Thursday, 3 December 2009

Assignment 4 Essay: Auto Theft and Criminal Decision Making

Methods Used To Record Findings & Research:
I began by reading my source texts chosen from my previously completed bibliography. Due to my previous design ideas based on solving the problem of auto theft I chose to read an article which is specifically based around research found on the criminal act itself. For a much more general view of a connected area I looked at criminal’s decision making. I decided to use post-it notes to record my thoughts and the information I found most useful from each text. I felt this technique would allow me to link information and show my original thought process regarding my chosen subject matter.

Auto Theft and Criminal Decision Making:
Within this essay I will discuss auto thieves decision making processes and strategies used before and during the criminal act. I hope to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of my two chosen sources and explain how they benefit my understanding of the issue of auto theft.

The first source I have chosen to look at for this assignment is a journal article written by Michael Cherbonneau and Heith Copes entitled ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’, Auto Theft and The Illusion of Normalcy’. The main intensions of this paper are to examine the strategic decisions auto thieves make throughout the course of a crime and how they create the illusion of a normal driver. The methods commonly used by thieves to avoid police suspicion are explained as well as the differing decisions made by distinct groups. As primary research, 54 auto thieves were paid to be interviewed in a semi-structured format. The aim of these interviews was to discover how the mind of an auto thief works in relation to the decisions they make which ensure that no negative repercussions entail as a result of their crime. Due to the well constructed primary research and extensive secondary sources, I feel that this paper is a reliable and informative piece of writing explaining the previous misconceptions criminologists have made regarding offenders and how recent research has proven otherwise.
In the past, it has seemed logical to brand criminals as mindless opportunists who gain pleasure by fulfilling their trivial needs by taking from others. Their total disregard of the law, make them seem unintelligent with no thought to the consequences which may follow their actions. Criminologists, Gottfredson and Hurschi (1990: xv) believe that ‘[crime] requires no planning or skill’ and ‘are mundane, simple, trivial easy acts’. Although, with the information gathered from the interviews conducted, Cherbonneau and Copes argue that auto thieves use well constructed strategies and keep their emotions under control to avoid police attention. They explain this through the exploration of the criminal’s deliberate alteration of appearance and behaviour during the presence of police. In creating this ‘illusion of normalcy’, the offender is able to drive around in the stolen vehicle without being associated with the criminal offence. Throughout the interviews, the auto thieves explain how understanding police operations can allow them to remain undetected using a system of strategies. Extremely confident “auto thieves believe that interacting with police helps maintain the illusion of normalcy’ such as ‘brief eye contact, head nodding...waving and other acts of friendliness’ (Cherbonneau and Copes 2006: 205). These criminals understand the way in which their opponent’s mind works so they can use this to their advantage as they make each crucial decision. Another example of the detail auto thieves will address whilst carrying out a crime is the replacing of ignition switches and covering of damaged steering panels to further normalise outward appearance. Having control over your own emotions whilst committing a crime is extremely important for auto thieves as police officers are trained to detect any fear or suspicious non-verbal clues in drivers which may indicate they are uneasy.
In recent years, incidents of auto theft have been declining throughout the United Kingdom as shown in the statistical tables from 1981-2009. In order to further prevent car theft we must focus on understanding Cherbonneau and Copes findings by being aware of the intricacies of these crimes and more specifically how auto thieves make decisions. Their research has led them to the conclusion that ‘arrest avoidance techniques are key in understanding how criminals make decisions’.
The second text I have chosen is ‘The Reasoning Criminal: Rational Choice Perspectives on Offending’, edited by Derek Cornish and Ronald Clarke. It is less specific to my chosen subject although as stated in the title it looks generally at the decisions made by criminals before and during an offence. Cornish and Clarke have collected and commented on a wide range of research within the topic of criminal decision making. Chapter’s which have been written by a range of individuals are the outcome of a conference sponsored by the Home Office. Collectively they explain the processes which criminals use in order to make decisions. The editors have used secondary sources as their main material so are relying heavily on other researchers finding’s. Throughout the text, the editors comment on the findings of sociologists, criminologists, scientologists and economists. These writer’s texts are highly reliable sources due to their academic background. They believe that criminals make many rational decisions during a crime however amateur they are. Criminals must take into account restraints such as time and their own abilities when making decisions. During impulse crimes which take place when chance opportunities arise, the criminal still must make these decisions even if there is little time for thought. Cornish and Clarke believe that in order to understand the criminal mind you must take into account that individual crimes involve separate decision making processes. Both motivations and methods vary considerably between specific crimes. They understand that focus has previously been on the act itself instead of the offender and what has triggered their decision to commit the crime. They believe, “we must distinguish between criminal involvement and criminal events” (Cornish and Clarke, 1986, pg 6). Criminal involvement refers to the build up over time of a combination of factors which influence a criminal to commit an offence. They naturally occur before the crime is committed and are usually not directly linked to the criminal act itself. Examples of these include psychological, social, demographic background factors (Tonry and Morris, 1985, Initial Involvement model). During criminal events, situations arise which cause the offender to make decisions. These are the factors which must also be included in criminal research so the rational decision making process is understood. Cornish and Clark’s idea that we must be crime specific, and refrain from generalising all criminals illustrates that we should take into account the fact that the decision process made by each criminal is individual and influenced by the situational factors at the time. In this text by analysing a broad range of factors they will then have covered all areas in order to explore each criminal’s thought process. In doing so they clearly show the reasons why crimes are committed which in turn could lead to a better understanding to prevent crime. I found chapter ten, ‘The Theory of The Reasoned Action: A Decision Theory of Crime’ by Mary Tuck and David Riley, interesting as it explores a specific part of my previous research; how crime can be prevented. They begin with the debate, should we be helping those who are most likely to enter a life of crime, by giving them opportunities so they feel they have choices or should we be creating better deterrents such as harder punishment for offenders. Results have shown ‘that criminal behaviour varies more with the certainty than the severity of punishment’, (Tuck and Riley, 1986, p165). The strategic decisions criminals are making throughout the crime are lessening their chances of being caught, making punishment less certain. Tuck and Riley, investigate the individuals most at risk of resorting to crime, the environments they live and their social backgrounds. Their findings are expected, showing that those growing up in deprived areas are most at risk. This research may not hold hard answers yet but it can be built upon to form a better understanding of the criminal mind. Due to this broad collection of research, Cornish and Clarke have managed to create a convincing theory of the rational decisions criminals make in order to prevent suffering the consequences of their actions. Their conclusion that strategic decisions are crime specific implies that we must resort to broadening our research into individual crimes whilst also researching them in depth. Each criminal reacts differently depending on factors which have occurred previous to the criminal act and during.

Comparing the two texts, I believe Cherbonneau and Copes’ findings within their article to be more useful in regard to my chosen subject. The main reason for this is that they have used their own primary sources through conducting interviews first hand; therefore they are more aware of the interviewee’s methods and ideas. By interviewing criminals who have participated in many different types of crime, their findings will be broad enough to cover the idea that all criminals frequently make decisions in this manner. The specific focus is on auto thieves; therefore information found will be in depth in certain interviews. By quoting the auto thieves throughout the text they are backing up any findings which they believe to be relevant. To prove the idea that criminals manipulate their appearance as well as behaviour successfully one offender is quoted stating: “riding around, I’m a completely different person. You’ll never think that I was in a stolen car”, (pg 198). One possible flaw in their research is the fact that the offenders were paid to take part in the interviews. Paying the interviewee is viewed by some as unethical as answers may be influenced by this factor causing a biased view and production of inaccurate information. Also, it could be argued that criminals are clearly not the most truthful individuals and therefore the information they share may be unreliable. Contrasting methods of research, in Cornish and Clarke’s text, show mainly secondary sources. These separate points of view provide a broader knowledge of the reasoning criminal, which can in theory only be a positive. The fact that they are all academics therefore implies that their studies and results will be accurate and reliable. Although, in using only secondary information and assuming that it is correct without conducting any primary research of their own, the information will not be as sufficiently proven as the ideas from Cherbonneau and Copes article. Another weakness within this text in comparison to the previous is that as the book was published in 1986 all research will have been carried out previously therefore these older sources will surely be less relevant than studies conducted in 2006, in the case of ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’. Cherbonneau and Copes on the other hand make fewer assumptions as they rely on their own findings.
As a result of the findings in ‘Drive it Like You Stole It’ Auto Theft and the Illusion of Normalcy’ we learn that it is important that we take into consideration the complexities of the criminal mind. We must work on creating deterrents based on the results shown that criminals are being influenced by current deterrents throughout decision making processes, although they are not strong enough to prevent the crimes from primarily taking place. The consequences of being caught committing a crime seem to be making criminals smarter in there thinking, and we must prevent this going further. Cornish and Clarkes result’s from, ‘The Reasoning Criminal: Rational Choice Perspectives on Offending’, have created the idea that we must ensure we do not generalise at any point during our research. Every aspect and type of crime must be researched individually, and only after can be begin to understand how to help solve these problems. They have even stated themselves that they have not reached a final conclusion by the conclusion of the text. If we take these findings seriously we can begin to develop the methods of deterrence which are already in use. Although both texts imply that the criminal mind is complex, the progression which has occurred in the time between each publication has been vast, proving that our understanding is in fact growing.

Further Research:
If I were to research this further I would begin by collecting my own primary research. Conducting interviews with criminals would be essential in personally gaining a better understanding of how offenders construct their crimes. It would allow me to ask questions which have not been asked in the texts I have previously read. I feel there I haven’t researched much information regarding the backgrounds of those participating in auto theft. I also feel reading a broader range of books and journal articles explaining the psychology of crime would be extremely beneficial as I would be exposed to an increasing number of individual and differing views. I believe watching surveillance footage of car thefts taking place would possibly trigger new thoughts into how this problem could be solved further. I could arrange this by contacting the local council and police. It may also be beneficial to get first hand information from police officers as they deal with these offenders on a daily basis and will understand how the criminal’s minds work.


Cherbonneau, M, Copes, H, (2006), ‘DRIVE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT’Auto Theft and the Illusion of Normalcy,
British Journal Of Criminology Vol 46, No.2, University of Missouri, Advance Access

Cornish, DB, Clarke, RV,(1986) The Reasoning Criminal:Rational Choice Perspectives on Offending,
New York, Springer-Verlag, New York Inc,

Gottfredson, M. and Hirschi, T. (1990), A General Theory of Crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (accessed 26.11.09)

Tonryn, N, Morris, N (eds.), (1985), Crime and Justice, vol.6, Chicago, University of Chicago Press