Crime Diversity: Reexamining Crime Richness Across Spatial Scales

Published date01 August 2018
Date01 August 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2018, Vol. 34(3) 312 –335
© The Author(s) 2018
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DOI: 10.1177/1043986218770002
Crime Diversity:
Reexamining Crime Richness
Across Spatial Scales
Theodore S. Lentz1
Although much of the crime and place literature seeks to explain crime frequency
in relation to environmental conditions, few studies have examined crime diversity
in space. This article reexamines a study of crime diversity in relation to a neutral
model assuming environmental conditions have minimal influence on crime patterns.
The original study results show that the variety of crime types in a given area (i.e.,
crime richness) increases regularly across spatial scales, and is largely consistent
with a neutral or random process. This conclusion makes no appeal to the crime-
environment dependencies often believed to influence crime occurrence, making the
study a worthy candidate for additional scrutiny. The current study first verifies the
original study results in Los Angeles, CA, and demonstrates their robustness with
alternative crime classification schemes. Next, two alternative methods are used to
check whether results differ when (a) locations are sampled randomly from the entire
city rather than observed crime locations, and (b) when the unit of analysis is grid
cells rather than “point-buffers.” Finally, all analyses are replicated in St. Louis, MO,
as a first look at generalizability. Conclusions are largely consistent with the original
study, but important differences arise when alternative sampling techniques and units
of analysis are used. Future directions for crime diversity research are discussed.
Crime diversity, environmental criminology, neutral models, ecology, crime and place
1University of Missouri–St. Louis, MO, USA
Corresponding Author:
Theodore S. Lentz, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri–St. Louis,
530 Lucas Hall, One University Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63121, USA.
770002CCJXXX10.1177/1043986218770002Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeLentz
Lentz 313
The key proposition of environmental criminology asserts that crime occurrence is
closely linked to environmental conditions. Although much of the previous research
has focused on crime frequency rather than crime diversity, it follows that environ-
mental conditions might also explain the types of crime that occur at a given place. As
in other scientific disciplines (e.g., ecology), studying diversity is especially important
when seeking to distinguish between general and specific causes of a given phenom-
enon. Many criminological studies have examined diversity in offending at the indi-
vidual level (e.g., Osgood & Schreck, 2007; Piquero, Oster, Mazerolle, Brame, &
Dean, 1999), but relatively little work has explicitly considered the distinction between
general and specific causes in the context of crime and place (Brantingham &
Brantingham, 1981; Clarke & Cornish, 1985; Weisburd et al., 1992).
In a recently published study of crime diversity, Brantingham (2016) documents
crime richness, the number or variety of unique crime types, across a wide range of
spatial scales, and seeks the simplest explanation to explain the relationship between
crime richness and area size. His findings show the observed pattern is strikingly con-
sistent with a neutral model that ignores the role of environmental conditions in driv-
ing the relationship. Essentially, the model treats the assortment of crime types across
the landscape as a random process by assuming environmental conditions do not dic-
tate where certain types of crime occur. As Brantingham (2016) states, “ . . . an exceed-
ingly simple model goes a long way toward explaining the observed relationship . . .
without invoking complex crime-environment dependencies” (p. 578). Although it is
plausible that the processes driving crime may simply be so complex that they appear
random, these results seem difficult to accept given what we believe to know about
crime patterns. Brantingham’s (2016) strong conclusions make the study a deserving
candidate for additional scrutiny.
This article reexamines Brantingham’s (2016) original study in several impor-
tant ways. First, the original Los Angeles, CA, results are reproduced using pub-
licly available crime data, and these results are checked for robustness using
alternative crime classification schemes. Next, two methodological issues are
addressed regarding Brantingham’s (2016) unconventional method of sampling and
unit of analysis. Finally, all analyses are replicated in St. Louis, MO, as a first look
toward the generalizability of the neutral model. The results are largely consistent
with Brantingham (2016), but provide additional clues as to the fitness of the neu-
tral model to observed patterns of diversity. Future studies of crime diversity can
build from this work to further understand the potential processes driving crime
occurrence in space.
In what follows, the neutral model used by Brantingham (2016) is explained theo-
retically and in terms of policy and practice. Next, I critically examine Brantingham’s
(2016) original methodology, which uses unconventional methods to measure crime
richness across spatial scales. Then, results are presented to empirically assess the key
issues outlined. The final sections discuss the results and their broader implications for
the field.

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