A Burglar’s Guide to the City
© 2016 Geoff Manaugh
There’s really no resisting a title like that, is there? Mind, it’s not accurate; this isn’t a guide to how burglars read architecture, a catalog of vulnerabilities that homeowners and businesses can use to check their own weak spots. The core message of the book, expressed repeatedly with great effusion, is that burglars see and use buildings differently from other people. Manaugh goes into slight details, but his background as an art historian shows: he’s more interested in the idea of burglars interpreting architecture than the details. Consequently, readers are given a great deal of entertainment as he delves into various cases, and even tries to learn skills himself (including lockpicking, from a cop), but not much in the way of practical security information.
Burglary as defined requires architecture; breaking and entering isn’t possible with something to break into. But burglars are connected to architecture at a deeper level, writes Manaugh; they are like the characters of The Matrix, who can read the lines of flowing green code and interpret vulnerabilties. They are plugged into the Matrix of physical form and can manipulate it at will — and they do, using buildings in unexpected ways. They will shimmy up rain gutters to access ledges, shove themselves through ventilation ducts, take sliding doors off rails, or even carve through drywall to out-flank security alarms. Some architectural manipulation can be quite elaborate, using the urban form itself. Consider a case from Los Angeles in the 1980s: a group of burglars with possible Public Works connections used that city’s massive storm drainage system to tunnel into a bank and empty its vaults. Few burglaries are so thought out, however; most are hasty and opportunistic. Even then, they can use buildings in ways they weren’t intended: a massive oak door might be breached simply by breaking the glass windows framing it, then reaching in and opening the door. Roofs hold back water; no one expects them to provide an entry for an thief.
A Burglar’s Guide to the City abounds in interesting cases and general information. I had no idea that Los Angeles operates full time air patrols, for instance: I assumed police helicopters are so expensive by the hour that they’re dispatched only in extreme situations, the kind that call for SWAT teams. Easily the most interesting case for me was the story of Roofman, who used his study of McDonalds’ basic building plan and operational policies to invade and rob several dozen franchises. After being imprisoned, he escaped and took refuge in a Toys R Us, where he built a hiding place and carved into the empty building next door. From there, surrounded by toys, he used stolen baby monitors from Toys R Us itself to observe employees and plan a full heist. Fortunately for them, the random dropping-by of a sheriff’s deputy foiled the Candy from a Baby stickup.
In short, this book was more fun than informative, but worth the time.
If you are interested in understanding your home from a security standpoint, I would suggest an ebook I read last year called “Kick Ass” Home Security, written by a retired police sergeant. It’s purely functional reading, like an instructional manual, but I found it helpful. The essential lesson I remember, beyond any technical information, is that most burglaries are crimes of opportunity — the less inviting you make your home to casual intrusion, the less likely you are to be burgled.