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Definition: Vandalism from The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

A criminal offense that involves the deliberate destruction of private or public property without the owner's consent. There are varying degrees of vandalism, ranging from graffiti to complete destruction of personal or public property and rioting.


Summary Article: Vandalism from Encyclopedia of Street Crime in America

The crime of vandalism varies greatly. However, most vandalism occurs against property that is on street level. Vehicles, warehouses, residential and commercial property, as well as street signs and the streets themselves, are all targeted for vandalism. The street is the common denominator in most vandalism, either as it provides access or is the physical location of the vandalism. This entry discusses what vandalism is, why it occurs, and its effect on the community.

Nature of the Crime

In its most simplistic explanation, vandalism is the intentional destruction or damage of public or private property. However, vandalism takes many forms. Vandalism encompasses everything from broken windows in occupied and abandoned property, arson, the keying of an automobile, or the slashing of the upholstery on a bus, to graffiti and street art created or installed without the permission of the owner of the property or the city.

Vandalism is a simple crime to commit. It does not take any special equipment or skill. A rock, a can of spray paint, a bumper sticker, a house key, a permanent marker—all of these items can be used to engage in vandalism. The ease with which someone can engage in vandalism also results in a wide range of individuals engaging in this crime and not identifying the behavior as deviant or criminal. Vandalism can be a by-product of the commission of another crime or as a crime unto itself. Vandalism is especially prevalent during riots, when property is damaged throughout the riot location.

Vandalism takes place everywhere. Vandalism can be found in urban and rural areas and in locations of high, middle, and low socioeconomic status. Vandalism is engaged in by individuals from all backgrounds, from the very young to those well into adulthood, the educated and the uneducated, rich and poor. Any available surface can be targeted for vandalism. Once a location has been the target of vandalism, more vandalism can be expected to occur in the same area. That is to say, once one person carves his or her name into a bench at a bus stop, more carvings and writings are likely to follow.

In contrast to the wealth of statistics available on violent crimes and major property crimes, there is a dearth of regular, reliable reporting on vandalism. However, the U.S. Department of Education pointed out that more than one-third of all 84,000 schools in the United States reported at least one case of vandalism in a recent year. Researchers for the National Education Association estimated that the physical property cost of vandalism in U.S. schools was about $200 million in 1970.

A study through the National Association of School Psychologists increased the estimate to $600 million in 1990. In addition to the hard fiscal costs of school vandalism, there are associated negative affects to morale and social cohesion in schools and their communities. The same can be said for vandalism that occurs in public spaces beyond the school environment.

Underlying Motivations

The reasons behind vandalism are as varied as the actions that fall under this criminal designation. Vandalism can be used by individuals or groups as a means to “send a message” to a target group, usually stigmatized groups (e.g., minorities, homosexuals, or various religious groups). In these situations, the target location is chosen for the greatest impact, such as vandalism in a cemetery. Vandalism in most of these situations is used as a tool in intimidation campaigns. In these situations property is damaged and often graffiti, in the form of slurs or threats, is applied to the property or to property within the lines of sight of the primary target location, such as anti-Semitic graffiti on a wall across from a synagogue. In some of these cases, the vandalism is a warning that more serious crimes may follow.

Serious forms of vandalism may take place during public unrest, which can involve the willful destruction of property. Glass is strewn on the sidewalk in Oakland, California, after the police shooting of a young African American man.

For others, vandalism is engaged in out of boredom, or for thrills. An abandoned vehicle may be completely destroyed by vandals, simply because it is available and no one seems to care about its condition. In these situations, the earliest vandals may be those who break windows of the vehicle to remove a stereo or other valuable parts. After the first incident of vandalism against the vehicle, others may follow further destroying the vehicle. In some areas, where vandalism is more prevalent than others, this destruction may take place rather quickly; in others it may take several days or weeks before the vandalism starts. Some engage in vandalism for revenge or out of emotional distress. In these cases the vandal and the property owner are usually known to each other and have had some form of falling-out, an argument or the end of a relationship, romantic or otherwise. Vandalism may be used in these situations to destroy property that was to be divided, due to divorce or settlement.

Vandalism can be used as a form of protest or to make a political statement. In these situations, billboards are a popular target, especially if they portray the business, individual, or political or social issue that the protester wishes to address. Some vandalism has become ritualized, in which a location has been set aside in a community after the location has been repeatedly targeted. An example would be a rock or wall that is repeatedly covered with graffiti during a pledge week in a college town. In these situations, the relative acceptability of the vandalism can change at any point, but is typically ignored by the community, despite the lack of overt permission.

Vandalism can also be used as a component of fraud. In these situations the owner of the property or a coconspirator damages or destroys their own property. Individuals hoping to cash in on insurance fraud against a vehicle, for instance, may abandon the vehicle in a neighborhood and begin the vandalism against the vehicle themselves, hoping that others will follow suit before the vehicle is recovered.

Consequences and Countermeasures

In attempts to prevent or decrease vandalism, closed-circuit television (CCTV) is often installed in areas that have been heavily vandalized. Signs are posted to remind potential vandals, especially those engaging in graffiti, of the illegal nature of their behavior. Some communities have placed age restrictions on the purchase of spray paint and paint markers. Other communities have policies in place to fine individuals who abandon vehicles or do not insure abandoned property. These policies are an attempt to decrease the availability of targets for vandalism by holding their owners accountable.

Vandalism is a crime under-reported to law enforcement, though it is one of the most recognizable crimes. It is also one of the more prevalent crimes. The clean-up and repair of vandalism can constitute a serious expense for individuals, when private property is targeted, as well as communities, when the target is public. The prevalence of vandalism in a community can alter resident's perceptions of their security and the prevalence of crime. The more vandalism a community experiences, the more that community is likely to perceive that it has problems with more serious crimes, such as illegal drug markets. This perception can also increase fear of crime or decrease a community's faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement.

Though the punishments vary by location, most vandals are sentenced to community service and ordered to pay restitution to the owner of the damaged property or the city. In some jurisdictions, when the vandals are juveniles, additional fines may be leveled against the parents of the juveniles. This often depends on the extent of the vandalism or its location, such as a school. Sentence enhancements can be applied, in some jurisdictions, for repeat offenders or because of the nature of the vandalism, such as vandalism that is identified as a hate crime.

See Also Arson; Broken Windows Theory; Graffiti; Hate Crime; Juvenile Offending

Further Readings
  • Dedel, Kelly. School Vandalism and Break-Ins. Guide No. 35. Center for Problem-Oriented Policing Madison, WI, 2005.
  • Goldstein, Arnold. The Psychology of Vandalism. The Springer Series in Social Clinical Psychology. Plenum Press New York, 1996.
  • Shinn, Mark R.; Hill M. Walker; Gary Stoner. Interventions for Academic and Behavior Problems II: Preventive and Remedial Approaches. National Association of School Psychologists Bethesda, MD, 2002.
  • Ward, C. Vandalism.: Architectural Press London, 1973.
  • Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Random House New York, 2007.
  • Clairissa D. Breen
    Cazenovia College
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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