Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Robbery targets

Source: Where Offenders Choose to Attack: A Discrete Choice Model of Robberies in Chicago, Wim Bernasco, Richard Block, American Society of Criminology, Criminology Volume 47, Number 1 2009

In "Where Offenders Choose to Attack", Bernasco and Block studied robberies committed in Chicago over a three year period in order to understand how robbery targets are selected. They confirmed the importance of several variables:

1) Distance from the robber’s residence: The odds of a site being chosen for robbery decreases exponentially with distance from the offender's home.

2) Race of the offender vs. the neighborhood he hunts in: Offenders are more likely to rob in communities of the same race.

3) The presence of certain “attractive” targets increases chance of robbery. Those targets measured in the article are drug dealers and their customers, prostitutes and their customers, high school students, and retail establishments.

Also of note: Although a large percent of robberies are committed by two or more offenders (48% according to this article), the selection criteria appear the same as those of single offenders.


I will focus here on two points drawn from the article.

First, offenders tend to hunt in areas where they will blend in.

One armed robber was quoted as saying,

[I] can go in a black neighborhood, [an] all-black neighborhood, and I don’t stand out, as opposed to me going out there to a [shopping center in the country] where I might stand out.

Marxist criminology argues that crime is a symptom of the “injustice” of capitalist society, a result of the power struggle of economic classes. Others have suggested that the disproportionate number of arrests in poor, black communities is nothing but unjust police prejudice and harrassment. Residents who become delinquent, then, are merely lashing out at an oppressive system. However the target of these crimes is the neighborhood of the offender himself; to be more specific, the robber targets his neighbor, who is suffering from the same social and economic obstacles. Furthermore, the victims usually share the same race as their attacker. This seriously discredits motives of racial vigilantism or class conflict.

One might argue that if the offender was motivated by anger at the injustice done to him, he might still irrationally lash out at innocents around him, since the real targets are not within reach. However there is no evidence the typical robber is motivated by a concern for civil rights, and the pattern of evidence suggests his choice of targets is intentional, not accidental. White robbers follow a similar pattern as black robbers, committing crimes in white or mixed neighborhoods, but not for example in all-Hispanic or all-black neighborhoods. That white, Hispanic and black robbers make similar choices suggests in itself that criminal thinking crosses issues of race.

Secondly, preferred targets are not those which maximize rewards, but those which minimize effort and risk.

While some criminals do pursue high profile targets, such as banks, most robberies are far less ambitious and involve smaller sums of money. The article describes a good robbery target as “concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable, and disposable”. Cash is the most valued target, and as the authors observe "[r]obbery is more common in deprived areas, which are often cash economies". Ironically, this makes them more attractive targets than wealthier neighborhoods. An abundance of check-cashing outlets, ATMs, pawn shops and bars makes an area vulnerable to robbery. Criminal enterprises, such as the drug trade and prostitution, are also particularly susceptible to robbery since the victims are unlikely to report the crime.

This second point is interesting given the conventional wisdom on poverty and crime. We often hear that poverty leads to crime, because individuals become desperate and pursue illegitimate means for their livelihood. This is a puzzling explanation, since the standard of living in the United States – even in the slums – is so much higher than in most of the world. Few Americans are at risk of actually dying from poverty, nowhere near the number that would explain observed crime rates. (A much larger threat, in fact, is heart disease and diabetes from obesity.) Yet crime is indeed more common in poorer communities. The article may shed some light on this, as it suggests ghetto conditions offer the criminal distinct protections and opportunities: racially homogenous communities to hide in, a variety of quickly accessible cash targets and easy pickins such as the local “vice criminals”.

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