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Crimes Against Property - Burglary

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The UCR Program defines burglary as "the unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony (serious crime) or theft." UCR further subdivides burglary into three categories: forcible entry, accounting for about 63 percent of total burglaries; unlawful entry where no force is used, about 30 percent of burglaries; and attempted forcible entry, for about 6.5 percent of burglaries.

Forcible entry, for example, would be getting into a locked house by breaking a window or door. Force is not directed against a victim but against the structure. The fact that an intruder breaks into a private home, however, puts the home's occupants into a threatening, potentially dangerous situation. For this reason burglary is considered a more serious crime than larceny-theft.

Unlawful entry where no force is used could involve walking into an unlocked house or opening an unlocked tool shed for the purpose of stealing items. This middle category of burglary removes force as a required factor for a charge of burglary. An example of attempted forcible entry is simply an unsuccessful attempt to force one's way into a locked structure.

There are different levels of seriousness for a burglary charge. The most serious kind involves forcefully breaking into an occupied home during the night. The least serious burglary offense involves a daytime unlawful and unforced entry into a commercial building or structure that does not have occupants.

Criminal studies show that burglars often have drug habits they support with their activities. Burglars also frequently engage in larceny-theft related activities like shoplifting and may have a history of assault. Approximately one-third of burglaries are carried out by juveniles under the age of eighteen years old. A need for money to buy drugs is the most common motive. These youthful burglars often break into homes and apartment complexes in poor neighborhoods hoping to find cash. While many burglaries are carried out without much planning or forethought, successful, skilled burglars often go through an apprentice-like stage of building their burglary careers.

There are different levels of seriousness for a burglary charge. The most serious kind involves forcefully breaking into an occupied home during the night. (© L. Clarke/Corbis)

Professional burglars, those who make a living from burglary, often learn breaking and entering skills from others, such as relatives or friends. They must learn the technical skills of opening locked doors and windows, disarming alarm systems, avoiding video cameras, and opening safes without destroying the contents. These are all techniques learned from experienced burglars. Learning how to pick targets with high-priced goods is also an important part of successful burglaries.

Professionals often work in burglary rings or groups so although they are criminals, they must be able to work together, to organize as a dependable group, and delegate or assign various tasks. Various duties include observing a home or building to learn the habits of its occupants; finding the best locations and times for entry; possibly getting into the target ahead of time to decide which items to steal; the actual break in itself; transporting the stolen goods; and knowing escape routes. Successful professional burglars must also have regular fences for their goods. The term "fence" is frequently used to describe people who buy stolen property at prices below the normal retail price and then sell it for a profit.

Favorite commercial targets for professional burglars are retail stores where all preparation can be carried out by simply entering the store during business hours, checking the location of certain items, and finding if any alarms or anti-theft equipment is in use. A burglar may sometimes strike the same store several times. Favorite residential targets are upscale homes when occupants are away. Burglars will often pose as repair or maintenance workers to avoid neighborhood suspicion.

Neighborhood Watch

From 1930 to the early 1970s the nation's police departments took full responsibility for protecting communities and neighborhoods from crime. Private residents played little role in crime prevention. By the late 1960s, however, property and violent crimes began increasing at a dramatic rate. In 1965 U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) declared a "war on crime" and assembled the Crime Commission to guide the nation.

The commission urged American citizens to take a more active role in protecting themselves, primarily by installing more locks and alarms in their residences. In 1973 a national commission recommended an expanded role for citizens, such as forming citizen groups to organize and prevent crime in their neighborhoods. A well-known program to emerge from this effort was Neighborhood Watch.

Neighborhood Watch programs consist of residents who watch out for suspicious activity in their neighborhoods and notify the police if they spot criminal activity. The participants exchange phone numbers, receive training from local police officers, and learn how to report suspicious activity. Neighborhood Watch signs are posted in the area alerting potential criminals that a neighborhood alert system is in place. Local watch groups will often inspect their neighborhoods for ways to increase security. In some high crime neighborhoods, citizens expanded their vigilance to look for drug trafficking as well as property crimes.

These efforts were so successful nationally that, by the end of the twentieth century, 40 percent of Americans lived in communities with Neighborhood Watch programs. The majority of residents in Watch communities were active participants in their programs. Neighborhood Watch has become the largest crime prevention program in the nation, with more than fifty million people estimated to be involved.

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