Creating the Illusion of Impending Death: Armed Robbers in Action
Richard T. Wright and Scott H. Decker
Wright and Decker are professors in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. A book based upon research they conducted while HFG grantees, Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups and Street Culture, has just been published (1997) by Northeastern University Press.
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Unlike most sorts of street crime, successful armed robberies are never secret or ambiguous. By definition, they require offenders to confront intended victims directly. As David Luckenbill (1981:25) has observed, there is a strong interactional component to armed robbery; offenders and victims must develop "a common definition of the situation" and co-orient their actions to meet the demands of the offense. This does not happen automatically. After all, why should stick-up victims willingly participate in their own fleecing?

It is important to develop a clear understanding of the strategies used by armed robbers to compel the cooperation of would-be victims. Such information could offer citizens some guidance about how best to act and react should they be confronted by a robber. It also could provide policymakers and criminal justice officials with a better appreciation of offenders' aims and intentions during robberies, thereby enabling them to make more informed crime prevention and sentencing decisions.

In an attempt to learn more about the tactics employed by offenders to commit stick-ups, we located and interviewed 86 currently active armed robbers in St. Louis, Missouri. Armed robbery is a serious problem in St. Louis. In 1994, the year our research began, the city had 6,025 stick-ups reported to the police and ranked second in the nation in robberies per capita. The armed robbers for our study were recruited through the efforts of two field-based informants--an ex-offender, and a small-time heroin dealer and street criminal. Working through chains of street referrals, the field recruiters contacted active armed robbers, convinced them to take part in our project, and assisted us in conducting interviews that lasted up to two hours. In the pages that follow, we report just a small portion of what the offenders said during those interviews, focusing on how they actually commit their offenses.

Approaching the Victim | To be successful, armed robbers must take control of the offense from the start. They immediately have to impose on the interaction a definition favorable to their ends, allowing intended victims no room for negotiation. This typically is accomplished by creating an illusion of impending death.

Robbery itself is an illusion. That's what it's about...Here is a person that you stick a gun in his face, they've never died, they don't know how it feels, but the illusion of death causes them to do what you want them to do. (aka Robert Jones)

A large part of creating such an illusion involves catching potential victims off guard; the element of surprise denies them the opportunity to adopt an oppositional stance.

Sometimes people be alert; they be watchin' so you got to be careful of what you do. You got to be alert...Pretty soon [the intended victim] falls asleep, and then [h]e ain't even trippin'. He over there lookin' at some girl...[H]e probably just take his eyes off what he's doin', watchin' out, [which is] what he's supposed to be doin', and just turn his head on some girls. And [the stick-up] be on. (aka Andrew)

The offenders in our sample employ two different methods to approach would-be victims without arousing their suspicion. The first method involves using stealth or speed to sneak up on unwitting prey.

[Whoever I am going to rob. I] just come up on you. You could be going to your car. If you are facing this way, I want to be on your blind side. If you are going this way, I want to be on that side where I can get up on you [without you noticing me] and grab you: "This is a robbery, motherfucker, don't make it no murder!" I kind of like shake you. That's my approach. (aka Richard L. Brown)

The second method involves "managing a normal appearance" (Luckenbill, 1981:29). The offenders' aim is to fit into the social setting such that victims see their presence as normal and non-threatening, thereby allowing them to get close enough for a surprise attack.

Well, if I'm walking, say you got something that I want, I might come up there [and say], "Do you have the time?" or "Can I get a light from you?" something like that. "Yeah, it's three o'clock." By then I'm up on you, getting what I want. (aka Loco)

The method chosen to approach potential victims typically is dictated more by situational factors than by the idiosyncratic preferences of individual offenders. Depending on the situation, most of the armed robbers are prepared to use either speed and stealth or the presentation of a non-threatening self to move within striking range of their victims. The offender quoted below, for example, reported that he and his partners usually initiate their commercial stick-ups simply by charging through the front door of the establishment, ski masks pulled down and guns drawn.

When I approach the door [of a would-be commercial target] generally we got ski masks that rolls up into a skull cap; it's a skull cap right now and as we get to the door, right prior to walking in the door, we pull our masks down. Once we come in, we got these masks down [so] we got to come in pulling our weapons, might even have them out prior to going in, just concealed. As soon as we pull those masks down, we are committed [because our intention is obvious]. (aka Robert Gibson)

He added, however, that circumstances occasionally require them to enter intended targets posing as customers. Doing so helps them to avoid tipping their hand too early, which is crucial in situations where the victim is likely to be armed.

Say for instance [the target is] a tavern and the guy behind the bar...might be the kind of guy that got a pistol. Most bartenders and most people that's cashing checks, they got pistols on them. Believe me, they got pistols...So in that particular situation, you got to...get in the door before you go into motion because you got to know where they are at. You've got to make sure that you've got a real chance to get up on them and make it not worth their risk to try to reach the pistol [before you betray your intentions]. (aka Robert Gibson)

Regardless of the manner in which the offenders make their approach, the aim almost invariably is the same: to "establish co-presence" with the victim without betraying their intentions (Luckenbill, 1981:29). This gives would-be victims little opportunity to recognize the danger and to take steps to repel the attack. Not only is this far safer for the offenders, it also puts them in a strong position when it comes to compelling the victim's immediate cooperation.

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