behavior. He characterizes this view as an aphorism: “It’s easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than to think yourself into a new way of acting. By changing the behavior, you change your thinking.” He goes on to explain that advances in security technology have made it virtually impossible to break into modern cars: “Car crime in Canada has plummeted by three quarters in the last decade. It’s one of the areas I’ve been doing a lot of research on in the last few years are these major drops in crime—and [it’s] linked to environmental design… Very good quality electronic immobilizers and central locking systems have basically wiped out the joyriding that exists…and so all that you tend to get nowadays is the more professional thefts.”

In another example, Dr. Farrell explains that in the UK, from about the mid-1990s onwards, household security improved massively and contributed to reductions in burglary crime. “One of the hypotheses was that it was the quality of design impacting security; for example “double-glazing” on windows. It’s these almost mundane aspects of life. Who would think that double-glazing would have a massive effect on crime!?”

Curiously, the public perception of crime rates has generally stayed the same—the notion, for instance, that crime is as bad or worse than in previous years—even though the statistics and data researchers are gathering reflects that crime has actually been on a steady decline since the 1990s. Dr. Farrell comments that, “as one of the biggest secrets or questions facing criminologists today, [explaining the crime drop] has become one of criminology’s ‘dirty little secrets.’ It’s a little embarrassing that no one can explain it.”

But explaining it is exactly what Dr. Farrell and other researchers at ICURS are doing. In December 2013, Dr. Farrell co-authored a paper with Dr. Paul Brantingham, “The Crime Drop and the General Social Survey” in Canadian Public Policy 39.4. The paper looks closely at sections of Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey (GSS), which is one of Canada’s national social surveys and is used to gather data in a broad range of areas, including aging, education, family, health, social engagement, and victimization.

Dr. Farrell explains that while the GSS data suggests that crime rates have been steady, he and Dr. Brantingham found opposing data and set out to critically analyze the statistics as such. They focused specifically on the victim surveys the GSS produces every 5 years and, through close statistical analysis, the paper concludes with two remarkable hypotheses: “1. Canada has experienced major and unprecedented drops in crime akin to those in many other industrialized countries; and 2. The crime trends produced by the GSS are misleading.”

Dr. Farrell is gratified with the outcome of the paper and explains, “It’s slightly heretical to question [the GSS] as it’s run by Stats Canada…[however] the paper that we’ve published for Canadian Public Policy takes on these numbers.” And this kind of work, Dr. Farrell explains is “what academic life is about. And that’s why professors have tenure, to be honest.”