What Can Bank Robberies Teach Burglaries?

If you work in the field of deterring and investigating bank robberies, you have to read the following excerpt from today’s Boston Globe as a measurement of profound success.

“Three charged in Brookline bank robbery plot

By Colin A. Young, The Boston Globe, April 6, 2012

“Three people are facing charges that they plotted to rob two Brookline banks Wednesday. Police say the trio apparently got cold feet in both cases, however, when approached by vigilant bank employees.

Brandon Wood, 31, of Pittsfield, William Curtin, 26, of Dedham, and Brenda Santos, 22, who is homeless, face charges of conspiracy to commit bank robbery.

Wood and Curtin were arraigned Thursday in Brookline District Court, where they pleaded not guilty, the Norfolk district attorney’s office said. Santos was sent to Pittsfield to face charges.

On Wednesday morning, employees at Brookline Bank on Beacon Street called police to report a man who had entered the bank wearing a hooded sweatshirt, hat, and sunglasses. When the manager and assistant manager asked the man to remove his sunglasses, he said he would go put them in his car…”

Given the investments of mind and matter that local police, FBI and partners have made in addressing bank robbery this success is no longer surprising.  The strategy deters, and makes swift captures (60% clearance rate) in, bank robberies.   For the most part, the strategy on bank jobs appears to have driven out the more violent, more clever and more enterprising bad guys. Nationally, bank robbers were about three times more likely to use an oral demand or note or some combination of both as versus using a firearm, according to the FBI’s 2010 Bank Crime Statistics report. They were about twice as likely to threaten having a weapon versus showing one.

This makes one think of burglaries, a far more common crime that directly affects millions of Americans.  Why don’t we have the same story to tell about burglaries?

Some numbers to compare.  Massachusetts experienced 180 bank robberies in 2009, according to the FBI.  On average (another very rough and simplified calculation) robbers took about $7,700 in each of the 5,943 bank robberies in the US that year.  That’s very roughly $1.4 million (180 X $7700) lost in bank robberies in Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts in 2009, the 34,665 reported burglaries cost victims $24.3 million in wealth, if we can assume, pretty conservatively I think and for purposes of illustration, an average loss of $700 for each burglary.

We lost in bank robberies about 6 percent of what was lost in burglaries.

I got this comparison idea from Chris Braiden (www.chrisbraiden.com).  While an active police executive in Edmonton, Alberta, Chris authored a monograph about crime called “Bank Robberies and Stolen Bikes: Thoughts of a Street Cop.”  He discovered that the loss to the Canadian economy from bike thefts dwarfed the loss for bank robberies.  Yet bike thefts seldom got more than a sympathetic shrug from police while bank robberies got an all-out response. It’s obvious why we invested so much candlepower and firepower in dealing with bank jobs.  We have to protect the integrity of the monetary system and individuals’ property.

The question is, what can we learn from our success with bank robberies that we can adapt to burglaries?

Here are three quick ones from me.  What do you think?

Lesson One: police can deter what they invest their brains and training in.  For example, over several decades, local, state and federal law enforcement and investigative agencies in Massachusetts (as in most states) developed a comprehensive strategy  for deterring bank robberies and efficiently and effectively capturing bank robbers.  They have learned from each incident and have developed a comprehensive strategy to make bank robbery very unattractive to the more dangerous bad guys.  It includes everything from high-speed response to incidents and effective intelligence gathering and analysis.  One characteristic of the approach is the continuous learning among all parties on how to improve the work.  Key stakeholders such as banking and insurance firms are part of the strategy.  What happened in Brookline on April 4 is the product of decades of learning and refinement.   It’s a strategy that has been tested, improved and tested and improved.

Lesson Two: The Case Method is an Anachronism.  The case method is a conventional practice with origins in the London Metropolitan Police of the 1840’s  They organized a homicide unit that used the convention of case to investigate and solve homicides.  They developed a science of detection that overthrew the coarse, unjust and ineffective method of rounding up and brutalizing the usual suspects. It worked pretty well in the context of the kinds of homicide incidents Greater London experienced in the 1840’s.   It created the myth of the detective, “Fabian of the Yard” and the like, and detectives became invested in the myth as well as  in helping to deter and prevent victimizations.   Preventing crimes or diseases don’t allow for knights to ride to the rescue.  That’s why contemporary TV loves detectives and surgeons and not patrol cops and internal medicine docs.

But other than in a popular fiction context is everything and the case method no longer works very well, if it ever has worked truly well in the US.

Scholars such as Carl Klockars argued (The Idea of Police) that US policing adopted the case method in the Progressive Era as a means to better control detective-policemen, not as the most effective means of capturing bad guys and deterring crime and victimization.  The same motive gave us our current organizational model of powerful, centralized bureaus led and managed in the model of command and control.  We have made strides in the past 20 years in breaking free of the prison of the case and using comprehensive, contextual thinking and practice to deter, reduce and prevent crime and victimization.  We can still use the advanced science that grew up with the case idea, but without the handcuffs it places on effectiveness.  But the idea of the case is still all-powerful. Fortress Patrol and Fortress Detectives still stand.

Lesson Three:  Time to break the UCR’s ideological hold on the contemporary police mind.  Let’s face it, as a practical matter the UCR incident hierarchy has imprinted itself on our brain cells.  We just can’t seem to take burglary as seriously as bank robbery.  We are well-meaning, but we have evolved a cognitive bias that says burglary always will be  Mickey Mouse stuff.  ‘The B&E is just a fact of life, we have come to believe implicitly.  It’s a function of the drug epidemic in America and who can get ahead of that?  It’s a function of dysfunctional families and poverty and this, and that….’

Burglary is also a set of behaviors engaged in by a a small number of identifiable persons in identifiable patterns, with knowable factors of space, time and opportunity. B&E offenders tend to be addicted and dumb.  They are sneaky and ruthless but addicted and dumb.  Dumb or not people deserve help with addiction, but they don’t deserve to violate my family’s home and take my wife’s engagement ring.*

With the cognitive and technological tools now at the disposal of every police department, I can’t think of any justification for not reducing and preventing burglaries.  We have to re-think the profound damage burglary does to individuals and families and to our economy.  Remember, a $24.3 million price tag in Massachusetts alone in 2009.

A police chief could go to roll calls tomorrow and tell personnel s/he wants a 15% reduction in B&E’s –residential and commercial — this calendar year.  If that chief gives those personnel license to use their minds, their experience and  imaginations — guided by law and the Constitution but without the self-imposed constraints of conventional practice — s/he will see that 15% reduction.

*(Rhetorical flourish.  My home has not been burglarized).


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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