Stages of criminal behaviour during a disaster

I believe that during a disaster, criminal behaviour will become evident in three stages, as law and order is impaired by the disaster and the effects of the disaster unfold over time.

In the first stage, opportunistic criminals with a demonstrated criminal past, or those who have committed crimes but have not been caught, will be the first to react to a disaster occupied law enforcement and society.

These persons will encompass a range of everything from thieves to violent or sadistic criminals, including persons who require regular psychiatric medication to control their violent or lethal tendencies.

The first stage criminals have no respect for law or boundaries and have proven so by their respective behaviours well before the disaster occurred.

The second stage criminals are the persons who do not have an existing criminal record or have not engaged in criminal behaviour prior to the crisis.

They are the persons with criminal minds and tendencies toward criminal behaviour who have not acted upon their thinking for fear of imprisonment or other punitive measures.

In a disaster, they become the “new criminals” who will act upon the crimes of their fantasies or thoughts for the first time. These persons can devolve quickly and are very unpredictable, especially the range of violence for which they can become capable.

The third stage criminals are law abiding citizens who under the duress of survival can become thieves and potentially violent. They are also very dangerous because they are driven by fear. 

They can kill unintentionally because of a twitchy trigger finger mixed with adrenaline. A desperate parent who wants food for their family is no less dangerous than the criminals of the first and second stage.

The third stage criminals, like the first stage criminals, don’t care about the consequences of breaking the law. The only difference between them is motivation. Third stage criminals are people desperate to survive.

How would you prepare mentally and physically for handling these stages of criminal behaviour?


  • Comments (14)

    • 6

      Most criminality involves alcohol and drugs: 75% of prisoners say they used. These folks will have a quick intervention. Some people are just floating on the edge all the time, they are the MZBs & closet-psychos like the ones who would shoot a security guard for asking them to mask. They are worrisome but I think relatively more rare than the 24 hour news has us believe.

      Ubique, the most worrisome to me are not those who know they are breaking the law but those who think they are the law, or above it.

      We live in the Missouri Ozarks, this was border country during the civil war, the state effectively had 2 governments, the official Union backed one in the north of the state and the Confederate one in exile. After the midpoint of the war, regular troops mostly moved to the east of the Mississippi leaving the area to guerrillas and a few small cavalry units to keep the peace. Killings, ambushes and disappearances were common. Many citizens simply left because it wasn’t safe for anyone, blue, grey or neutral. The reason of course was the zeal on both sides to kill the other in the name of God and country.

      Zealots are much more dangerous than criminals because they are a) specifically out to kill the enemy, b) in some cases willing to die to do it. And, as we saw on Jan 6, membership in law enforcement or the military doesn’t guarantee adherence to the law or respect for the rights of others. In fact some local officials see themselves as above the law, as can be seen in the many examples of locally elected sheriffs in the US declaring they will not enforce this or that state or federal law with which they disagree.

      Post event, there is likely to continue some type of official law enforcement in most situation simply because everyone wants security and guns and badges are cool. Ad hoc vigilante groups will spring up like daisies for the same reason. Every bit of post-apocalyptic fan fiction depicts a breakdown as merely an opportunity for the long suffering hero to finally clean a little house with his trusty six-shooter, er, AR. What might be more rare is actual justice, being in the in-group is important, being the outsider or vagrant is very dangerous.

      Having said all that, as far as planning goes, aside from a few typical items and basic perimeter lighting and a camera or two I don’t spend too much time or effort on defense. The lone defender is pretty weak no matter the effort or money expended and any situation with a shred of civilization remaining will be likely to retain some “official” law. In other words I find it low probability and very high cost. Some folks have great fun with it so it has more value for them.

      The best defense I think is to be known to the local LEOs, in a good way. If younger perhaps try for the volunteer fire, or search & rescue. Or anyone can volunteer with Red Cross which I’ve done in the past. Once we land at a permanent local I’ll be doing this again. Of course all my experience and thought is on rural or very small towns, I have no idea what to do in a larger town or city

      • 7

        Pops, You inherently explained why the Neighborhood Watch programs are so good. These watch programs are frequently under the auspices of the area’s LEO org and thus there are cordial and good contacts as to who is who(m).

        The formal volunteer emergency responder orgs like NGO SAR’s, the Citizens’ Corp responders, others like CAP, USCGA, can and do use senior citizens. We won’t be doing the rescues but the other stuff needs to be done for the rescue.  

      • 4


        Really good point about the ones who think they are the law or above the law and how it relates to current sensibilities.

        I have encountered some nasty Stage 1 and vicious Stage 2 criminals over the years and learned to follow my first instinct. 

        I have no doubt that these kinds of criminals will give free rein to their criminal intentions during a crisis or disaster.

        I used to volunteer for Victim Services – very good service. I wish it had been there for me. 

    • 6

      Mentally, I use common denominators.  Everyone is deemed a potential threat except those in a visible uniform such as law enforecement officers, emergency responders with distinctive vest or jacket or those of NGO responders with their area-known uniform garments.

      All criminals – in this area must include domestic and foreign terrorists – are kept away by multi-layer perimenter security features. So far, these barriers have worked.

      Here, our post event reports tell of statements like “I thought the generator was abandoned”, was just salvaging the damaged boat on trailer, “only used the ditch digger for the emergency”, ……

      • 5

        OP presents a nicely reasoned theoretical hierarchy of criminal behavior.  i wonder how this would correspond with actual police records following a disastrous event – say the Northridge earthquake or an Oklahoma tornado?

        Criminal behavior is certainly an aspect of disasters,  Closer to home, immediately during evacuations triggered by the Thomas Fire (three years ago) police detained a couple of people in the evacuated area, who evidently were up to no good….

        Generally, good, helpful behavior is more common that criminal actions.

      • 4

        hikermor, I wonder if accurate police record data in a disaster is even a possibility? People who were terrorized in their homes by gangs of thugs during Katrina weren’t dialling 9-1-1. 

        Perhaps, criminal behaviour in a disaster is under reported? Perhaps, violent crime is under reported at the best of times, no?

        There are also environmental and situational factors to consider. I can assure you that you do not have the type of crime and criminals we are blessed with in my part of the world.

        Good, helpful behaviour is a blessing. I wish it were so everywhere. However, disaster brings out the best and worst in people. Why would it be any different? We see the best and worst of people every day.

        During covid-19 regional criminals watched grocery check out lines in one of our grocery stores and then texted their associates to rob the unfortunate person after they exited the store. These aren’t non violent criminal acts.

        hikermor, remember all the good you see in this life. Soak it up. It will help you stomach any of the really bad stuff you run across.

      • 3

        I’ve seen some really bad stuff in my day, but I have encountered considerably more good stuff.  Color me cautiously optimistic…..

        Actual police records certainly aren’t perfect, but they might offer a start for to verify your conjectures.

      • 5

        hikermor – “cautiously optimistic” is playing both sides of the coin. Then again, there are always three sides to a coin, aren’t there?

        I engaged those who write the records to critique my writing projects on this subject and verify my opinions. This includes people who have served in the military.

        Then again, there is my first hand experience with violent criminal behaviour, which is far from conjecture and was verified via repeated, random incidents over time.

        I’ll stand with the experience of myself and others who understand the issue from a much different perspective.

      • 1

        Bob – I missed this because I got side-barred below.

        I think the common denominator approach makes sense. It keeps thing simple during a disaster and it recognizes that anyone can be a threat, so be aware and careful.

        Post event reports are typical of Stage 2 criminal excuses who want to become model citizens again after the fact. 

        It could also be Stage 1 criminals who are exercising the universal criminal code of “hey, maybe this cop/person who is accusing me is really, really stupid.”

      • 7

        Bob – I meant side-barred above.

      • 5

        Had guessed so, Ubique. I’m an ENTJ on the Myers-Briggs pesona chart so understood.

      • 3

        Bob, INFJ-A (advocate) at this end. Yep, Dona Quixote.

    • 9

      I feel like your stages of criminal behavior is pretty accurate. Criminals and as you say it ‘new criminals’ will take advantage of the situation and try to benefit from it. You can see this today on the news with lootin, riotin, and even everyone speedin like crazy during the initial stage of covid when police weren’t pullin people over for minor offenses like speedin and runnin stop signs.

      Then there’s the rest of us, which i’m sure makes up 75% of society who wants to obey the laws and does so up until their survival is at stake. When people are hungry, they will do just about anythin to feed themselves and survive. 

      Bein prepared and havin some good security is somethin that we all should focus on. 

      • 5

        Well said, Roland, and thank you.

        Being aware that crime can be an issue during a disaster is part of being prepared. Many people don’t even consider it.