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
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
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
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
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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