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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Announcing the Crime | By announcing a stick-up, armed robbers commit themselves irrevocably to the offense. Any semblance of normality has been shattered; from this point onward, the victim will act and react in the knowledge that a robbery is being committed. The offenders we interviewed saw this as the "make or break" moment. The challenge for them was "to dramatize with unarguable clarity that the situation ha[d] suddenly and irreversibly been transformed into a crime" (Katz, 1988:176). In effecting this transformation, they seek to establish dominance over their intended prey, thereby placing themselves in a position to dictate the terms of the unfolding interaction.

When I first come up on [my victims], I might scare them, but then I calm them down. It's a control thing. If you can get a person to listen to you, you can get them to do just about anything...That's the way the world is made. (aka Tony Wright)

Most of the offenders said that they typically open their armed robberies with a demand that the would-be victim stop and listen to them.

I say [to the victim], "Look here, hey, just hold up right where you at! Don't move! Don't say nothing!" (aka James Minor)

They often couple this demand with an unambiguous declaration of their predatory intentions.

[I tell my victims], "It's a robbery! Don't nobody move!" (aka John Lee)

That declaration, in turn, usually is backed by a warning about the dire consequences of failing to do as they instruct.

[I say to the victim], "This is a robbery, don't make it a murder! It's a robbery, don't make it a murder!" (aka Wallie Cleaver)

All of the above pronouncements are intended to "soften up" victims; to inform them that they are about to be robbed and to convince them that they are not in a position to resist.

Having seized initial control of the interaction, offenders then must let victims know what is expected of them. As one armed robber reminded us: "You have to talk to victims to get them to cooperate...They don't know what to do, whether to lay down, jump over the counter, dance, or whatever." This information typically is communicated to victims in the form of short, sharp orders laced with profanity and, often, racial epithets.

[I say to victims], "Hey motherfucker, give me your shit! Move slow and take everything out of your pockets!" (aka James Love)

[I grab my victims and say], "Take it off girl! Nigger, come up off of it!" (aka Libbie Jones)

The "expressive economy" with which the offenders issue instructions can in part be accounted for by a desire to keep victims off balance by demonstrating an ominous insensitivity to their precarious emotional state (see Katz, 1988:177). Clearly, the swearing and racial putdowns help to reinforce this impression.

Almost all of the offenders typically used a gun to announce their stick-ups. They recognized that displaying a firearm usually obviated the need to do much talking. One put it this way: "A gun kinda speaks for itself." Most of them believed that "big, ugly guns" such as 9MMs or 45s were the best weapons for inducing cooperation.

[The 9MM] got that look about it like it gonna kill you. It talk for itself: "I'm gonna kill you." Looking at a 9 pointed at you, that's what goes through your head: "He gonna kill me if I don't give him this money." (aka Prauch)

In practice, however, many of the armed robbers actually carried somewhat smaller firearms because they were more easily concealed and simpler to handle.

I like the 32 because it's like a 38, small, easy and accessible. And it will knock [the victim] down if you have to use it. (aka Bob Jones)

A few offenders maintained that very small calibre pistols (e.g., 22s, 25s) made poor robbery weapons because many potential victims were not afraid of them.

[With] 22s or 25s people gonna be like, "Man, he using this little gun. I ain't worried." A 22 is real little, they gonna be, "Man, that ain't gonna do nothing but hurt me. Give me a little sting." (aka Syco)

That said, the majority of respondents felt that even the smallest handguns were big enough to intimidate most people. As one observed: "A person's gonna fear any kind of gun you put in their face. So it don't matter [what you use]. If it's a gun, it's gonna put fear in you."

The dilemma faced by offenders in relying on a gun to induce fear is that the strategy might work too well. Jack Katz (1988) has noted that the display of a firearm can easily be misinterpreted by victims as the precursor to an offense far more serious than robbery (e.g., rape, kidnapping, murder). Offenders are keen to avoid such misinterpretations because they can stun victims into a state of incomprehension or convince them that determined resistance represents their only chance of survival. When armed offenders warn victims -- "This is a robbery, don't make it a murder!" -- they are doing more than issuing a credible death threat. Paradoxically, they also are seeking to reassure the victims that submission will not put their lives in jeopardy.

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