The Crime Risk Kaleidoscope

By Joel M. Caplan and Leslie W. Kennedy, authors of Risk Terrain Modeling 

This blog post is reposted courtesy of the authors and in conjunction with the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences conference and American Association of Geographers conferenceTo learn more, about Risk Terrain Modeling, please visit

In our various collaborations with researchers and practitioners throughout the world, we learned … realized… from multi-city projects that the spatial dynamics of crime are not the same in different settings, even for similar crime types. Standard patterns of crime cannot be expected across study settings.

Think about this through the analogy of a kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope itself represents the particular environment, or study setting, that we are interested in examining (see Figure). The pieces of the kaleidoscope (i.e. the glass and the cylinder) are similar from one time to another. The mechanisms for bringing the pieces together in certain patterns (e.g. gravity, the roundness of the cylinder) operate constantly, and the characteristics of the pieces (color, value) are the same from one turn to another. The patterns that are formed, however, change with different combinations of the pieces. So, it is with crime locations that the shards of glass represent features of that environment, such as bars, fast food restaurants, grocery stores, etc. that could attract illegal behavior and create spatial vulnerabilities. Moving from study setting to study setting represents a turn of the kaleidoscope whereby the pieces come together in different ways, creating unique spatial and situational contexts that have implications for behavior at those places.

FigureCaplan.RiskTerrainModeling.Figure: The crime risk kaleidoscope illustrates how unique settings for illegal behavior form within and/or across jurisdictions as pieces come together in different ways, creating unique spatial and situational contexts for crime, as depicted by the triangular or hexagonal outlines in the figure.






When we diagnose the underlying characteristics of “hot spot” areas across jurisdictions, we realize that the characteristics of places where these crime incidents are occurring in each city are very different. As evidenced by this study, detailed in the forthcoming book, Risk Terrain Modeling: Crime Prediction and Risk Reductioneven though crime problems can cluster within cities, the ways in which features of a landscape come together to create unique behavior settings for crime is not necessarily generalizable across cities.
Caplan.RiskTerrainModelingMindful of the kaleidoscope metaphor, it is not safe to assume that a “standard” response to crime problems will provide similar returns across all environments. This is true for areas within jurisdictions and also across jurisdictions. So one crime problem, such as robberies, will not necessarily respond to a “1-size-fits-all” intervention strategy (even if the strategy worked elsewhere). Behavior settings differ, so interventions need to be tailored accordingly. Risk terrain modeling facilitates this custom analysis of crime problems at various geographic extents.

Joel M. Caplan is Associate Professor at Rutgers University, School of Criminal Justice

Leslie W. Kennedy is University Professor of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, where he served as Dean from 1998-2007.