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Armed robbery in small businesses

CrimBrief The Official Blog of the AIC

10 October 2014

Despite stereotypical Hollywood portrayals, armed robbery is not a crime unique to banks, casinos or jewellery stores. In fact, less than two percent of robberies each year have occurred in these high-profit locations. Indeed the most common armed robbery locations are the street or footpath or in small business retail locations.

‘Small businesses’ include service stations, pharmacies, newsagents, takeaway, liquor and convenience stores which hold cash on the premises. As well as being a common target for robbery generally, these businesses have also been found to be particularly vulnerable to repeat victimisation. In 2009-10, 28 percent of repeat organisational victims of armed robbery were service stations followed by unspecified retail (23%) and pharmacies, takeaway and convenience stores (each 8%).

Recent AIC research examined how armed robbery differs depending on the location. The research drew on 627 armed robbery related police narratives. This information is different from quantitative police data as it provides a summary of the crime including the sequence of events. This means researchers gain a greater insight into the nature of armed robbery as it occurs in locations like small businesses.

Unsurprisingly, an analysis of the narratives showed outlets were being robbed between the hours of 6am and midnight, which reflects the variety in operating hours between different types of small businesses. For example, newsagents are often open early in order to distribute newspapers while grocery stores may remain open later in order to cater to individuals who shop after work. Regardless of when a store was open, robberies tended to occur when there were very few people in the store or around closing time. Potentially, the decision to rob at the close of business may correspond with the time of day when cash was most accessible; for example, tills being counted or money being transported to the bank.

While many offenders committed armed robbery when there was no one around, other indicators highlight the semi-opportunistic nature this offence in small businesses. For instance, very few offenders made serious attempts to disguise themselves. While hoods and caps were common, the majority of offenders did not use any type of disguise instead choosing to leave their faces uncovered. Further, the use of gloves (an important tool to avoid identification through fingerprinting) was rare. This lack of disguise and strategy to avoid identification indicates a low degree of planning compared to strategies employed in other locations.

CCTV picture of an armed robbery at an ACT premises

CCTV picture of an armed robbery at an ACT premises

Finally, the narratives show robberies against small businesses tended not to involve violence. This was likely due to a high rate of victim cooperation, which meant offenders rarely had to escalate to physical violence to get what they wanted.

However, this does not mean that robberies against small businesses were not confronting for employees. Robberies in retail settings were characterised by high levels of aggression in the form of threats. In particular, threats to kill, maim or otherwise hurt the employee. The experience of threats can be extremely traumatic for an employee, especially if it occurs in a highly charged situation like a robbery where they already fear for their lives and weapons are being brandished. Further, in certain small businesses such as takeaway, grocery stores or fast food restaurants, the employee being threatened may be a teenager in their first job. An experience of armed robbery can severely traumatise them; potentially affecting their ability to return to work for years to come.

In short, small businesses present an interesting case study in armed robbery. Preventing armed robbery in these businesses is not simply about increasing security although many do. For example, service stations now have screens between the customer and register. However, this type of measure may be impractical with  other types of retail outlet. That the nature of the small business can vary so drastically means a one-size-fits all approach to prevention does not work.

Instead, many small businesses instead focus on minimising risk through other types of situational crime prevention measures tailored to their specific location. For example, uncluttered front windows maintains adequate natural surveillance from the street while strict cash handling procedures limit the amount of money on the premises at any one time. More research is needed, however, to in order to determine the best practice approach in preventing armed robbery in small businesses.

By A/g Research Analyst Georgina Fuller

Posted: 10 October 2014 | | | | | |