How Do Criminals Choose Their Victims?

“In the rush to examine a criminal’s behavior, it is not difficult to become distracted by the dangling carrot of that criminal’s potential characteristics and forget about the value of understanding his victims.” – Brent Turvey


Since the late 1930’s, many have studied how a victim’s behavior, lifestyle, and interaction with the suspect(s) affect a violent outcome. However, it wasn’t really until the 1970’s that imagesMRSJXFVNvictimology truly bloomed, and we began to study how and why one individual becomes a victim while another does not. Some important questions that are addressed in victimology include: (1) Why was this particular person targeted?, (2) How were they targeted, or were they a victim of opportunity?, and (3) What are the chances of the person becoming a victim at random?

In 1978 Michael Hindeland, Michael Gottfredson, and James Garofalo presented a theory which attempted to understand how the victim’s lifestyle influenced their chances of becoming a victim. This theory has continued to be studied, and it has been shown that if the victim himself is involved in criminal activity, he is more likely to associate with others like him. Statistically, the majority of homicide victims are young (<25 years old) black males, and the majority of homicide suspects are also young black males. This is not coincidental. “Because individuals are most likely to interact with those who are similar to themselves, individual’s victimization is directly proportional to the number of characteristics they share with offenders.” So what our mothers have told us about choosing our friends carefully has actually been proven to be statistically true!

Victim-offender interaction looks at the exchange between victims and offenders, which may not even be an intentional interaction. The victim may say or do something, or be part of a particular social group that the offender views as either a threat or an opportunity. Similarly, the victim precipitation theory is based on the idea that the victim may initiate the confrontation, many times unknowingly. This theory does not imply that the victim is to blame, but instead theorizes that the victim’s actions or behaviors, intentional or not, may have contributed to them being chosen as a victim instead of the person walking behind them.

walking            Now, let’s talk about what criminals tend to look for. Much like a wild animal, a human predator wants an easy prey, which means they will seek out someone they perceive as weak, submissive, and unlikely to fight back. Because of this, any sign of strength or defiance the criminal perceives when approaching their chosen victim can in many instances be enough to turn around and look for a more suitable victim. In 1984, Betty Grayson and Morris I. Stein conducted a study to determine the selection criteria used by predators. As part of their study, they videotaped over 60 people walking on a busy New York City sidewalk without their knowledge over a three day period. This tape was later played for convicts of violent crimes who identified those they would consider desirable targets. Within seven seconds, the participants made their selections, and shockingly, there was a huge consistency.

Contrary to what many would have predicted, in this experiment, some small women were passed over for larger men; the convicts did not base their decision on race, age, size, or gender. Instead, upon further analysis of the selected victims from the tape, they realized that they all had several things in common. Those selected as victims dragged or shuffled their feet, and tended to walk slower than the flow of pedestrian traffic, lacking a sense of purpose. Also, unlike those passed over, the selected victims tended to move awkwardly, with less coordination, balance, and confidence. Finally, they all had a slumped posture and walked with their eyes to the ground; a downward gaze implies unawareness, and can be perceived as submission, making for an apparently easy target. Basically, the criminals were assessing the ease with which they could overpower the victims based on nonverbal signals which the victims were not even aware of.imagesWMGXDCT1

Brad Morrison, convicted sex offender who raped 75 women in 11 states, is quoted in Predators: Who They Are and How to Stop Them, as saying, “If I had the slightest inkling that a woman wasn’t someone I could easily handle, then I would pass right on by. Or if I thought I couldn’t control the situation, then I wouldn’t even mess with the house, much less attempt a rape there […] Like, if they had a dog, then forget it. Even a small one makes too much noise. If I saw a pair of construction boots, for example, out on the porch or on the landing, I walked right on by.”

distraction            Another common trait criminals look for is distraction. When someone is on their cell phone, listening to music, not paying attention, they are much more vulnerable. Criminals will feel much more powerful and invisible if their target is unaware of their presence. In fact, upon interviewing thousands of convicts, one study showed that 60% of criminals would move on to a different person if the person they were targeting simply made eye contact with them. In another study, in which researchers interviewed hundreds of rapists, most of them said they looked for women who were on the phone, with their hands full; basically, women who were not paying attention to their surroundings.

How do all of these statistics and studies fit into our lives? Grayson, co-author of the study on body language and exploitability, believes that to reduce the chances of becoming a victim, you can’t look like a victim. Topalli said it very well; “Walk in an alert fashion, walk with purpose, with your shoulders held back.” While I agree with both of them, I also believe you can do one better by not putting yourself in dangerous situations AND being aware. Location is always going to be an important factor in street crime, so avoid isolated locations, and areas with poor lighting and visibility. Not putting yourself in dangerous situations doesn’t simply mean avoiding shady neighborhoods, though. Studies have shown that drinking, drug use, and frequenting public places late at night increase the chances of victimization, because these “high-risk” activities tend to create opportunities for criminals.

So as you go on with your busy day to day living, keep in mind that you do have a say in whether or not you will be someone’s first choice as an easy target. Be careful about who you associate with and allow into your home, for example. Walk with confidence, and without distractions. Pay attention to what is going on around you, and go out of your way to avoid creating an opportunity that a criminal won’t be willing to pass up.