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Term of the Month

Defining Criminal Justice Research

Welcome to NIJ’s Term of the Month. Each month we are featuring a term from our scientific research portfolios informing significant American justice system issues and solutions.

January 2023 - Risk Terrain Modeling

Risk terrain modeling is a science-based method of identifying and measuring crime risk posed by the features of a specific physical location for example, a parking lot, a convenience store, a bar, or a vacant building.

Risk terrain modeling is a tool designed to diagnose crime location patterns. Risk terrain modeling software generates an overall crime risk value for specific locations and explains which terrain features contribute to crime risk.

Assigning a risk value to each characteristic of a location allows public agencies to isolate those characteristics, or combinations of characteristics, that most influence crime.

Two important advantages of risk terrain modeling, in comparison to other proactive policing methods, are:

  1. Scope of resource response to locations at risk: By identifying the characteristics of a place associated with increased risk of crime, risk terrain modeling creates opportunities for comprehensive responses not limited to law enforcement action. For example, if poor lighting is found to elevate crime risk, then the streets department could be asked to improve it.
  2. Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure: Risk terrain modeling focuses on attributes of a place, not of a person. Thus, the use of risk terrain modeling to guide officer actions generally may be less likely than other proactive policing methods to be associated with a risk of constitutional rights violations.

By pinpointing crime risk associated with specific places on a map, risk terrain modeling can help guide geographic distribution of law enforcement and other public resources.

Research on the application of risk terrain modeling in multiple communities has found it to be an effective and accurate method of identifying crime risk and altering the characteristics of a place to prevent crime problems.

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Date Created: January 28, 2021