Street Crime and Informal Surveillance Essay


The most known and feared type of crime is street crime as it encompasses all types of criminal offenses, which happen in public places (Bellair, 2000). Street crime has a negative psychological and economic effect on communities (Silverman, 2004), hence this issue should be addressed both by the government and the community to achieve maximal result. Surveillance is an important dimension of community actions aimed at reducing and preventing street crime. Surveillance in the broad sense can be defined as the process of monitoring the activities, behaviors and other relevant information pertaining to the members of the community aimed at protecting, managing, influencing or directing community members.

In this research the concept of surveillance will be considered in relation to street crime. The level of surveillance in the community is interrelated with the level and dynamics of street crime (Youstin, 2011). Surveillance can be formal – if there are organized individuals who have a duty of surveillance (this duty is commonly a part of their job responsibilities) and informal, or natural, which is implemented by all individuals as a consequence of being a member of the community and/or being in a particular point or space (Bellair, 2000). The purpose of this research paper is to explore the role of informal surveillance in the context of reducing and preventing street crime. In this paper, theoretical basis for informal surveillance will be considered along with the factors influencing informal surveillance. The outcomes of this research paper will be theoretical and policy recommendations aimed at reducing and preventing street crime with the help of informal surveillance.

Current inquiry

There are different approaches to defining the concept of informal surveillance. Bellair formulated the basic definition of informal surveillance as referring to (2000): “casual, but vigilant, observation of activity occurring on the street and active safeguarding of property” (p.139). Informal social controls and person-environment interactions have a direct influence on the decisions that a member of the society makes; the decision to commit a crime is therefore strongly influenced by the absence or presence of the mechanisms of social control (Byrne & Taxman, 2006). Furthermore, informal surveillance can be viewed as the indicator, which shows the residents’ level of attention to social activity in the community (Bellair, 2000).

Informal surveillance and neighborhood prevention of street crime are commonly grounded in the theory of social disorganization. This theory states that structural factors in the neighborhood create social capital, which in its turn, stimulates or inhibits (if there is a lack of social capital) the development of social control (Youstin, 2011). The prevalent view of informal surveillance is the perception of this social control strategy, as it combines reporting suspicious cases to the police and implementing community surveillance. However, it is possible to outline an in-depth view of informal surveillance based on the combination of social disorganization theory and restorative justice: along with the above-mentioned behaviors, informal surveillance also includes peacemaking, shaming and re-integrative processes (Warner, Beck & Ohmer, 2010). In the context of this research, the latter (expanded) concept of informal surveillance will be used hence both the direct and implicit effects of informal surveillance will be considered.

The major question of this research is the following: what actions should be undertaken to prevent and reduce street crime with the help of informal surveillance. The goal of this research is to explore the concept of informal surveillance and its relationship to other forms of surveillance, to review existing theoretical framework which relate to informal surveillance and to review the factors which influence either the informal surveillance itself or its efficiency in addressing street crime. Informal surveillance is a context-dependent social concept, and thus the goal of this research is also to review the frameworks encompassing informal surveillance and the related factors. The outcomes of this research are: a) recommendations on further research devoted to studying the impact of informal surveillance in addressing street crime, and b) practical policy recommendations aimed at reducing and preventing street crime with the help of informal surveillance and related strategies.

Literature review

The concept of surveillance

Surveillance is an efficient method of crime prevention (Welsh, Mudge & Farrington, 2010). There are different methods of surveillance used to address street crime such as: close-circuit television, security guards, improved street lighting, place managers, etc. While the former two methods can be classified as formal methods of surveillance, the latter two methods relate to informal surveillance. According to Welsh, Mudge & Farrington (2010), informal surveillance is especially important because low rates of informal social surveillance (or the so-called collective efficacy) are linked with high rates of street crime. The study of Welsh & Farrington (2004) devoted to comparing the efficiency of formal and informal (natural) social controls (CCTV camera and enhanced informal surveillance emerging due to improved street lighting) depicts that these types of surveillance are comparable and have a similar effect on reducing crime rates in the neighborhood.

Systemic crime model and informal surveillance

From a theoretical perspective, the systemic crime model employs surveillance for effectively preventing and reducing street crime.  According to this model, there exists three levels of social control – public, parochial and private (Wright, Pratt, Lowenkamp & Latessa, 2013). The community should reinforce crime control and prevention methods at each of these levels in order to suppress crime and to establish effective approach to policing. At the level of public control the major role is played by the agencies and groups located outside of the area or neighborhood (Youstin, 2011). At the parochial control level, local institutions and community organizations such as churches, schools and volunteer organizations, play the major role. At this level, the structure and characteristics of the community determine the efficiency of crime prevention. The level of private control encompasses informal social groups, which exist in the community; at this level, crime control and prevention is performed with the help of withdrawal or allocation of social support (Wright, Pratt, Lowenkamp & Latessa, 2013). The dimensions of informal control include direct intervention, movement governing rules and informal control (surveillance). Informal surveillance performed at this level is expected to have a positive impact on the dynamics of street crime. The implications of the systemic crime model depict the relationships between informal control (surveillance) and street crime as illustrated by Fig. 1.

Figure 1. Application of systemic crime model (Bellair, 2000)

Reverse relationship: impact of street crime on informal surveillance

There is a reverse impact of street crime on informal surveillance – according to the theory of community decline, informal surveillance decreases along with the growth of street crime because of increased fear and risk perceptions of the residents. Bellair’s (2000) study analyzes reciprocal relationships between street crime and informal surveillance and shows that there is a strong inverse relationship between such crimes as robbery and stranger assault and the level of informal surveillance; however, Bellair (2000) also finds that burglary is not affected by informal surveillance; there is also no effect of burglary on informal surveillance when the variable for robbery/stranger assault is not controlled. However, there is small positive effect of burglary on surveillance when robbery/stranger assault variable is controlled.

Overall, Bellair (2000) arrives to the conclusion that street crime has a more significant impact on informal surveillance than informal surveillance has on street crime; in addition to this, Bellair (2000) determines that risk perceptions of residents are influenced by the level of street crime, and have an inverse impact on informal surveillance; it is also discovered in Bellair’s study (2000) that residential and neighboring stability has a positive impact on informal surveillance, and if the perception of risk is included into the model, there is a positive effect of informal surveillance on crime reduction (Bellair, 2000).

The role of risk perceptions and their impact on informal surveillance is supported and expanded by the findings of Silverman (2004), which indicate that street crime is related to the reputational concerns and social connectedness. Silverman (2004) finds that social determinants of street crime are driven by social fundamentals, so the connectedness of the society might contribute to the development of a street crime culture in the presence of an appropriate social environment. In the context of this reputational theory, informal surveillance is a valuable instrument because it can act as a counter-force and drive the reputational aspect of street crime development down.

The interaction of CPTED strategy and informal surveillance

Informal surveillance is a powerful social factor influencing the occurrences of street crime; on the other hand, informal surveillance is also closely linked to the CPTED approach (crime prevention through environmental design) (Cozens, Saville & Hillier, 2005). In the context of CPTED, surveillance is integrated as a part of a broader strategy aimed at street crime prevention and reduction (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Surveillance and CPTED model (Cozens, Saville & Hillier, 2005)

Research devoted to studying the impact of CPTED principles and variables on crime rates and victimization in the community shows that the neighborhoods where CPTED model was implemented have lower burglary victimization and higher income rates (Hedayati Marzbali, Abdullah, Razak & Maghsoodi Tilaki, 2012). It is determined that additional socioeconomic variables such as the average duration of house ownership and house type contribute to the rate of social control and surveillance in the neighborhood (Hedayati Marzbali, Abdullah, Razak & Maghsoodi Tilaki, 2012). Similar findings are reported by Cantillon (2006): it is determined that structural characteristics of a neighborhood have both direct and indirect influence on the rates of delinquency and on the rates of prosocial activity. In particular, the direct influence is the following: advantageous characteristics of neighborhoods significantly correlate with more intensive rates of prosocial activity, victimization and delinquency rates (Cantillon, 2006). The examples of indirect influence of community characteristics on prosocial activity are the improved level of community social organization, improved parenting practices, improved treatment of the delinquent peers, enhanced informal controls and informal surveillance

The findings of Cozens, Saville & Hillier (2005) indicate that although environmental design is effective for addressing street crime, the data on CPTED efficiency are ambiguous and there is evidence that interventions different from CPTED are less efficient than more conventional methods. However, Cozens, Saville & Hillier (2005) find that particular place-based interventions such as fencing, design changes aimed at enhancing visibility and staff surveillance lead to the reduction of robbery rates between 30% and 84% in different neighborhoods. Evidently, informal surveillance and CPTED are closely interrelated and these methods should be used an integral approach to better address street crime.

Informal surveillance in different urban contexts

The specifics of informal surveillance in the context of urban nightlife, is explored by van Liempt & van Aalst (2012). These researchers note that nightlife revitalizes and improves the economical situation in communities. From this perspective there is a positive contribution of areas where nightlife is active to communities. On the other hand, there are negative social consequences in the areas with active urban nightlife such as noise, drinking, hanging out in groups, etc. Although the typical response to such factors is the increase of formal policing, van Liempt & van Aalst (2012) emphasize that it is efficient to tackle this issue from the perspective of the theory of “broken windows” and to focus on maintaining social order instead of preventing crime. In this context, informal surveillance has an advantage because it increases the level of security and trust similarly to formal surveillance, but does not have a negative impact on those who dive into the nightlife to experience risk and excitement.

A notable series of researches conducted by Kajalo and Lindblom studied the impact of formal and informal surveillance on grocery store crimes and employee security (2010a, 2010b, 2011). They have determined that informal surveillance is more efficient: the investments into informal surveillance are more likely to make employees and consumers of grocery stores to feel more secure (Kajalo & Lindblom, 2010a). The researchers find that retailers should focus on informal surveillance to reduce the likelihood of crime and to increase the sense of security among the relevant stakeholders. The most efficient activities aimed at preventing shoplifting, vandalism, disturbance and other crimes in the stores are the activity of the personnel and the presence of security guards (Kajalo and Lindblom, 2011). In addition to this, environmental factors such as comfort, light and cleanliness of the store are identified as factors influencing the sense of security in the store (Kajalo and Lindblom, 2010b). Despite the evident usefulness of the results, the study conducted by Kajalo and Lindblom (2010a, 2010b, 2011) has a significant limitation – they have only studied the opinions of retailers. It will be reasonable to continue this research and to conduct the analysis of the opinions of employees and customers pertaining to informal surveillance.


While both formal and informal surveillance are widely used and both are integrated into the model of systemic crime control, informal surveillance has significant advantages over the formal one. There are many opponents of formal control systems, and it is often hard to distinguish where the border between the legitimate level of formal surveillance and the violation of privacy is. For example, Shenk (2006) strongly argues that the increase of intensiveness of formal surveillance violates the rights of the citizens, and the citizens should be openly warned in real time that they are being surveyed. Furthermore, Shenk (2006) states that citizens should have a right to refuse being surveyed, and should be able to keep their data and presence confidential. The focus on nurturing and enhancing informal surveillance is an efficient solution to the emerging social protest to formal surveillance.

It should be noted that there are numerous factors of environmental design, which are directly interrelated with informal surveillance. These factors should be taken into account while adjusting community policies and stimulating informal surveillance. In particular, Welsh, Mudge & Farrington (2010) find that defensible space practices such as pruning trees to make the area more “watchable”, building of public footpaths in important places and removing objects obscuring lines of sight contribute to the increase of informal social control; there is also evidence that improved street lighting increases the quality of informal surveillance. Welsh, Mudge & Farrington (2010) have also found a psychological link between improved design of the environment, the related social dynamics (e.g. cleanliness, accuracy and good reputation of a particular place) and informal surveillance, driven by the increasing pride and cohesion among the residents of more advanced areas. This fact proves that implicit effects of informal surveillance linked to expanded understanding of this concept play an important role in addressing street crime and enhancing the environment.

It is important to mention that informal surveillance has different impacts on different types of street crime. Policing organizations should pay specific attention to this fact, as well as researchers, because this phenomenon might affect the correctness of measuring the effect of updated surveillance policies. According to the research of Rhineberger-Dunn & Carlson (2011), there are two different sets of factors that influence informal surveillance: the residents willingness to exercise informal control and the quality of social relationships facilitating the residents’ ability to use social controls. The factors shaping social control, according to Rhineberger-Dunn & Carlson (2011) include variables such as social cohesion, police-citizen relationships, informal control and formal control; moreover, the researchers find that informal control and surveillance have a strong impact on violent crime victimization, but with regard to property crime, formal control is more efficient. Therefore, for informal control and informal surveillance to be efficient, formal controls should be properly implemented and linked with the community.

Informal surveillance is a social strategy and it is likely that this strategy reaches its maximal efficiency while being reinforced by other social strategies. In particular, it is highly important to combine both individual and community approaches in determining the strategy of street crime reduction and prevention. Byrne & Taxman (2006) find that the approaches based on surveillance and on treatment should be combined, and instead of choosing one of these perspectives, society should combine these strategies and employ the best outcomes of both of these directions of thought. In the context of this research, the position of Byrne and Taxman can also be reinforced by the systemic crime theory, which illustrates the role of social controls on different levels. Therefore, a cost-efficient and probably the most socially efficient approach is to stimulate informal surveillance and the associated factors, to develop two other levels of social control – public and parochial, and to apply correctional treatment (with potential re-entry into the society) for existing criminals. At the same time, Byrne & Taxman (2006) state that community strategies are important to secure long-term social change. Hence, the suggested combination of strategic directions should be implemented with the emphasis on social control and informal surveillance, as the factors for shaping the social environment in the long-term perspective.

Policy and research implications

Theoretical implications

The direction of theoretical research which has promising perspectives in the context of reducing and preventing street crime is the study of the interaction between three components of the systemic crime model – private, parochial and public.  In particular, it is recommended to study the interaction of informal surveillance with parochial and public levels of social control, and the extent to which these variables influence each other. In this research, it was determined that informal surveillance influences the characteristics of the community (e.g. pride and connectedness). Therefore, there is an interaction between private and parochial control level in the systemic crime model. For future studies, it is recommended to identify the states of other social control variables, which maximize the effectiveness of informal surveillance and its impact on street crime.

Informal surveillance is also an important theoretical component of the social disorganization theory, and from this perspective it can be interpreted as a mediating variable in the social disorganization model. Earlier versions of the social disorganization model were based on macro-level components such as heterogeneity of the community, socioeconomic status and residential mobility (Sampson & Groves, 1989). Later on, this theory was expanded and new variables mediating the relationship between the conventional social disorganization factors and crime rates were introduced; these variables were social capital (collective efficacy) and family disruption (Sampson & Groves, 1989). The findings of this research indicate that informal surveillance is directly linked to social capital and represents a sub-dimension of collective efficacy. It is proposed to add informal surveillance as a sub-factor characterizing social capital and therefore influencing the rate of crime in neighborhoods.

Implications for future study

It should be noted that there are few studies exploring the direct relationship between street crime and informal surveillance, although there are many theoretical models which include private (informal) control as a variable influencing the level of crime in the community (Silverman, 2004; Cozens, Saville & Hillier, 2005; Wright, Pratt, Lowenkamp & Latessa, 2013). Furthermore, little attention is paid to the reverse impact of street crime on informal surveillance and on the level of private control in particular, although there is an evident relationship, which is driven by risk perceptions and expectations of the residents. It is difficult to measure the impact of informal surveillance on street crime due to numerous confounding factors and the overall complexity of the considered social phenomenon. Therefore, it would be useful to conduct a longitudinal bi-directional study exploring cause-and-effect relationships between street crime and informal surveillance.

It is recommended that this study include two steps. At step one, the level and quality of informal surveillance should be measured, as well as the level and statistics of street crime. After that, public policies and interventional aimed at reducing street crime should be implemented and the above-mentioned variables should be measured every year during 5 years after enacting the policies. An additional direction of research is the approach to enhancing informal surveillance in the community and methods, which can be used by public organizations to stimulate this type of surveillance. There is a lack of appropriate research in this area. The help of public organizations in enhancing private control in the community would be invaluable in the context of addressing street crime.

At the second step of the proposed study, it is recommended to increase the level and efficiency of informal surveillance by educating the residents on the importance of this kind of surveillance, providing safe methods of calling the police and communicating positive examples illustrating the role of informal surveillance. At this step, the level of street crime and informal surveillance should be measured along with the dynamics of street crime and compared with the previous changes, during the five years after enacting the policies and making the relevant interventions. Such action-based studies combined with the actions aimed at the prevention and reduction of street crime will have a practical impact in the form of positive impact on the community and theoretical impact showing the place of informal surveillance in the strategy of combating street crime.

Policy implications

From a practical point of view, it is necessary to ensure that formal controls in the neighborhood provide opportunities for efficient informal surveillance, and that the residents are not at risk while exhibiting social control behaviors. Efficiency and integration of formal control are prerequisites for efficient social control and for informal surveillance in particular. It is necessary to pay extreme attention to neighborhoods with low socioeconomic parameters and to the communities with high level of heterogeneity. The influence of these structural factors inhibits the development of social control and informal surveillance, and stimulates the growth of delinquency, criminal behaviors and victimization.

From a community perspective, it is recommended to develop the propensity towards informal surveillance in the community. For this, it is recommended to educate community residents about the importance of informal surveillance and its role in maintaining neighborhood safety, helping the residents “identify and establish community norms that support prosocial behavior and mutual trust” (Warner, Beck & Ohmer, 2010, p.366), facilitating the ability of residents to intervene in a supportive and respectful manner, and creating social capital with the help of different strategies of community organizing (e.g. CTPED). CTPED and informal surveillance strategies should be aligned and combined to maintain neighborhood safety, reduce and prevent street crime.



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[Accessed: June 30, 2022] (2016) The terms offer and acceptance [Online].
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[Accessed: June 30, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: June 30, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: June 30, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: June 30, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

[Accessed: June 30, 2022]
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