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Theft at construction sites is recognized as a concern by the United States as well as many other countries around the world. Estimates from the United States indicate that between one and four billion dollars’ worth of materials, tools, as well as large and small equipment are stolen every year. This type of crime occurs at a number of different places including individual house construction sites, subdivisions of homes, larger multifamily sites, and commercial sites; however, there are a number of factors that contribute to opportunities for these crimes that result in their concentration at construction sites and the areas around them. This research paper reviews the theoretical foundation and current research literature that seeks to explain why crime occurs at construction sites, the factors that contribute to these crimes, and ends with a discussion of the next steps in understanding this specialized crime type.
Some crimes have the potential to occur throughout much of the environment. For others, opportunities are less ubiquitous. Construction site theft is recognized as a concern by the United States as well as many other places around the world such as Canada, Australia, Europe, and Japan (Berg and Hinze 2005; Lambertson 2005). Estimates from the United States indicate that between one and four billion dollars worth of materials, tools, as well as large and small equipment are stolen every year (Berg and Hinze 2005; Lambertson 2005). The wide range of these estimates is attributed to the lack of reporting to both police and insurance by builders and contractors (Lambertson 2005).
In addition to property losses, there are indirect costs that are often not quantified but are important as they show the overall impact of construction site theft. They include, among others, job delays, downtime for operators, higher insurance premiums, and possible cancellation of insurance (Berg and Hinze 2005). The impact of these losses is often not borne by the construction companies themselves, but the costs are passed on to the home buyer with an average of a 1–2 % increase in the cost of a new home (Patton and Oleck 2005).
This type of crime is specific to the nature of the place where it occurs (i.e., the construction site) and may not be present in a community on a continual basis (i.e., may be seasonal or appear every few years when there is a construction boom). However, because it can be a significant problem and impacts nearly every community at some point, it is important to understand the nature of the crime and particularly how it concentrates by place. Thus, this research paper reviews the crime and place theoretical foundation and the current research and practice of construction site theft to identify the specific factors that facilitate this specialized crime.
State Of The Art: Crime Concentration At Construction Sites
There are a number of reasons why construction sites are vulnerable to theft. Opportunity theories offer a lens through which to consider how the ecology of an environment affects the likelihood of crime occurrence. They shift the attention from seeking to understand the individual criminal motivation of offenders to understanding how the convergence in time and space of an already motivated offender with a suitable target absence of a capable guardian (Cohen and Felson 1979) might affect the probability of a crime taking place.
In terms of construction site theft, guardians are people who have the ability to protect movable property of buildings by watching over them, such as construction workers, residents living nearby, and business or other people in the area. Handlers are people who know potential offenders and are in positions that allow them to monitor and/or control potential offenders’ actions. Depending on who offenders of construction crime are, the people might be construction site supervisors (for offenders who work on site) to parents (of juvenile offenders living near the construction site), among others.
Place managers are those who are responsible for the construction sites, such as construction site supervisors or the owners of construction companies. These people set rules and employ practices that can encourage or discourage crime, so that the rules, how they are enforced, and the physical environment of the place all affect the crime opportunities. An important aspect of the effect of guardians, handlers, and managers is that they have the ability to both discourage or reduce opportunities as well as encourage or increase the opportunities for crime.
Consequently, the nature of the construction site environment is an important factor in understanding patterns of construction theft because often it is something about the place, not the offenders or the victims that best explain crime (Eck et al. 2007). However, even though some practical research has found that there is not direct repeat victimization at construction site locations (Boba and Santos 2007), we know more generally from research that crime is not randomly distributed across the geographic landscape, but rather, it is concentrated in space and also by type of place (Sherman et al. 1989).
The following sections break down specific factors that may contribute to theft at construction sites and how they are generated in terms of the nature of the construction site environment, the influence of place management practices of construction companies, the timing of crimes committed at these types of places, the nature of construction site theft offenders, as well as repeat victimization at and goods stolen taken from construction sites. The factors are derived from theoretical components discussed above as well as from research results which, unfortunately, are somewhat limited. However, the factors indicate that opportunity and the nature of the place plays a significant role in construction site theft.
Nature Of The Place
A characteristic of construction sites that make them an environment different than most places where crime occurs is that they are in transition. Clarke and Eck (2005) define open or transitional environments as “areas without consistent or regular designated uses” (Step 15). They note, for example, that these types of places differ from parks that are used for a consistent purpose (i.e., recreation) by many different people even if they have not been specifically designated for such purpose. More specifically, construction sites exist only temporarily as environments where construction occurs and subsequently become residences, businesses, or other types of environments within a reasonably short amount of time. This is a key factor when considering the explanation for crime at these places.
Because of their transitional nature, construction sites are places of interest and curiosity. Those living or working near construction sites may want to examine what type of residence or business is being built near where they spend time. Others simply pass by occasionally or regularly look to see what is being built, and may even stop and walk through a site. Many of those interested likely visit the sites multiple times to see the “work in progress” and what new changes have been made since their last visit. Eventually, this curiosity may become tempting for some which may after repeated visits provoke those individuals to trespass and take property that has been left unprotected.
For example, an individual living near a residential construction site is curious about the site and begins by simply walking through the site when no one is around to see what type of house is being built, the layout, design, etc. During this first visit, the individual may notice several unused boxes of ceramic floor tile on the site. As the construction continues, the same individual visits again to check on its progress and changes to the home, and notices the same floor tile has not been used, but the floors are nearly complete. In a final visit after several days of thinking about it, the individual goes to the site one last time in the evening when no one is around with a vehicle and loads several, not all, of the unused boxes of tile and takes them home. In this case, the curiosity leads to the identification of an opportunity which in the end was too tempting for the individual to pass up, especially since the opportunity was nearby, the site was semi-private, there was minimal guardianship and no clear ownership, and the property itself was easy to take.
Another characteristic of the construction site environment is that they are places with a large number of transient employees; that is, people who conduct work for a short period of time on the site and then move on. If security is lacking and management indifferent, the temptation for these employees to take items that are improperly secured or unaccountable may be too much to resist (Fennelly 1996). For example, a construction worker who freelances for different companies and is in need of building supplies for a new job and/or newer tools and equipment may decided to take the property from a site he is working on for a day or two.
For all places, the physical environment impacts the amount of opportunities for crime (Felson and Clarke 1998). Studies of residential burglars find that burglars consider occupancy cues (e.g., presence of cars, visible residents, and noise/voices), surveillability cues (e.g., can neighbors see them), and accessibility cues (e.g., how well is the site protected with doors, fences, and locks) (Cromwell et al. 2002; White 1990). Nearly all the cues that would prevent an offender from committing a crime are lacking at construction sites (e.g., lack of neighbors, inability to lock buildings).
Additionally, research has shown that crime is more concentrated in areas with physical disorder, such as abandoned buildings, broken streetlights, junk-filled and unmowed vacant lots, litter, graffiti, and the visible consequences of vandalism (Skogan 1990) because it indicates to potential offenders that residents have little attachment to their neighborhood, symbolizing to offenders a lack of capable place guardianship.
Construction sites are locations that, by the mere nature of their existence, are in physical disarray. With so many different types of work being conducted on a site (e.g., building construction, electrical wiring, plumbing, finishing) by different contractors for different periods of time, construction materials (e.g., lumber, dry wall, pipes) are often lying around because they are delivered and sit on the site for a time before installation. Even after work has been done, there can be a significant amount of scraps and other materials that appear as trash but could be, in fact, valuable.
Another key characteristic of construction site environments is the fact that various contractors, sub-contractors, and even sub-sub-contractors often come and go from the site and have minimal concern for the appearance and well-being of the site. As Newman (1972) asserts, defensible space is a place that allows inhabitants or users of the space to become key agents in ensuring its security. On a construction site, there is not always a clear feeling of ownership; that is, the construction company is not the true owner of the land or what is being built, but is temporarily overseeing it during the construction process. Therefore, it may also not be clear who is responsible for protecting the site and its materials from theft. For example, there are cases in which the builders have required homeowners to purchase insurance to cover any theft or damage that occurs during the home construction period, before they even own the home (Boba and Santos 2007).
Because construction sites are transitional, the different stages of construction, such as clearing the lot, laying a foundation, installing the roof, installing doors and windows making the building lockable, create different stages of opportunity for theft. Different materials are necessary and vulnerable at different times. In addition, the speed of construction can affect the amount of time the construction site is at risk. That is, the less time the construction takes, the less opportunity for theft since the property is vulnerable for shorter periods of time.
Additionally, construction sites are not yet occupied by residents or employees, so they lack the guardianship an inhabited home or office building would provide. Some sites may be isolated from view by being set back from the road, on large lots, or next to nonresidential land (e.g., parks, waterways, wooded areas), which reduces the chance that neighbors or passersby will see or hear a thief. Finally, construction sites may not have fencing or other mechanisms to protect the location from trespassers. Property left on the site is often left unprotected lying on the ground, in open garages, or in a partially constructed, unsecurable buildings. Some property, such as air conditioning units, can be vulnerable even when it is installed because it is located outside the building, virtually unprotected.
Productivity is a key component of the construction business (Lambertson 2005), and the management practices that maximize productivity may also maximize opportunities for crime. For example, delivering appliances or other materials several days or weeks before installation ensures that there is no delay once installers are there; however, this practice increases the time and opportunity for theft, especially in a building or a site that is not secured. Another example is a lax policy of tracking tools. Builders and contractors save time by not checking them in and out daily, but lack of control and oversight may give employees the perception the builders do not care if they are taken and decrease their perceptions of being caught (Berg and Hinze 2005). Finally, many builders see theft as a cost of business (i.e., trust luck and swallow any losses) (Clarke and Goldstein 2002) and cover their losses by simply increasing the price of a home or incorporating it into the price of a construction bid. Thus, there is little incentive for improving their practices.
Timing Of Construction Site Theft
Unlike residential and commercial burglaries, there is little research that indicates when construction site theft predominantly occurs. Opportunities for theft at construction sites indicate that thefts could occur any time of day because of the lack guardianship and the large number of workers that frequent a site. In addition, because there are typically no witnesses to construction site theft, the exact time of occurrence is difficult to determine. However, one study found from interviewing several CEO’s and managers of construction companies that they believed the majority of thefts occurred during the day in the late afternoon hours after the site manager had visited the construction site the last time for the day (Boba and Santos 2007).
The stage of building when a construction site theft occurs may be more important than the time of day it occurs. For example, logic tells us that the most vulnerable time for theft at a single-family home construction site may be between when the house is securable (i.e., has windows and doors that are lockable) and when the home is handed over to the resident since a large number of desirable types of property (e.g., washers, dryers, refrigerators, heating and cooling units, etc.) are in the home. Construction also can vary by area of the country, by national and local economics, and by weather which may cause crime at these locations to also vary.
Nature Of Construction Site Theft Offenders
Research on burglars in general indicates that they engage in crime because of the desire for money, the ease of the crime, and influence of others (Piquero and Rengert 1999). They do not tend to think about the consequences of their actions, or they believe there is little to no chance of getting caught. They often know their victims, who may include casual acquaintances, neighborhood residents, people for whom they have provided a service, or friends or relatives of close friends. Although very little research has been done on construction site thieves, researchers group them into three categories in order to understand the motivations and opportunities they exploit (Boba and Santos 2007, 2008; Clarke and Goldstein 2002).
Amateur opportunists are offenders who live near or travel near construction sites, see movable property on the site, and take it based on an immediate assessment of rewards and risks. They do not necessarily plan their crimes and tend to seize the opportunity at hand. However, they may also take property after seeing it unprotected for a long period of time since they may drive by or live near the construction site. These offenders might be more likely to take smaller, generic materials and tools at times when workers are not present. The example previously mentioned of the neighbor taking the box of tile is an example of this type of offender.
Professional thieves are offenders who make a living at theft and selling high dollar stolen goods. They spend time planning their crimes and tend to have intricate knowledge of the environment and areas where the crimes are committed because the reward is very high. For example, Boise law enforcement agencies arrested two men and recovered $750,000 worth of material and equipment stolen over 7 months, including tractors, trailers, generators, and power units (Anderson 1999). In another case, a Detroit man had rented lockers to store a large amount of stolen property and had nearly 200 thieves working for him, even filling orders (Bouffard 2004). Unfortunately, there is no research on the nature of professional construction thieves to know how they differ from professional thieves of other crimes or why and how they commit crimes in this environment.
Insiders are a third type of offender who are or work for builders and contractors or rival companies. They are called “insiders” either because they have knowledge of a specific builder’s construction practices and access to keys, tools, and materials, or they have more general knowledge of construction practices, such as how to disassemble an air conditioning unit and handler and what stage of building appliances or other desirable items are typically delivered and installed. Research shows that generally, a high percentage of employee thefts begin with opportunities that are regularly presented to them, which is similar to the example given about the amateur opportunist (Fennelly 1996). The inside knowledge and the benefits of acquiring materials and tools for free make these crimes very rewarding for these types of offenders. The type of offender that falls into this category of “insiders” appears in some research to be the most prevalent of the three. In Boba and Santos (2007), interviews with builders reveal that they believe that employee or “insider” theft was a significant problem. The same study found that the nature of the crimes, the type of property taken also indicated the prevalence of insider offenders.
Repeat Victimization And Goods Stolen
Repeat victimization is an important consideration because it indicates systematic patterns of opportunity that exist for a particular type of crime and identifying when repeat victimization is occurring assists in prioritizing crime prevention efforts (Farrell and Pease 1993). For example, one of the biggest predictors of residential burglary is whether the home has been burglarized in the past (Farrell and Pease 1993). However, repeat victimization for construction site theft does not seem to be as obvious as it is for other types of crime because construction sites are transitional places. First, victimization may be difficult to determine since the place starts as a construction site but eventually becomes a residence, business, or other type of place which means the systematic opportunities that are the basis for identifying repeat victimization also change. Furthermore, the change of the place from one type of environment to another makes the crimes themselves hard to aggregate and count since they will be coded as different crimes (e.g., construction site theft, residential burglary, commercial burglary).
In examining repeat victimization of construction site theft, researchers have found it is more fruitful to focus on aggregating crime by individual builders or type of property rather than by individual place (Boba and Santos 2007). For example, a comprehensive study in Port St. Lucie, FL found that only 12 of 254 individual sites were burglarized twice within 1 year but that 20% of the builders were named victims for nearly 70 % of the burglaries (Boba and Santos 2007). This implies that repeat victimization is explained by the general practices and policies of a particular builder, such as systematic delivery lag times, use of fencing, and storage of materials, rather than the specific opportunities present at a specific construction site. Repeat victimization might also be explained considering virtual repeats (Pease 1998), which are places that are virtually identical, although not necessarily close, to one another, because they share some of the same physical characteristics as well as place management practices. Examples are electronics retail stores with similar store layouts and materials used or residential homes that are designed and built by the same builder.
In terms of goods stolen, property taken in construction site theft is rarely recovered (Berg and Hinze 2005). Property types that are stolen include building materials such as drywall, plywood, and studs; appliances, such as refrigerators, ovens, air conditioners; construction equipment and tools, such as drills, saws, generators, cement mixers; pool equipment; internal cosmetic materials such as carpet, toilets, sinks, ceramic tile, and other flooring; as well as other property (Anderson 1999; Berg and Hinze 2005; Boba and Santos 2007; Clarke and Goldstein 2002). Yet, the type of goods that are taken may indicate the motivations of the offender. Amateur opportunists may take generic building materials they need to repair or use in their own homes, such as drywall, lumber, or ladders. Professional thieves may take property they know they can sell in an unregulated second-hand market (e.g., the Internet), such as appliances ceramic tiles, faucets, toilets, doors, and windows (Bradley 2005). Insiders may be more likely to take materials, tools, and small equipment they have access to on a regular basis or items that take some skill or effort to remove.
Related to the discussion of “insiders,” the high cost of construction materials induces some people to steal materials from construction sites in order to reduce their own building costs. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the price of construction materials. For example, from January 2003 to May 2004, the price index of 11 key construction materials more than doubled (Bradley 2005; Bouffard 2004; Scarcella 2005) and the price of precious metals, such as copper, fluctuates as well. Increases such as these create incentive for contractors as well as individuals to take materials from construction sites to save money themselves or trade the materials for cash (Sidebottom et al. 2011).
Controversies And Key Issues
There are a number of considerations that make it difficult to conclude generally about the nature of thefts at construction sites. First, patterns of victimization are difficult to determine because of data coding. Because construction sites are transitional and become commercial, residential or other types of places, crimes that occur at different stages of development are coded differently, thus are difficult to aggregate. Even something as simple as searching all crimes at a particular address may be difficult for construction sites as many sites may not have addresses when the crimes occur or their addresses may change once construction is complete. Second, in general, thieves are rarely caught (FBI 2011) and even though rates for construction theft are not recorded nationally, those taking from construction sites seem to be caught even less often (Boba and Santos 2007) making it difficult to understand who the offenders are and why they are committing these crimes. Third, the business of construction varies significantly by area of the country, by national and local economics, and by weather; therefore, construction site theft might also vary by these factors.
In addition to these concerns, there are a number of questions that still need to be answered in more detail to further the understanding of theft at construction sites. They include, but are not limited to:
- How do levels of crime vary by type of construction location (e.g., single family residential, multi-family residential, commercial, retail, public roadways)?
- How do levels of crime compare to other types of public sites (e.g. parks, universities or hospitals)?
- Are the “professional” thieves specialized and focus only on construction sites or are they “professional” offenders for other types of crime as well?
- How do current crime recording practices affect the evidence that we have about this crime and how can they be improved?
- Are construction sites that cluster spatially and are of a specific type (e.g., bars, homes, industrial) at a higher risk for crime?
- What is the rate of “virtual” repeat victimization of theft at construction sites?
Bringing together the previous discussion of the nature of construction site theft and the opportunities for this crime to occur, several key conclusions can be deduced from the theory and research results. The first is that the mere nature of a construction site and the use of the area and the area surrounding the construction site is typically in disarray, is in transition, and appears to have no owner. All of these characteristics are relatively unique to crime place and are significant contributors to increased opportunities for any type of crime at construction sites. In addition, construction sites themselves are typically concentrated spatially, especially when they are managed by the same construction company, thus it follows that the crime would also be spatially concentrated.
Secondly, place management practices are likely the most important factors in understanding and subsequently preventing theft at construction sites. Theory indicates and research shows that practices for securing property and equipment, managing employees and subcontractors, and providing guardianship for sites (e.g., security) have a significant impact on which sites are more vulnerable than others. Typically, these place management practices vary by builder/construction company rather than by individual construction site, which is supported by research that shows that repeat victimization tends to occur, not by individual address or area, but by individual builder.
Finally, there are several types of offenders that find construction sites appealing based on the fact that the construction sites are places of interest and employment (e.g., amateur opportunists and insiders) or are targeted because of the availability of high dollar items (e.g., professional thieves). The most prevalent type of offender seems to be the insider because they have the most knowledge of management practices and activity space, the most direct motivation for committing these crimes, and, therefore, have the most opportunities to commit the crimes.
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