What can Shippers do against Pirate Attacks? Insights from Situational Crime Prevention

By Jon. M. Shane and Shannon Magnuson, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City

The shipping industry cannot rely on the navies and traditional law enforcement to protect them from pirate attacks and to hold pirates accountable. Patrolling the open waters is different from patrolling on land, crime is easier to perpetrate, harder to detect and harder to prevent. When pirates attack, an armed confrontation is likely, and violence occurs rather frequently (almost 37% in this study). The effectiveness of traditional law enforcement and prosecution efforts are limited in an international context, particularly when dealing with failed states. The limitations of traditional law enforcement are reflected in the dramatic increases in yearly piracy incidents. Even when traditional law enforcement operations are successful, the prosecution is beset by numerous delays and legal obstacles and incarceration is never guaranteed, all of which may attenuate the deterrent effect of arrest and prosecution. However, a recent study in Justice Quarterly argues that pirate attacks are not inevitable. Merchant marines and their vessels can protect themselves by taking measures that alter the transit environment. Situational crime prevention theory provides the framework for proactively deterring offending, in this case maritime piracy.

Situational Analysis – A Partial Solution?

Situational crime prevention (SCP) is a form of “opportunity theory,” It is a micro-level theory that accounts for the interaction between the victim, the offender and the environment. The basic premise is that a strong, visible defense will deter or delay a crime and does not necessarily rely on the criminal justice system to detect and prosecute offenders, or control crime.

Situational crime prevention consists of three principles: 1) directing crime control measures at highly specific forms of crime; 2) managing, designing, or manipulating the immediate environment in as systematic and permanent a way as possible; and 3) increasing the perceived risk or effort to commit a crime, or reducing the rewards or removing the excuses for committing a crime. The theory has been empirically validated across a wide variety of crime and disorder conditions including gun violence, retail theft, shoplifting, suicide, vandalism, car theft and wildlife poaching. SCP groups situational techniques under five conceptual categories that describe the intent and approach of the intervention: 1) increasing the effort to commit the crime; 2) increasing the risk to offenders; 3) reducing the rewards produced by committing the crime; 4) reducing provocations that instigate crime; and 5) removing the excuses for committing the crime.

When pirates decide to attack a vessel, they may underestimate various situational factors that may increase their risk of apprehension, increase the effort to be successful, or reduce the anticipated rewards of an attack. Part of this calculation is that pirates’ decisions are never perfect, and that they rely on information that structures their choices and constrains their decisions that may result in flawed outcomes (i.e., apprehension, injury, death, insufficient operational resources). SCP is a crime prevention approach that helps disrupt or alter the opportunity structure, which results in fewer successful attacks.

Protect your Vessel

Most attacks in the study are unsuccessful (51.2%). Larger ships (e.g., tankers, dry bulk cargo and containers) are at greater risk of an attack, but they are also less likely to suffer a successful attack. The relative risk of an attack was higher for a ship that was at anchor or berth compared to drifting or steaming. This has implications for port security as well as shipboard anti-piracy watch and may implicate a loss in crew vigilance while in port; however, it may also implicate collusion between crew, port employees and pirates while in port to gain access to the ship.

Access to the ship also presents risk. While at anchor, pirates are more likely to use the anchor chain, the mooring rope, and the hawse pipe as any other means (such as ropes, hooks, ladders, the gangway, or posing as government officials). Again, this implicates shipboard anti-piracy watch, access control, and other security measures. Access to the ship via ladders, hooks, ropes, and posing as government officials is more prevalent while the ship is steaming or drifting. Boarding from the bow or forecastle is much more likely as for any other part of the ship; while steaming or drifting pirates are most likely to board from the stern.

A multi-layered approach to crime prevention is best, one that simultaneously employs various opportunity-blocking measures. In this research, binary it was found out that 41.5% of the variance in unsuccessful attacks was accounted for by the model, which included nine measures of SCP while controlling for several environmental factors. Substantively, as expected, when measures of SCP are increased, there is also an increase in unsuccessful pirate attacks.

What Next?

The findings suggest that shipping vessels do not necessarily have to rely on government to protect them while at sea. Seafarers can take proactive self-protection measures that do not involve weapons, like the Best Managment Practices against Somali based Piracy, which may escalate the risks of injury or death associated with the attack. What makes the situational crime prevention approach so appealing is that merchant vessels can become more self-reliant, the practice can be taught at merchant marine academies worldwide as a standard preventive measure and the shipping industry can avoid implementation issues associated with multiple agencies that may have different priorities, limited budgets and limited resources to contribute toward prevention.

However for all its benefits, SCP is not flawless as a crime control measure. Although the principles work well when applied in a given context, they do have a limited shelf life, they do not always work as intended and pirates may test their limits only to eventually defeat them with force and violence.

Future research should examine the interconnected elements of legitimate and illegitimate commerce that facilitate piracy, particularly seaport operations, forged and fraudulent documents, the internet and concealed ownership structures in the shipping industry. Also, an impact evaluation of counter-piracy strategies, such as the United States Counter-Piracy and Maritime Security Action Plan should be undertaken. Several anti-piracy measures of the plan have been implemented, but they have not been empirically evaluated for their utility. This means it is not clear which layer of the plan is working and is not working and which measures should be replicated or discontinued.

Literature and further Reading

Centre for Problem Oriented Policing. Twenty Five Techniques of Situational Prevention. University at Albany.

Clarke, R.V. 1997. Situational Crime Prevention: Successful Case Studies.  Albany, NY: Harrow and Heston.

Clarke, V. 1980.  Situational crime prevention: Theory and practice.  British Journal of Criminology 20:136-147.

Clarke, R.V. & Eck, J. E. 2005.  Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers in 60 Small Steps. Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Washington, D.C.: US Department of Justice.

Shane, J. M. & Magnuson, S. (2014). Successful and unsuccessful pirate attacks worldwide: A situational analysis. Justice Quarterly, advance on-line publication.

Twyman-Ghoshal Anamika. 2014. Facts, Figures, Trends: the Contemporary Maritime Piracy Database 2001-2010. Piracy-studies.org.

United States Counter-Piracy and Maritime Security Action Plan, June 2014.

 Best Management Practices for Protection against Somali based Piracy. Version 4 – August 2011

About the Authors

Jon M. Shane, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He received his PhD in criminal justice from Rutgers University, School of Criminal Justice. His research interests include violent crime and police policy and practice. His theoretical interests include situational crime prevention, routine activities, and social disorganization.

Shannon Magnuson, BA, is a master’s degree candidate in the Department of Criminal Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.  She received her BA in criminology from University of Florida.  Her specialization is Corrections Administration.

Photo by US Navy

This commentary was originally published on Piracy Studies