John D Mccluskey. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publications.
The crime of robbery is defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI, 2002) as “the taking or attempting to take anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person or persons by force or threat of force or violence and/or by putting the victim in fear.” Concern over this crime and its consequences is so ubiquitous that Daniel Defoe, of Robinson Crusoe fame, opined about it hundreds of years ago. In the more modern era, some robbers were given heroic status, including Billy the Kid and, to some extent, John Dillinger and other outlaws who robbed banks in the 1930s.
The crime bridges the gap of violence and property crime as it, by definition, features a face-to-face confrontation between the perpetrator and the victim. The amount of violence and coercion that occurs in the context of robbery, however, varies quite widely across events that are labeled as robberies.
In this chapter, the measurement of robbery, robberyhomicides, victimization and its consequences, as well as types of robbery and robbers, are explored. As will become clear, the underlying phenomenon labeled as robbery is quite varied. Robbing banks, for example, requires a somewhat different approach from robbing a drug dealer. The outcomes of this crime, from reporting to authorities to clearing the crime by an arrest, are highly dependent upon the nature of the targeted victim. Similarly, a street robbery that features a gun will likely provoke different responses from a victim compared to one that features a perpetrator with no convincing means of making a lethal threat. Such robbers may instead have to rely on assaults to convince victims that they “mean business.” These important dimensions of robbery are explored in detail below.
Measuring Robbery in the United States
The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) seek to measure the annual number of robberies in the United States. These methods of data collection have different strengths and weaknesses for describing robbery patterns. Nevertheless, each contributes valuable information to the understanding of robbery.
The NCVS is a survey composed of a nationally representative sample of respondents who are asked directly about types of victimizations they may have suffered. This method, by virtue of directly soliciting information from citizens, therefore uncovers a substantial number of crimes that might otherwise go unreported to authorities. In particular, robberies by acquaintances and attempted robberies are much more prevalent in NCVS data when compared with official data sources. Clearly, some victims would seek to protect acquaintances from legal entanglements. Others may seek to avoid potential retribution from the perpetrator for informing police. Similarly, unsuccessful robberies, where no property is lost, may not be worth the victim’s time in terms of reporting. In addition, the robberies recorded in the NCVS involve far fewer guns than those recorded by the police in the UCR. The official police data compiled in the UCR clearly suffer from nonreporting, which appears to be somewhat of a problem as only about 60% of victims report robbery victimizations to police (Hart & Rennison, 2003). Thus, the picture of robbery in the UCR tends to involve more gun robberies, many more completed robberies, and more robberies by strangers than the NCVS data depict.
To illustrate the data source differences, in 2006 the NCVS estimated that there were 645,950 personal, noncommercial robbery victimizations, and the UCR estimated about 261,000 such events for the same year. Thus, the nonreporting by victims and nonrecording or “unfounding” of robberies by police, where the investigation of the incident leads them to the belief that the event brought to their attention should not be classified as a robbery, both contribute to the differences in observed robbery levels in the United States across the two series.
Another important distinction between the NCVS and the UCR data is that commercial robberies are not captured as robbery victimizations in the NCVS and are only captured in the UCR. Thus, the UCR offers a more expansive picture of victimization in the sense that approximately one quarter of robberies recorded in 2006 involved commercial interests as the direct victim. Since commercial robbery is likely to have a higher level of reporting, this does not translate into a large knowledge gap regarding the extent of this particular type of robbery.
Despite the differences in the two data collection efforts, the contemporary trends from 1990 to 2006 indicate that robbery has declined. The NCVS indicates that during that period, robbery fell from levels of approximately 600 per 100,000 to approximately 250 per 100,000 residents over the age of 12 in the United States. The UCR tracked a decline from 250 recorded robberies per 100,000 U.S. residents down to levels of approximately 150 per 100,000. Thus, both measures agree that the crime of robbery was much rarer in the middle of the 2000s than it had been during the early 1990s.
Overall, individuals should be cautioned that neither the UCR nor the NCVS offers a complete picture of robbery prevalence in the United States. The concept of convergence of the two—that is, UCR and NCVS measuring the same underlying phenomenon—is unlikely to occur precisely because many crimes go unreported and because of coverage and reporting issues that emanate from the UCR data collection effort. Taken together, however, the two data series’complementary treatment of the crime of robbery offer a good sense of the nature, trends, and extent of robbery.
Robbery Consequences: Death, Injury, and Losses
A potential consequence of a robbery is the killing of the victim or, in rare cases, the killing of the offender in a thwarted robbery. More commonly, injuries occur in the context of robberies as offenders are frustrated by the victim’s response and use force to, as Wright and Decker (1997b) observed, establish “the illusion of impending death.” Consideration of the number and rate of homicides that result from robberies is possible by examining data from the Supplemental Homicide Reports (SHR). These reports provide data on the number of homicides that take place in the context of robberies. SHRs are submitted to the FBI from local law enforcement, and they establish data about age, sex, race of offenders and victims, as well as weapons used and the circumstances under which the homicide occurred. One circumstance code denotes homicides that emanate from robberies, and thus the SHR data are used to determine the numbers and rates of homicides that occur in the context of robberies. The SHR data collection dates to 1976, and an examination of long-term trends in robbery-homicides indicates they are relatively less frequent than in the past. During the late 1970s and the early 1990s, there were more than 2,000 robberyhomicides recorded yearly in the SHR. More recently, the number of robbery-homicides had dropped to below 1,000 per year by the mid-2000s.
It is probably most useful to consider the robberyhomicide relative to the number of robberies recorded in any particular year. Such an examination would help in understanding if robbery is becoming more lethally violent over time. In examining the proportion of robberies that become homicides, clearly such a situation is relatively rare. In the late 1970s, when at the peak of the rate, there were about 4.5 robbery-homicides for every 1,000 robberies recorded in the UCR data. In contrast, by the beginning of the millennium, the number had declined to approximately 2.6 robbery-homicides for every 1,000 robberies. Thus, the long-term trend is for decreasing lethal violence both in raw numbers as well as in the rate of robbery-homicides.
Zimring and Zuehl (1986) studied a sample of robberies from Chicago, Illinois, and coded data from police reports in that city. Their research indicated that evidence at the scene of homicides is not always clear regarding the temporal order of events. More precisely, it is likely that some apparent robberies are, in fact, thefts that occur after the homicide event. Similarly, Loftin (1986) studied a sample of homicides in Baltimore, Maryland, and used several trained coders to check on the coding of homicide circumstances in official records. That analysis, with explicit attention to robbery, indicated that there is a substantial amount of error in how codes are assigned in the SHR. Nevertheless, the SHR data still must be considered unique in their ability to speak to the robbery-homicide phenomenon on a national level.
Much more common than robbery-homicide is the likelihood of a physical injury that can result from a robbery event. The prevalence and nature of injuries have been captured in interviews with robbery victims in the NCVS since 1973. The most recent data on robbery victims and their injuries, obtained from the NCVS in 2006, indicate slightly more than 1 in 3 of the victims of a robbery suffered an injury. Closer examination of that data indicates about 7% of the victims had their injuries cared for at a hospital. Black victims, female victims, and victims acquainted with the robber were more likely to suffer an injury during the victimization and to seek care at a hospital for injuries.
Potential for psychological consequences of victimization from the robbery confrontation is understandably great. Victims of robbery can often have a great sense of violation and helplessness. Newspapers have documented evidence of victims being unable to return to work after robberies in the workplace due to overwhelming fear. The systematic study of the consequences of victimization, however, has received limited attention. As a personal crime that involves monetary loss, threats of harm, and actual physical harm, the consequences are likely to have a wide variation based on how the robbery was completed as well as individual victims’ predispositions and psychological responses to such stress. More simply, the variation in consequences of crimes of robbery is likely to be extremely wide ranging.
The amount or value of goods lost in a robbery is heavily dependent on the type of robbery that is being considered. According to FBI statistics compiled in 2007, bank robberies were clearly the most lucrative for the offender, as the typical robbery results in $4,000 in losses. The least lucrative robbery target was convenience stores, where the average amount of reported losses totaled approximately $800 per event. Considering that individuals are the target of street or highway robberies, the totals associated with loss from that crime were surprisingly high at slightly more than $1,300. It should be noted that some criminologists argue that as the U.S. economy moves toward more credit and debit card usage, robbery will become more concentrated among the poorest citizens, who typically are more likely to deal in cash transactions. Similarly, the cash associated with drug markets and prostitution also makes illicit targets attractive to those seeking to commit robberies.
Robbery and Weapon Choices
Surveys of inmates indicate that more lethal weaponry, such as guns compared with knives or no weapon at all, are preferred tools for completing robberies. The preference for guns, paradoxically, is linked to the notion that they make it easier to control victims and thereby reduce the need for overt physical violence. Robberies involving perpetrators with less lethal weapons or no weapon at all are more likely to result in some kind of injury to the victim, because the threat posed by robbers who are not armed with a gun is less persuasive. Therefore, physical force is likely more necessary to control victims in such situations. If one looks at the number of gun robberies that are committed, according to data sources, the use of a gun as compared with a knife or other weapon is more strongly associated with both successfully completing the robbery and the possibility of lethal outcomes.
The NCVS indicates that about 1 of every 4 or 5 robberies involves a gun, yet the proportion of robbery fatalities that involve a gun is more than 50%, if one traces robbery circumstances and weapons types from 1976 to the present using the SHR data. It is apparent from discussions with robbers, both active and incarcerated, that committing robbery while equipped with a gun helps to establish the “illusion of impending death,” as noted by Wright and Decker (1997b). The notion that robbers choose weapons to establish credible threats has been corroborated over time in interviews with robbers in the United States and abroad. For example, interviews with incarcerated English commercial robbers generally echoed the concept of having a gun so that less physical force would be necessary to complete the crime. Interviews with active street robbers in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, also affirmed that sentiment.
An examination of weapon patterns in the NCVS robbery data indicates that, in 2006, of nearly 650,000 robberies that were estimated to have occurred, 41% involved no weapon. Victims reported that robbers wielded a firearm in 23% of robberies and knives in 8%. It should be noted that victims reported that they did not know if the perpetrator had a weapon in 15% of the crimes. Similarly, the UCR data on robbery weapons indicate that in 2006, an estimated 42% of robberies involved a firearm and about 40% were “strong arm” or unarmed robberies. Clearly, while robbery with a gun is the image most frequently evoked by the term, non-gun robbers make up the majority of these events in any given year according to both victimization surveys and official police data.
Victim Resistance and Robbery
In the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of resisting robbers was generally discouraged. It was argued, by some criminologists and many commentators, that resistance was strongly related to injury and increased the likelihood of suffering retaliation at the hands of the robber. Thus, passive behavior in the face of robbery was considered the wisest course of action. Clearly, robbery is not a homogeneous event and therefore suggestion of a single best practice with regard to dealing with a robbery from the perspective of the victim may not be appropriate. For example, robbers may outnumber the victim, may be well armed, and may have a victim cornered. Certainly, in that situation, a lone victim would wisely surrender his or her items and offer no resistance. However, it is clear from the data obtained from police records and self-reported victimizations that many robberies involve unarmed perpetrators. In these cases, resistance might reduce the likelihood of robbery completion or loss of goods, especially if the victim identifies an escape route.
Criminologists that have analyzed data from victimization surveys tend to find that resistance is beneficial in that many robberies are not completed when victims resist physically or verbally. This contrasts with data collected by police because official reports greatly underrepresent attempted robberies, and studies indicate that police reports may be more likely to be taken if a victim is injured. Thus, although there appears to be a positive relationship between injury and resistance in police data, it may be due to the nature of how police decide whether to record or not record the crime. Victimization surveys overcome these obstacles and thus more completely enumerate robbery circumstances while also providing researchers with the ability to tell if victims’ resistance is a consequence of being injured or if it causes injury. The systematic biases in the recording and reporting practices that influence the types of events that appear in official data are not an issue for victimization surveys.
The most recent analyses of victimization survey data from the NCVS make it clear that resistance against robbers is not random but instead reflects choices and consideration of situational cues and risks on the part of the victim. Victims are, for example, more likely to resist against offenders who are unarmed. Outcomes of events indicate that victims use resistance relatively wisely, as illustrated by the fact that resistant victims are less likely to suffer completed crimes. In sum, the wisdom of robbery resistance has swung from sureness that resistance is likely to increase negative consequences for the victim, to a sense that, in many situations, resistance is a wise course of action.
Scholarly work has generated a sense that robberies are not a unitary event but encompass a great variety of subtypes. Robbery types include stranger and acquaintance robberies, carjackings, home invasions, commercial robberies, bank robberies, and street robberies or muggings. Each of these types of robberies presents a different set of difficulties for those victimized as well as differing obstacles for the perpetrator. Perhaps the most useful distinction to make when considering variations in robbery is the difference between commercial and personal robberies. For example, the scholarly research indicates that robberies of convenience stores and other commercial establishments may be different in the sense that the robber is asking the victim to surrender someone else’s money. This might be easier to accomplish with less forceful action than when convincing someone to give up his or her personal money and property. The carjacking is of relatively recent consideration, but similarly presents difficulties of securing control of an automobile through force and threats.
Commercial robberies commonly include, among other targets, convenience stores and banks. Research from the 1960s and 1970s indicated that commercial robbery was often conducted by professional robbers. That is, commercial robberies were planned to maximize success in the form of monetary value and likelihood of escape. Interviews of contemporary robbers show that there is typically only minor planning of commercial robberies. Although these crimes do involve offenders whose behaviors are consistent with the concept of professional planning, most contemporary commercial robberies appear to be the work of robbers who try to capitalize on opportunities. There may be variation across convenience stores and bank robbers; however, expectations that the latter are drawn from a pool of highly professional robbers do not appear to be supported.
One setting of particular interest for robbery and its consequences is the convenience store. Convenience stores are, by design, created for quick transactions and generally have little more security than a clear view from the cash register and security cameras. According to UCR data compiled on robberies in 2007, the typical convenience store robbery netted only $800, which is less than all other forms of robbery recorded in the UCR.
Wellford, MacDonald, and Weiss (1997) interviewed 148 incarcerated convenience store robbers across five states, and approximately one third indicated that they planned the convenience store robbery more than 6 hours in advance, while 16% of the sample also reported abandoning a plan to rob another store. Petrosino and Brensilber (2003) interviewed 28 incarcerated convenience store robbers in Massachusetts, and they indicated a much lower level of planning with 13 robbers reporting no planning, 12 reporting 5 minutes to 4 hours of planning, and only 3 reporting a week or more of planning. An inference can be drawn that some effort goes into commercial target selection in the context of American convenience store robberies and other commercial robberies. Conklin (1972), Einstader (1969), and Feeney (1986) refer to the robbers that target businesses as “professional,” but such a distinction may not hold in samples of contemporary robbers.
The proliferation of convenience store robberies and homicides involving employees and customers in the 1980s led to a research effort focused on crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) for these locations. Improving the way cash is handled, including limiting amounts available; making counters visible; illuminating parking lots for surveillance purposes; and staffing stores with at least two clerks were included among some of the recommendations for making convenience stores a less attractive robbery target. Some evidence has accumulated that such target-hardening strategies, which make locations less attractive for criminals, do lower risk of robbery.
Bank robberies, which have notoriety as being a federal offense, are often considered to be crimes committed by professional robbers. This extends from their characterization as high-value targets. Banks, however, tend to be prepared to convince robbers otherwise with a variety of measures including security cameras, alarm systems, personnel training programs, security mechanisms for tracking bills, time locks, and occasionally armed security. According to 2007 UCR data, there were 7,175 bank robberies reported in the past year in the United States, with an average net of slightly more than $4,000 (FBI, 2007). Though these robberies appeared to be lucrative, data analyzed by the FBI indicate that bank robberies were cleared (i.e., arrests were made) 58% of the time compared with a typical clearance rate of 25% for other robbery types (FBI, 2002). Data from the FBI’s Bank Crime Statistics (BCS) database, from 1996–2000, indicated that just one-third of bank robberies involved a firearm, but data from the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) program combined with other data sources indicated slightly less than half of the recorded bank robberies in that data involved a firearm.
The two data sources show that injury in the context of bank robbery is also relatively rare. The NIBRS data indicate victim injury in about 6% of the cases analyzed, and the BCS indicates victim injury in only 2% of bank robberies. The difference in numbers most likely stems from the minimal coverage of the United States by NIBRS data, which are based on crime data reported by a fraction of police agencies, as compared with the more exhaustive data collection on incidents in the BCS data source.
The consideration that bank robbers might be more professional was examined by the FBI and is consistent with the expectation generated by earlier research, which suggested that professional robbers, who more thoroughly plan their crimes, may be more likely to opt for such valuable targets. This research was accomplished by examining each arrested bank robber’s prior convictions for bank robbery. Of those caught, only 1 in 5 had a prior conviction for bank robbery, leading the FBI (2002) to conclude that bank robberies are largely conducted by amateur criminals. The high clearance rate also indicates that bank robbers are generally unsuccessful and thus must not be as attentive to managing the risks of apprehension as one might expect from professional criminals. Certainly, some professional robbers may operate among all bank robbers, but generally, those robbing banks are not particularly adept at successfully completing their work.
Personal or Street Robberies
Personal robberies could include street robberies, home invasions, carjackings, and robbery of drug dealers. These types of events have some differences in terms of the contours of the personal victimizations. The confrontation involved in a street robbery is often opportunistic predation, where a motivated offender finds a suitable target with property or money available. Wright and Decker’s (1997a) interviews with active robbers in St. Louis, for example, indicated that much of street robbery is opportunistic in fashion. Street robberies accounted for approximately 45% of the robberies recorded in the UCR during 2006. NCVS data indicate that robberies that occur on the street or in parking lots are more likely to involve strangers, whereas robberies by nonstrangers are likely to occur inside one’s home.
Such associations between stranger and nonstranger and locations make sense in the context of opportunities. Few strangers who are motivated to rob are likely to know of a particular dwelling to target, whereas robbers targeting specific persons for their property and cash are likely to find their home a convenient location in which to engage in a robbery. Zimring and Zuehl’s (1986) analysis of robbery reports in Chicago found that home invasion robberies were much more likely to result in injuries when compared to street robberies. This could stem from the fact that the robber and victim are not strangers and therefore the definition of the situation as a robbery requires demonstrable force against the occupant. Conversely, a stranger, encountered on the street, might more easily convince a victim, with less overt force, that the event is a robbery.
Carjackings have only recently received academic attention, as the motive and opportunity to conduct such a dangerous crime seem to be somewhat of a departure from the conception of the goals of a robbery. The NCVS data indicate that there were approximately 34,000 carjackings per year from 1993–2002 (Klaus, 2004). Victims in carjackings resisted the offender in two thirds of the incidents. Victim injuries in carjackings were quite high, with 32% of those in completed carjackings and 17% in attempted carjackings suffering an injury (Klaus, 2004). Imagine the car as the location for this particular type of robbery. The nature of removing someone from the vehicle, and the ability of someone to resist by speeding away, make such a transaction very risky and may help to explain why injury appears to be so prevalent in carjackings.
Finally, robberies of drug dealers and other criminals involved in illicit activity represent a subset of personal robberies that is worthy of consideration for a number of reasons. First, the victimization of criminals is unlikely to yield many official crime reports. Second, such individuals are not likely to be accurately represented in the NCVS panel sample. Thus, the extent of robbery of drug dealers is not known from typical data sources. Furthermore, such victimizations are unlikely to come to the attention of authorities unless a severe consequence such as a shooting requiring medical attention or a homicide results. By interviewing robbers, Jacobs (2000) has found that drug dealers, because of their use of large sums of cash and need to avoid law enforcement, are considered good targets for robbery. In areas where drug markets are in operation, it is likely that such victimizations and retaliatory violence are intimately linked.
Robbing drug dealers is a lucrative, if dangerous approach to robbery. Victims tend to have large amounts of valuable commodities such as drugs or cash. This makes them prime targets in terms of benefits. At the same time, the drug dealer may represent a very unwilling victim who defends his or her possessions to the death. Some ethnographers who interviewed active robbers face-to-face found that those who rob drug dealer indeed reap large rewards, but one must be cautious regarding the amount of information that exists about this relatively hidden crime. A successful drug robbery yields prized possessions, drugs, and cash while simultaneously ensuring minimal exposure to criminal justice sanctions. Some researchers surmise that much of the violence that occurs in such illicit markets, in the vacuum where police presence is unwelcome, is immune to conventional police intervention. Others argue that the nature of police efforts to disrupt drug and prostitution markets will indirectly reduce robbery, as the valuable targets are no longer concentrated in well-defined geographic areas.
It is important to think about the types of robberies as shaping, in many ways, how the event will unfold. Thus, the type of robbery is a variable that helps to understand other outcomes such as completion and injury to the victim. Personal robberies, for example, require a threat that is convincing enough to make one give up a possession. Conversely, a commercial robbery may merely require a note passed over a counter in a bank to convince a teller to give up his or her employer’s money. Considering the many different types of events helps one understand the extensive variation that fall within the scope of the definition of robbery.
Robbery and Correlates
Consideration of age, sex, and race patterns in robbery offending and robbery victimization is an important part of understanding the phenomenon of robbery. Official police data and victimization surveys are the two data sources that provide the clearest pictures of robbery. Both indicate that, for the most part, offenders tend to be males under the age of 30, and there is an overrepresentation of African Americans. UCR arrest data from 2006 indicate that 56% of arrestees were black, but the NCVS data, which rely on victim self-reports of their perception of the offender’s race, indicated that, of offenders who could be identified, only 37% were reported as black. This discrepancy is likely due to several factors including differential police coverage and arrest patterns across racial groups and neighborhoods. Nevertheless, both data sources indicate an overrepresentation of African Americans involved in robbery. This is likely due to the fact that robbers frequently come from economically disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, which in many U.S. cities tend to have high proportions of black and other minority residents.
With respect to sex and age of offenders, the two data sources tend toward close agreement. Males comprised 85% of perceived perpetrators in the 2006 NCVS victimization survey data and about 89% of the offenders arrested for robbery as recorded by the UCR during 2006 (FBI, 2006). Victims interviewed for the NCVS in 2006 reported that approximately 2 out of 3 offenders were under the age of 30. The UCR confirms this pattern with arrest data, which indicated in 2006 that 3 out of every 4 arrestees were under the age of 30. Clearly, those committing robbery tend to be more youthful and overwhelmingly male.
With respect to victim characteristics, youthful victims between the ages of 16 and 24 suffer the greatest robbery rate, according to victimization survey data. Blacks suffered a robbery rate of 3.8 per 1,000 as compared to the white rate of 2.8 robberies per 1,000. Males also have the highest rate of robbery victimization at 3.9 per 1,000 compared with the female rate of 2.0 per 1,000 in the 2006 NCVS data. As was noted previously in this entry, the robbery rates have fallen dramatically in the decade and a half since 1990. In particular, black male robbery victimization has declined extensively. For example, black male robbery rates in 1996 were 16.7 per 1,000 and dropped to 4.8 per 1,000 by 2006, which is a more than 70% decline in victimization rates.
Some speculation exists regarding the frequent choice of female victims in robbery. Perhaps females are quicker to acquiesce at the hands of a robber when compared with males, who may be more likely to bend to societal pressure and respond to the coercive threat with a macho resistant response.
Female participation as a perpetrator in robbery appears to be relatively rare. What research has been conducted in this area indicates that female robbers have a greater preference for working in teams, with lone female robbers being exceptions. The teams of robbers tend to be mixed in gender, and some have argued that robbery’s hypermasculine requirement of the domination of others are not easily carried off convincingly by a lone female perpetrator. Miller’s (1998) seminal work on female robbers also indicated that a significant proportion of robberies by females involve prostitute–john relations, where the victim is particularly vulnerable and unlikely to report the victimization that is suffered, since the underlying activity of seeking a prostitute was illegal.
The data clearly indicate that robbery is not randomly distributed among the population in terms of offenders and victims. Rather, it appears that robbery is disproportionately concentrated among the youthful and male as both victims and offenders. Blacks are similarly overrepresented with regard to victimization in robbery and as perpetrators, although there has been a dramatic decrease in terms of victimization and somewhat of a decrease in terms of offending since the 1990s. Finally, in terms of the geographic location of robberies, they are events that tend to be concentrated in poorer urban neighborhoods.
Perspectives on Robbers’ Attitudes and Lifestyles
Involvement in robbery is limited by the risk-to-reward ratio of confronting individuals face-to-face. Such encounters are fraught with difficulties. It is most likely that while a large number of individuals participate in the crime of robbery, only a select few persist and become chronic robbers. The attitude of robbers has been conceived as being one of comfort with chaos and trying to project the image of a “hardman” or tough guy. Traits of the persistent robber are likely to include a desire for establishing control over others and comfort with the possibility of using physical force to achieve one’s ends. The study of persistent robbers and their outlooks is difficult as they are, fortunately, a very small number of individuals.
With respect to the lifestyle of active robbers, it is surmised that, contrary to the rational calculator who seeks out targets to exploit, robbers are often put in a desperate situation with respect to needs requiring resources. This activates their search for an appropriate victim with minimal attention to planning the crime. Their lifestyle often includes spending money on drugs and sexual companions, in the context of a fast lifestyle, which quickly leads to the need for more money to fuel it. Such a pattern lends little opportunity for the individual to engage in systematic planning and targeting. Thus, opportunistic victimizations are thought to be most common among even persistent robbers.
The Myth of the Noble Robber
The FBI’s early history under J. Edgar Hoover involved a strong focus on bank robbers such as John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Ma and Pa Barker (Burrough, 2004). Successfully apprehending these individuals was a test of fire, and of public relations management, for the bureau. Those robbers, by some accounts, represented disenchantment with the Depression-era banking system and were viewed, in some cases, sympathetically by citizens suffering in the throes of Depression-era America. The notion of the noble robber is probably best illustrated by Robin Hood of ancient English folklore. More modern-day celebration of the robber as “noble” is obvious in tales of Billy the Kid, the legendary American frontier outlaw. Thus, the crime of robbery, in some instances, is seen as a way to redress grievances with the powerful, such as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood tales or the railroad barons and their control of developing lands on the Western frontier during the late 19th century.
In addition to robbers gaining wide acclaim and infamy for their exploits, particular robberies similarly enjoy consideration and some admiration for the daring nature of the crime. There are many examples of robberies that have garnered public attention for their daring and the high value of the goods involved. In 1963, the Great Train Robbery netted 2.6 million pounds as a train carrying used currency was hijacked on its way to London, England. The movie Dog Day Afternoon highlighted a bank robbery that went horribly wrong in Brooklyn, New York, during the summer of 1972. Similarly, the Great Brinks Robbery of 1950, in Boston, was eventually made into a film. At that time, the robbery netted more than $1 million in cash as well as other financial instruments of even greater value. Robbers and robberies clearly make for interesting stories since by definition these crimes involve great risk and the potential for great rewards. Perhaps the bold nature of the crime lends itself to this treatment in popular literature, film, and culture.
Understanding robbery patterns and the motivations of robbers through a single theory is unlikely to be fruitful, as the phenomenon operates on many levels and involves many questions. It may be most useful to consider different elements of the robbery and apply theories about crime, offender actions, and choices to different analytical questions. For example, one might consider how robbery is distributed in terms of rates of robberies across neighborhoods. Cloward and Ohlin’s (1960) opportunity theory is beneficial in that it helps to understand how robberies come to be distributed in the poorest neighborhoods. That theory posits that crime will be distributed in relation to the availability of legitimate means to attain success in society. More simply, in neighborhoods where jobs are scarce and economic mobility out of poverty seems to be a remote possibility, one would expect to find higher rates of robbery. This results from such places having the lowest level of legitimate opportunities, and therefore robbery becomes a plausible illicit opportunity for success.
Social disorganization theory offers a similar perspective. This theory argues that neighborhoods with high poverty and population heterogeneity tend to lack strong, informal social control. Social disorganization theory may be useful for understanding how robbery distributions across geographic space are associated with larger structural dynamics in society. In sum, one may expect to find higher robbery rates in neighborhoods with fewer legitimate opportunities and with lower levels of social control. Overall, such theories help explain why robbery is more concentrated in some places when compared with others.
In terms of explaining how individuals come to be involved in robbery, those theories that address individual traits such as low self-control, or differential association theory, are probably most useful for understanding how one initiates and maintains a robbery career. With regard to traits such as low self-control, it is argued that a trait established in childhood, that could be considered similar to impulsiveness, is linked to offending when combined with opportunities. Thus, robbers, described in ethnographies as those who seek a “fast living” and who tend to not dwell on the long-term consequences in favor of short-term gratification, would likely fit the bill as having low self-control. Similarly, differential association is essentially a learning theory that argues that humans learn their behaviors, even criminal ones. Thus, one might expect that robbery tactics and behaviors could be transferred across individuals. Both of these theories might help to account for individuals who choose to become involved in robberies—one by arguing that individual traits such as low self-control or impulsiveness make robbery an activity that is acceptable to the individual, and the other by arguing that one must learn how to conduct a robbery from peers or mentors.
A very different question that one may pose is this: What targets do robbers choose, and why do they choose them? With respect to target choices, routine activities theory and ideas from situational crime prevention are very useful for understanding robbers’ behaviors, especially those of commercial robbers. Routine activities theory relies on three elements: absence of capable guardians, suitable targets for committing a crime, and motivated offenders. Routine activities theory, as applied to convenience stores, suggests that one can increase capable guardianship (through surveillance) and reduce the suitability of the target (less cash in the till advertised), and thereby reduce the likelihood of being chosen as a robbery target. Evidence from security researchers and criminologists points to the fact that, indeed, increasing surveillance around a business reduces the opportunity for surprise, and decreasing the money in the till decreases the reward and thus reduces the risk of robbery. Manipulation of risks by changing the environmental features, such as lowering shelf height to increase visibility and staffing stores with multiple clerks, is an additional example of tactics that reduce the likelihood that a robber will choose a particular target for a robbery.
A final area where one might consider theory useful for understanding robbery is the victim–offender encounter itself. This is probably best understood as a contest of coercive power in which injury, resistance, and completion of the event could all be outcomes of interest in the context of the robbery transaction. Social interactionist theory, for example, would be useful for understanding why robbers choose guns but tend to not use physical force. In the context of this theory, the gun represents overwhelming coercive power and reduces the need to do more than verbalize the threatening potential to gain compliance from the victim. Conversely, unarmed robbers are less likely to be perceived as having overwhelming coercive power, and therefore they may be less apt to complete a robbery and more likely to use physical force since they need to convince the victim that they can coerce them into compliance.
Overall, the variation in robberies and the levels on which robbery can be understood leave much room for scientific inquiry regarding the distribution of robberies across places, how individuals come to choose to commit robbery, how robbers develop targets, and how offenders and victims behave in individual encounters. These are a sampling of possible questions that could arise in the context of studying robbery and a set of theoretical frameworks from which the questions can be understood.