One of my favorite movies is the Princess Bride. I love the part when Inigo Montoya replies to Vizzini’s use of the word “inconceivable” with, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” After a decade of experience working, teaching, and writing about risk management, I find that I frequently say that same thing when I hear other people talking about “deterrents.”
The magnitude of how misunderstood this term is can be reflected in a meme that floats around every so often. It is typically titled the redneck security system, southern security system, or something similar. The instructions say to go to a local thrift store and buy the biggest men’s work boots you can find. Place them on your front porch along with several Guns & Ammo and NRA magazines. Then put a few giant dog dishes next to the boots and magazines. Lastly, leave a note on your front door that reads, “Hey Bubba, Big Jim, Duke, Slim and I went to the gun store for some more ammo. Back in an hour. Don’t mess with the pit bulls, they attacked the mailman this morning and messed him up real bad. I don’t think that Killer took part it in but it was hard to tell from all the blood. P.S. I locked all four of them in the house. Better wait outside.”
Having family from the moonshine hills of Tennessee, I find it hysterical because it describes the front porches of some of my relatives. However, the reality sets in when I realize there is a large percentage of the population that actually thinks this sounds like a valid security tactic for their upper-middle-classneighborhood. Even more disturbing is hearing people brag about actually employing similar tactics for their home or personal security. Anyone who has a security alarm company sign in his or her front yard and no security alarm is guilty. It is past time we put this myth to rest and actually explain this thing called a deterrent.
In the book, I wrote with Grant Cunningham, “Praying Safe: The professional approach to protecting faith communities”, we discuss the unpredictability of deterrents several times. In one example, we speak about how some groups have highly visible uniformed security or law enforcement in parking lots. We point out that this has the potential to deter some non-violent crimes such as vandalism and break-ins. Yet, we point out that the presence of a uniformed person may also have an opposite and undesired effect of provoking or encouraging someone to commit a violent crime.
Are they a rational person?
A deterrent is a two-edged sword. On one hand, something that might deter a rational person might encourage an irrational person. We have to understand that a rational person will do their own risk-based calculation on their perceived success of a particular action. Just like anyone, a rational criminal will weigh the action against the cost/benefit and make an assessment. If the risk of being caught or injured is too high, they will likely be deterred. If it appears the risk of being caught or injured is low, and the reward is high enough, it’s game on. We sometimes refer to this as criminals going after low hanging fruit.
The problem is, not all the criminals we encounter are rational. Even criminals that are typically rational can behave irrationally when under the influence of drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, or a combination of those. It is difficult if not impossible to predict if a criminal is going to be rational or irrational and if something will actually deter them. At best, many deterrents are wild guesses based on what would deter a rational person like you and me.
That rational person might be deterred by the fear of an increased chance of being caught or injured. Yet again, we have the same problem of unreliability; we don’t all think the same and not all of us are in a rational state of mind. What we “fear” varies from person to person and even varies depending on the state of mind of each person at a given time. This is why deter is not something true risk managers will focus on directly. It is, rather, an added bonus from safeguards that are more reliable (which we will outline shortly).
What safeguards are predictable and still acts as a deterrent?
The purpose of a safeguard is explained in detail in our book. We point out that the distance a criminal has to travel to execute an attack has been noted to be a deterrent for some rational criminals. This is mainly due to the increased risk of being caught (note, fear). By delaying access to the target, a rational person may decide the benefit isn’t worth the cost. What is unique about safeguards that delay is they also disrupt the success and damage of the criminal’s attack. Regardless if the person is rational or not, the safeguard does its intended purpose of delaying.
For instance, let’s consider someone that puts a sign in their yard that says, “No Trespassing.” Or even more intimidating, “Trespassers will be shot!” This safeguard will only work if it actually scares the criminal. The problem is the fear of getting caught causes some criminals to watching your house for three days prior to breaking into your house. They know you leave your house every morning at 7:20 am and the fear of being caught just is low. Even a rational criminal may ignore a sign because they call your bluff and know you aren’t sitting inside your house with a scoped rifle waiting to pick off the trespasser on your property.
So what if instead of a sign, the yard had a fence around it. At the top of the fence was a bundle of razor wire encompassing the entire perimeter of the fence. The rational criminal is going to look at that and say, “I don’t think it’s worth getting cut or caught to get into that yard.” Even if they do reason that it’s possible, the delay caused by the obstacle would significantly increase the chance of them getting caught. Now here’s where a delaying safeguard really shines! It will not only slow down the rational criminal
The reality is, we can’t predict with certainty the actions of all attackers. Because of this, we need to focus our attention away from unpredictable deterrence methods and focus on safeguards that can reliably delay and protect a target. By delaying, we increase the chances that other safeguards will intercept the criminal. If those methods, by chance, do happen to deter, well, just consider that a bonus safeguard.
Praying Safe: The professional approach to protecting faith communities
If you would like to learn more about target based risk management and how it can be used to protect houses of worship or any other soft target, get our book today!
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