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Street robbery is not just for the money

Financial gain is far from being the only motivation for violent street robbery in the UK. It is often carried out because of a sheer desire to fight, to put right perceived injustice, to increase "street cred" or even just for "kicks". This emerges from a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Both the amount and the severity of gratuitous violence used in street robbery are increasing in the UK, but because the number of studies is very small and tends to be limited to what the precise situation was in each case and whether the assault was likely to lead to financial gain, this worrying social problem is poorly documented and understood.

Now, however, Professor Trevor Bennett, Director of the Centre for Criminology, University of Glamorgan and Dr. Fiona Brookman have provided dramatic insights into the role of street culture in the motivation and enactment of violent street crime. They interviewed 120 offenders, average age 26, of whom one third said they had been arrested 50 times or more. Overall, 92 per cent had used illegal drugs. One third said they were involved in gangs or criminal groups. Over a quarter carried firearms and an additional 35 per cent carried some other weapon, usually a knife.

One offender describes how he spent the money from a recent robbery on good times and partying, buying and using drugs. "I went back to my house to let things cool down before I went back to the pub. Partied the money away and the next day I got arrested."

A second common motive is to use the proceeds from robbery to buy non-essential, status-enhancing items. As one offender reported, owning a certain type of car and cruising slowly in residential areas with the sound system turned up loud was a method of marking their presence and obtaining status on the streets. ".after we done a few armed robberies I bought a brand new car..It's like showing off, really."

Again, robbery is found by some to be a pleasurable activity in its own right. One offender said he was addicted to it. "It weren't even for money. It was just - I had money; it was more like the buzz you get from doing things.. I was more addicted to robbing than I was to drugs. Just get a funny feeling when I go out robbing." One element in the excitement came from overpowering the victim and obtaining dominance.

"It's for the fun. .'Cos the point of street robbery is to get them to fight back, innit? I'd give him a couple of slaps and tell him to fight back, yeah. If he won't fight back, we just give him a kick and go."

Robberies can also be prompted by anger and the desire to start a fight, with cash being taken only as an afterthought. Here the level of violence used is often beyond that required to secure the victim's compliance. "I picked a fight with someone on the street. They were the first people I come across. . I started hitting one of them and calling him names and said, 'What are you looking at?' and stuff like that. Then I can't remember how but I started hitting him and then I just jumped on him. Punched him, turned him over, went through his pockets."

Finally, some robberies were committed as a kind of informal justice in which the offender felt he or she had righted some wrong done to them.

Overall, some kind of drugs connection was mentioned in 60 per cent of all robberies reported.

"I was walking down the street and I saw this boy and girl walking along, like. I grabbed her handbag and grabbed his phone off him and run off. I was desperate for crack."

The interview database gives ample scope for further analysis. Meanwhile, Professor Bennett says, "The decision to commit street robbery can be explained in part by particular characteristics of the street culture. This finding is important because British research has tended to explain robbery in terms of rational choice and to focus instead on the role of cost-reward calculations. Our research suggests that any explanation must primarily take into account cultural factors associated with life on the street."

Annika Howard | alfa
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