ROBBERY (police)


Introduction and Definitions

Robbery is defined as ”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” (Federal Bureau of Investigations [FBI] 2004b, p. 21). It is an instrumental form of violence that is motivated primarily by anticipated economic rewards. Robbery can be distinguished from seemingly similar types of crimes such as larceny/theft and burglary in that it is committed in the presence of a victim. Robbery can be considered one of the most serious crime types because it involves close personal contact between offenders and victims, holds the potential for inflicting serious injury, and holds a high potential for economic loss. Approximately 60% of all robbery victims sustain injuries significant enough to require emergency room care and nearly 80% result in economic loss (FBI 2004a, Table 81). Close personal contact and potential for harm likely explain why many citizens fear becoming a victim of the crime of robbery (Sims and Johnston 2004).

Robbery Trends

Criminal incidents reported to the police are categorized into crime groups by police officers who file the reports that document incidents. Police officers who take reports about crime victims, for example, determine if an apparent break-in is a burglary or illegal trespassing or if an assault is aggravated or simple. This is important because robbery is often confused with other crimes such as assault, larceny/ theft, or burglary yet is distinguished by the use or threatened use of force and direct contact between the victim and offender. One may typically hear a victim of a burglary exclaim ”I was robbed,” when in fact they were the victim of a burglary. This is a common mischaracterization. The responding officer considers the known circumstances of an incident when making the determination of whether a crime has actually occurred and proper classification of the event.

Approximately 458,000 robbery incidents were reported to state and local police in 2002. This amounts to approximately 512,000 robbery victimizations because robbery incidents are one of the most likely types of personal crimes to involve multiple victims (Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS] 2003a, Table 26). Like other personal crime, robbery rose dramatically from the early 1960s to the early 1990s. After reaching a peak of approximately 600,000 incidents in 1981, robbery decreased for the next few years only to rise once again during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The total volume of robbery peaked at more than 680,000 incidents in 1991, and then decreased by nearly 40% where it has leveled off since 2000 at approximately 425,000 incidents.

It is also important to consider trends in robbery rates in addition to total volume because rates take into account changing population patterns. The highest robbery rate during the thirty-year period between the years 1973 and 2003 was in 1981 where it peaked at 7.4 per 1,000. The rate then fluctuated between 5 and 6 per 1,000 for much of the next decade only to peak again at 6.3 in 1993. Robbery rates subsequently decreased by nearly 80% between 1981 and 2002 from 7.4 to 2.5 per 1,000 (BJS 2003b).

Although these trends are similar in many ways, the post-1990s decrease in robbery rates appears more dramatic.

Characteristics of Robbery Incidents

Approximately one-half of all robbery incidents include some type of weapon. This compares to only a quarter of all assaults and 8% of rapes/sexual assaults. Hand guns represent the most common type of weapon used in robbery incidents (25%) followed by knives/cutting instruments (13%) and blunt objects (5%) (Perkins 2003, Table 2). The presence of a weapon is important in several ways including how successful offenders are in completing transactions. Incidents involving weapons are almost 20% more likely to be completed (79%). In contrast, only 57% of incidents involving knives/cutting instruments and 67% involving blunt objects are completed (Perkins 2003, 3).

Robbery is the quintessential street crime because it depends on generating fear in victims. Most robberies are directed against persons, as opposed to commercial institutions such as banks, and occur most often on streets or other public settings. The seemingly random nature of robbery along with the potential for harm generates fear. Offenders rely on this fear to expedite transactions successfully and quickly (Wright and Decker 1997). National data indicate that 43% of robberies occur on streets/highways, and 14% in both commercial houses and residences, respectively. There appears to be a noticeable regional effect where the percentage of incidents occurring on public streets was highest in the Northeast (57%) and lowest in the South (37%). The lower number of street/highway robberies in the South corresponds with a sizable increase in robberies occurring in residential locations (19%) (FBI 2004a, Table 2.19).

Understanding the victim-offender relationship (VOR) in robbery events is also important. Robbery typically involves victims and offenders who are strangers because it is an instrumental form of violence that is almost always motivated by financial gain. Compared to other forms of personal violence, robbery involves a greater percentage of victims and offenders who are strangers. For example, 63% of victim/ offenders in robberies are strangers compared to 32% of rape/sexual assault cases and 51% of aggravated assaults (FBI 2004a, Table 43). This is generally expected because close personal relationships (for example, family and close friendships) are expected to insulate or protect individuals from instrumental forms of violence (see Decker 1993).

Victim and Offender Characteristics

Robbery is a younger person’s game. Juveniles represent the largest percentage of arrest populations for robbery compared to other forms of personal violent crime such as murder, forcible rape, and aggravated assault. Snyder (2004, 2) reports that juveniles comprise approximately 23% of those arrested for robbery compared to only 10% for rape, 17% for forcible rape, and 13% for aggravated assault. Younger individuals are also disproportionately represented among robbery victims. Robbery victimization rates for individuals ages 16 to 24 are nearly 50% higher than among individuals ages 35 to 49 (FBI 2004a, Table 3).

Official statistics also reveal important features of offender and victim race as it relates to robbery. The National Crime Victimization Survey lets one determine the degree to which victim and offender demographic characteristics correspond through interviews with a sample of crime victims. Victims report on a series of issues relating to victimizations including perceptions of offender demographic characteristics.

Research consistently finds that crime is largely an intraracial phenomenon. For all personal crimes of violence, 73% of incidents involving white victims involve white offenders, and 75% of black victims were victimized by black offenders. The trend is stable for most violent personal crimes including rape/sexual assault and assault, yet it does not consistently hold for robbery victims. The intraracial nature of robbery is particularly strong for robberies involving black victims of whom 85% report being victimized by black offenders. White victims, however, stand in sharp contrast to this pattern. For example, 44% of white robbery victims reported being victimized by an offender of a different race. Thus, white robbery victims seem to have a greater chance of being victimized by an offender of a different race than other victims of robbery or any other type of personal crime (FBI 2004a). This form of interracial victimization along with any disproportionate attention given to such events by the news media holds the potential for increasing fear of crime.

Drugs-Robbery Nexus

Drug markets hold the potential for high levels of violence. The explosion in crack use in the 1980s is partly responsible for the increase in serious violent crime during that period. The most direct connection between drugs and robbery is through economically compulsive behavior that compels individuals to seek ways to generate income quickly and easily in the pursuit of the ”next fix.” Individuals involved in robbery are often involved in lifestyles of intense partying where drugs play a pivotal role. Robberies require very little skill, are often opportunistic in nature, and represent immediate access to the cash necessary for supporting such a lifestyle (Wright and Decker 1997).

A large percentage of offenders arrested for robbery are active drug users and often are motivated to commit crime to support drug habits. For example, a 1991 study of arrestees in twenty-four cities indicated that two-thirds of males arrested for robbery tested positive for some illegal substance as did three-quarters of females. The rate for males was second only to those arrested for burglary (68%) and drug sale/possession (79%) (BJS 1994, Table 2). As a class of offenders, those arrested for robbery are also most likely to report committing their offense to obtain money to buy drugs (BJS 1994, Table 3).

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