Engineering in crime prevention


Crime affects all of us. It has been at or near the top of the political agenda for a number of years and governments of all political persuasions have earnestly tried to tackle what is often perceived as a growing problem. The primary aim of this article is to raise the profile of crime fighting in an engineering context. It also seeks to demonstrate that there are considerable opportunities for innovation and describes a few specific examples of engineering solutions that have been or are about to be implemented in diverse areas of fighting crime.

Defining crime and classifying the different types of criminal behaviour is a whole discipline in itself and there is little to be gained by dwelling for too long on those different definitions. All crime involves gaining advantage by force or fraud, which is directed against the person or against property. Putting a cost on crime is also very difficult and the subject of considerable debate. What is clear is that the 13 million or so crimes against adults living in private households in England and Wales, as reported in the British Crime Survey (BCS) for 2001/2002, represent the equivalent of a substantial hidden taxation on every person in the country.

Traditionally, the study of crime has been conducted in departments of sociology and law and not in faculties of science and engineering. This has inevitably led to the focus of study being on the criminal (hence ‘criminology’) rather than the actual crime event; a discipline, which its Latin root deems, should be known as ‘scelology’. A consequence of this focus is dramatically demonstrated in the following exercise.

A quick trawl of the research portfolios of the different funding councils using the search term crim* in 1999 and the terms crim* and crime yielded the results shown in Table 1. It is possible that specialist, high-tech, security research may have emerged using a more sophisticated search strategy but this is a niche market compared with the scale of volume crime.

Clearly, the idea of volume crime prevention and reduction methods being in the strategic thinking of workers seeking EPSRC funding, say, was almost non-existent even as recently as 1999. This fact was clearly identified by the government’s Foresight Crime Prevention Panel, which recommended in its final report Turning the Corner, ‘that a dedicated funding stream is established to focus science and technology attention to crime reduction’. The recent EPSRC initiative on ‘Crime Prevention and Detection’ culminating in a gathering of interested academics in London is testament to the recommendation being engaged by one of the research councils. It is too early to gauge impact but the early signs are very encouraging.

Now let us take some of the main crime areas in turn.

Crime against property

Many forms of property are at risk from being stolen. One strategy that has received considerable attention over the past two or three years is the marking of property to enable ownership to be authenticated. A much earlier example was the marking of bicycles. It is arguable that this marking did not dramatically reduce the incidents of theft. What is interesting is that it is an example of individuals labelling their own property to prevent that property being stolen and to have a mechanism of proving ownership if recovery is necessary. The main problem was that the marking was overt and could be easily altered or erased altogether. The huge area in any large police station given over to anonymous recovered goods is sad testament to the scale of the problem. A far better system would be one that is covert and not immediately visible to the naked eye. This can be achieved in a number of ways with two of the most important being tagging with chemicals and tagging electronically.

Chemical tagging

The challenge for the chemical engineer is certainly non-trivial. Any system must have the following attributes if it is to prove a useful crime reduction tool. It must be:

  • easy to apply by the consumer

  • covert

  • easily read by the consumer and police officer with affordable and simple to operate equipment

  • have sufficient ‘bandwidth’ to be unique (or at least nearly so)

  • able to be deployed in the environment safely and

  • cheap.

One such system that has achieved considerable success and publicity and attracted a number of awards is SmartWater. This is an impressive example of an engineered solution that meets the operational requirement outlined above. It combines a general detection component into which is embedded a specific indicator. It is detectable and readable using simple equipment, is inexpensive and covert. There is also a considerable support infrastructure in place to cover registration and training has been developed for police and support staff in SmartWater recovery techniques.

This is an example of an anti-theft device that is designed for application by the consumer. Another approach would be to build in the unique identifiers at the point of manufacture.

Chipping of goods

One very innovative idea addressing some aspects of property crime is the Home Office’s ‘Chipping of Goods Initiative’ (CoG). This initiative, which involves the inclusion of electronic tags (active or passive) with unique identifiers into products at an early stage of their lives, has received funding to a total of £5.5 m from the Capital Modernisation Fund. It aims to show how property crime can be reduced throughout the supply chain. A number of demonstrator projects has been funded across a number of sectors covering everything from speedboats through wines and spirits to mobile phones. Listed below are some of the properties of chips.

  • They provide unique and permanent identification.

  • They can be applied overtly or covertly (or both) without damaging the item.

  • They can be read from a distance.

  • They are robust.

  • Data contained on them can be encrypted.

  • Systems allow more than one tagged item to be read simultaneously.

They thereby fulfil the following crime reduction criteria:

  • They tell whether goods have been stolen.

  • They can assist the police in recovering stolen property.

  • They provide proof of ownership.

  • They guard against counterfeit products.

  • They can be used to provide an audit trail for tax/duty purposes.

Essentially, the mission of the CoG initiative is to know where everything is all of the time. This is ambitious to say the least, but it is possible. Imagine an electronic tag being read by a tag reader that has a bluetooth connection to a local area network that is itself connected to a wide area network. The technology exists now. If active tags were used, one can easily imagine consumer goods being able to recognise their environment and functioning correctly only within that environment.

Crime against the person


Any modern traveller is acutely aware of the measures deployed at airports to prevent illegal attacks on civil aviation. The operational requirements on such systems are extremely challenging. Full description of such systems is beyond the scope of this article but some of the engineering considerations are worth visiting in what is, after all, a safety-critical situation.

Heathrow Airport handles something over 30 million items of luggage a year. Put simply that is one a second. This puts the following requirements on any piece of airline baggage screening equipment. It must:

  • be capable of screening luggage in a time that does not interfere unduly with the normal running of the airport

  • do so with a high degree of confidence and an acceptable false alarm rate

  • not pert the operators’ attention from the screening process by being unduly complicated

  • be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week

  • comply with appropriate health and safety requirements for equipment operators and the general public and

  • not damage the item of luggage in the process.

This is a tall order and yet such systems exist and are used routinely in airports all around the world. It is worth remembering that many of the current systems deployed were developed after the bombing of Pan Am 103. The UK was in the vanguard of introducing 100% hold baggage screening and the partnership of industry, government, research organisations, airport authorities and others working together to produce viable solutions resulted in a successful implementation. It must be stressed that that is not a statement of complacency. Work is continuing on improving systems and procedures that will enhance the capability of the authorities. One novel and exciting approach that is being investigated is the application of MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems) technology to mass spectroscopy, the principal aims being to reduce analysis times and false alarms without compromising on confidence. This development is at an early stage and will require parallel developments in miniaturising the pumps and other components needed to make a fully portable mass spectroscopy system.

People trafficking

Trafficking in human cargo has hit the headlines in the past few years. The reasons for people wishing to enter the UK illegally are various and complex. In stark contrast, the operational requirement for systems to detect illegally concealed people is very clear. An immigration officer needs either to be able to see into a vehicle without having to unload it, or be able to detect the presence of people reliably by some other means. He will want to test as many vehicles as possible (all vehicles in an ideal world) and he will want the system to be easy and safe to operate and be available 24 hours a day, every day. Several solutions have now emerged. They range from detecting high carbon dioxide levels and heartbeats through to full, truck-sized imaging systems. These systems can either be active (usually using x-rays) or passive (employing millimetre waves). All have their place and are deployed in different scenarios.

The speed with which these technical solutions appeared ‘at or near market’ was quite remarkable. There was a clearly defined problem which scientists and engineers were able to address with technical solutions that they had on the shelf. In some cases, they borrowed from experiences gained in the earlier discussed airport environment.

The vision today

Many books could be filled detailing the numerous approaches that have been taken to reduce and prevent crime. It is worth considering just a few where engineering solutions have been of fundamental importance and indicating a couple where much work still needs to be done.

Ten years ago, it was relatively easy to steal even the highest quality cars. This is not the situation now. Family saloons come fitted with a variety of anti-crime measures as standard. That change has come about because organisations have been working together to achieve a common aim. Cars are still sold on their looks and their performance but safety and security are now important factors as well. The reduction in car crime has been dramatic.

The growth in CCTV systems in town centres has been a feature of the past few years and their impact on crime is the subject of intense scrutiny. What is clear is that a CCTV system will deliver far more to its operator or owner if it is well engineered, seen as a complete system (cameras and lighting) and is installed to a high professional standard. When such systems are coupled to automation the possibilities are endless and one can imagine all manner of linked systems addressing a number of crime-related problems, Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and Automatic Facial Recognition being just two examples. It is interesting to contrast the progress made in the implementation of these two examples. The former is now widely used in a number of applications and is proving very effective and reliable. The latter has proved very difficult to implement and there is still some way to go before such systems can be used on a widespread basis. It is imperative to not underestimate the task when attempting to build automatic systems to recognise complex images such as faces or temporal events such as behaviour. Moreover, there are civil liberty issues surrounding CCTV installations that must also be considered.

Another area with which we are all familiar but which needs urgent attention is the unreliability of domestic burglar alarms. Something like 94% of alarms from domestic premises are false. This results in a massive waste of police time and yields the inevitable result that alarms are simply ignored. Indeed the situation has resulted in the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) developing a policy on police attendance at alarms that will reduce the level of police attendance if false alarms from a particular installation persist.

The reasons for this high false alarm rate are many. They include:

  • sensors of inadequate quality and sophistication

  • poor installation and poor siting of sensors

  • low technology control panels and

  • operator error.

This article has said nothing so far about assault, robbery and other crimes of violence. These are the types of crime that cause most anxiety. Clearly the provision of CCTV, better lighting and so on should contribute towards people feeling safer. The question of whether there are engineering solutions, acceptable to the society in which we live, that can offer some degree of protection to individuals, is a major challenge. One could consider the way in which mobile telephony has developed alongside personal attack alarms. The former are sophisticated communication instruments giving their owner a number of desirable lifestyle features. They are carried all the time and are an absolute necessity for many people. The latter, which have been dispensed in huge numbers, are crude noise generators; many simply making a noise when a pin is removed. They are not often to hand and there is little or no evidence as to their effectiveness. It is an interesting question to ask how mobile phones could be designed and used to enhance personal safety.

Closing thought

Engineers and scientists are usually quick to spot if an area in which they are working has potential applications in defence or medicine or in response to other major events. As John Forrest said in his editorial in the November 2001 edition of this magazine in the immediate aftermath of September 11, ‘It is time for the engineering community to do again what it does so well – developing systems to improve human life’. Progress is being made but the pull-through of technology into deployable systems needs to be faster and to happen more frequently. Hopefully, the examples outlined above demonstrate the power of partnerships: government, academia and industry; working together to produce real useable systems for the benefit of the community as a whole.

If reading this article helps to trigger the realisation that some areas of work have significant crime prevention or reduction applications, it will have served its purpose.

Some useful sites

The following websites may provide useful background material. It is not an exhaustive list but there are some useful links to requirements, problems, work in hand, some of the technologies mentioned in this article and partnerships.


I am most grateful to my colleagues at the Police Scientific Development Branch of the Home Office for providing me with much of the material used in this article.

Dr Richard Lacey
Police Scientific Development Branch, The Home Office

Dick Lacey is head of PSDB’s public protection sector, a core part of the UK Home Office. He was a member of the Foresight Crime Prevention Panel and is a visiting professor in Electronic and Optical Engineering at Nottingham Trent University.

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