Crime science (or more accurately crime and security science) has three core tenets:
• the application of scientific methods
• the study of crime and security problems
• the aim of reducing harm.
Beyond the unifying principles of scientific research (including a clear problem definition, transparency, rigor, and reliability), tools and techniques vary between studies. Rather than following a prescriptive approach, researchers are guided in their selection of data and methods by their research question and context. In this respect, crime scientists take an inclusive view of “evidence.”
“Crime and security” is a broad construct, covering problems associated with diverse illicit goods and acts, offenders, victims/targets, places, technologies, and formal and informal agents of crime control.
Its pragmatic approach distinguishes crime science from “pure research” (i.e., the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake). Contributions to harm reduction might be immediate (e.g., evaluating a novel intervention) or longer term (e.g., building theoretical or empirical knowledge about a particular issue).
Crime science is broad: researchers may contribute to it without self-identifying as crime scientists. Indeed, its early proponents hesitated to draw its parameters, suggesting they should be defined operationally. Under a shared focus on crime, crime science research transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries. The prevalence of multi- and interdisciplinary work reflects the inherent complexity of crime and its control. The social, physical, biological, and computer sciences—and their associated technologies—all have contributions to make.
Although the term crime science was first formalized in 2001, its roots go back much further. Within criminology, it particularly overlaps with environmental and experimental criminology. As well as sharing methods with these two areas, crime science’s theoretical underpinning derives from opportunity theories of crime (e.g., routine activity theory, the rational choice perspective, crime pattern theory). Crime is conceptualized accordingly as primarily non-random and as influenced by both individual criminal propensity and environmental factors that facilitate, promote, or provoke, criminal events.
Crime science techniques have been applied to a variety of issues: primarily volume crimes (e.g., burglary), but also more serious and complex crimes (e.g., terrorism and human trafficking). There is now substantial evidence of the effectiveness of targeted interventions in tackling crimes by manipulating their opportunity structures. Claims that such approaches are unethical and merely cause displacement have been discredited. Crime science now faces other, more challenging criticisms. For example, its theoretical underpinnings are arguably too narrow and the boundaries of the field lack clear distinction. Other challenges include expanding interventions into the online world and resolving tensions around evaluation evidence.
Crime science can clearly help explain and address crime problems. Its focus on outcomes rather than outputs speaks to the growing demand that research be impactful. Evidence generated through robust studies has value for policy and designing primary, secondary and tertiary interventions. In times of austerity and increased focus on multi-agency collaboration, there is a clear audience for crime-related research that can inform targeted responses and speaks to a broader agendum than law enforcement alone.