Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Dr. Larry F. Jetmore
My next series of investigative articles deals with the crime of robbery, which is larceny by force or threat of force. Although the legal definition of robbery varies state by state, most states separate the crime into degrees of legal seriousness depending on a series of variables regarding the extent of injury or potential threat of injury to the victim(s). Some of the factors that add to the seriousness of the crime include:
• A person was injured during the robbery;
• The robber was armed or indicated they were armed;
• Another person aided the robber; and
• The robbery involved taking an occupied vehicle.
Since force or threat of force is a basic element in the crime of robbery, the investigation must prove the victim was injured, however slightly, or in fear of being injured when the property was taken.
Studies indicate that about 50 percent of all reported robberies occur on the street.1 These robberies are frequently committed at night and in dimly lit areas. Typical scenarios include a purse snatching, a strong-arm attack at an ATM and an armed robber demanding cash from a person in the parking lot of a restaurant or bar. The crime is often characterized by its quickness and a motive to obtain cash to pay for drugs.
Due to the time of day, location and suddenness of street-level robberies, victims often can’t provide more than a basic description of the perpetrator. Even if a suspect is apprehended, without physical evidence linking the suspect to the scene or victim (e.g., the perpetrator’s possession of the victim’s credit or ATM card), the victim often can’t identify the suspect as the person who robbed them, and prosecution may prove difficult.
High incident rates of street-level robberies can be significantly reduced through a combination of crime analysis, directed patrol and decoy operations. Agencies can effectively use today’s computer-aided dispatching and time-sensitive statistical analysis to place the right amount of personnel in the most likely locations at the correct time of day to prevent all but the more brazen street-level robberies from occurring.
Convenience Store Robberies
Convenience stores are just about everywhere. They’re often open 24 hours a day, and do a cash business. Because there often is only one employee, and only a counter separates the robber from ready cash, they make easy targets. It’s simple to “case the joint” to determine when business downtimes occur and whether customers are present or likely to be present in the store. It’s also easy to see if the store has a video surveillance camera and how often police patrols ride by. Even if there is a video camera, escape routes can be easily planned, and a simple mask, such as a ski mask or silk stocking, can make the perpetrator unidentifiable.
A woman returns to her car with her infant daughter after shopping at a mall. She opens the car door and is putting the baby in a child-seat in the back when four young men demand the keys to the car and her purse. One backhands her across the face when she doesn’t move quickly enough to get the baby out of the car. She is left standing in the parking lot watching them drive her car away. There are approximately 49,000 carjackings each year, with eight out of 10 involving a weapon, usually a gun.2 Ninety-seven percent of offenders are male. Injury occurs in 16 percent of carjackings, with serious physical injury resulting in 4 percent of the time in such offenses.
Carjackings often take place at gas stations, ATMs, car washes, parking lots, shopping centers, convenience stores, restaurants, train stations and parking control signals. When I was head of my agency’s narcotics squad, a common scenario involved a person from the suburbs coming into a high crime area late at night to buy coke or dope, and having their car forcefully taken, leaving them hurt, on foot, alone and in an area as strange to them as an alien planet.
The police dispatcher or complaint writer who receives an initial robbery call from the victim plays a critical role in obtaining information, which may affect the tactics used by patrol officers in responding to the scene. Critical information dispatch must obtain and provide includes (but is not limited to) the following:
• Is the robbery still in progress? (Cell phones and a variety of different types of alarm systems have increased the likelihood that a robbery may be reported to the police while still in progress.) If the robbery is no longer in progress, how long ago did it occur?
• What is the robbery’s exact location? Bank, convenience store, parking garage, on the street, taxicab, home invasion, ATM?
• Is anyone injured? What is the extent of their injury? Is an ambulance needed at the scene?
• How many suspects are involved?
• Is/was the suspect armed? With what type of weapon? Handgun, shotgun, rifle, knife, automatic weapons?
• Is a description of the suspect(s) available?
• Have the suspect(s) left the scene? How? In a car? On foot? What was their direction of travel? If a vehicle was used to escape, what is a description of the vehicle?
All of this information must get to responding officers. Streetwise cops make it their business to know every business in their assigned areas. They know where every back alley leads and the locations of the closest entrance ramps to major highways. If the robbery is in the past tense, officers can position themselves at likely escape routes. The suspect(s)’ MO may provide officers with information to link past robberies and suspects to the current robbery. In robbery cases officers should proceed under the assumption the suspect is armed, but the police dispatcher must relay any information relative to weapons to responding officers. When to use, and stop using, emergency lights and sirens in responding to the call is dependent to a large extent on the initial information received.
Although medical attention to the injured remains the top priority, responding units should plan and coordinate their efforts before arriving on scene. Police scanners are easily purchased, and robbers often place lookouts with cell phones. Street cops often don’t use the standard-issued police codes (anyone can figure them out by just listening to a police scanner), but have developed their own codes and language in order to position themselves while responding to and at the scene of a crime. “I’ll meet you at the Big B” is an example of this type of coded language.
If the suspects have already left the scene, it’s the responsibility of the first arriving officer to gather pertinent information and advise headquarters so an appropriate radio broadcast can be put out relative to the information listed above. Since the same type of forensic evidence I discussed in previous articles may be present at a robbery scene, the scene should be protected and processed.
According to a 2002 FBI survey on national crime victimization,1 robberies on streets or highways accounted for more than 40 percent of the reported robbery offenses. Robberies of commercial establishments totaled 26 percent, and robberies in residences were 12 percent. The remaining robberies occurred in miscellaneous locations.
Another FBI survey revealed that a firearm is used in approximately 40 percent of robbery cases, knives or other cutting instruments in about 8 percent and “other weapons” in 10 percent. In the remaining 42 percent, the robbery is of the strong-armed type, where force is used—hands, fists, etc.—but no weapon is displayed.2 These statistics indicate the potential for death or serious physical injury not only to the victim, but also to responding officers. In almost 50 percent of robberies, the perpetrator is armed with a gun or knife. It should go without saying that officers should respond to robbery scenes with extreme caution and tactical awareness.
According to recent victimization studies,3 only about 50 percent of robberies are reported to the police. Minorities and the poor are more likely to be victims of robbery than others. In almost 90 percent of robberies, the suspects are male. Most robberies occur in metropolitan areas. Black males tend to be robbed at twice the rate of black females, and at 2.5 times the rate of white males. Robbery is a stranger-to-stranger crime. In about 71 percent of the cases, the perpetrator and victim do not know one another.
1. United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2003). 2002 National Crime Victimization Survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
2. United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2000). Crime in the United States—1999. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
3. Osterburg, J. W., & Ward, R. H. (2000). Criminal Investigation: A Method for Reconstructing the Past. (3rd ed.). Ohio: Anderson Publishing Company.
Depending on the size of the department and other variables, a detective may or may not respond to the scene. Patrol officers can certainly handle a robbery investigation. So, why should a department retain detectives who specialize in robbery investigations? The question in my mind is how best to use patrol resources. Even if a suspect is apprehended at the scene or close by, unless the robbery is a simple purse snatch or street mugging, the work required to put a robbery case together is very time consuming. Smaller departments in rural areas with comparatively fewer incidents of crime may be able to have a patrol officer tied up on a robbery investigation for an entire shift, but in a large metropolitan area where calls for service are stacked and always waiting, patrol officers are needed on the street. If the investigation will take a prolonged period (processing the crime scene for evidence, photographs of the scene, written statements, interviews and interrogations, applications for arrest and/or search and seizure warrants, etc.), a detective should be called. Additionally, detectives who specialize in robbery may recognize a criminal’s modus operandi, or, in the process of the investigation, be able to link a string of robberies together.
Next issue: My next article will examine a fictional robbery case and the investigative and forensic methods used to solve it.
1. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2000). Criminal Victimization in the United States—1999. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
2. Klauss, P. (1999). Carjacking in the United States, 1992-1996. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.