Criminology Commercial and Bank Robbery
John D. McCluskey, Jeffrey M. Cancino
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0174


Bank and commercial robberies and the perpetrators, targets, and victims of those crimes are extensively represented in novels, movies, and biographies. The academic literature on this subject, though quite broad, is surprisingly sparse, relative to the volume of romantic, dramatic, and tragic presentations within popular culture. The research, however, has coalesced around several identifiable aspects of these crimes. From the perspective of measuring bank robberies and crimes, there is a substantial and relatively reliable set of data sources available in the United States and in Europe to capture prevalence and trends over time. Given the fact that commercial establishments are often insured against losses, official data sources are considered to reliably capture these events. Among the research that has been conducted on commercial robbers there has been an effort to distinguish among types of robbers with the most common categories identified being professionals and opportunists or amateurs. This aspect of the extant research focuses on how offenders make choices and manage risk. Beyond the typology, however, there is an entire literature, not entirely separate, that assesses the motivation and decision making of offenders and the theories that criminologists have applied to explain their behaviors. Temporal and geographic patterns, which emerge when researchers consider where and when offenders commit bank and commercial robberies, represent a substantial and growing aspect of the academic research. This points to, for example, regularities in the time of day that offenders choose to commit crimes or illustrates that offenders’ travel patterns to their targets tend to be relatively short. Among the types of targets, two have substantial specific literatures. Bank robbery and convenience store robberies have both drawn interest from researchers examining the geography of crime, the criminal justice response, and the decision making of offenders who target those specific locations. Understanding the consequences and control of commercial and bank robberies requires consideration of victims, criminal justice responses, and the use of weapons in these crimes. With regard to victims, there have been explorations of lethal and injurious outcomes as well as the psychological consequences that follow the event. The criminal justice responses to these crimes include applications of police and investigative approaches and explorations of how perpetrators are processed through the criminal justice system. The use of weapons, which is tightly linked with robbers’ decision making and victim outcomes, explores how offenders perceive the use of guns and other weapons and how the presence of weapons leads to more lethal outcomes in commercial robberies. In sum, the literature could be considered as organized around criminological questions concerning offenders and victims as well as policy considerations about target choices and criminal justice responses.

General Overviews

Much of the historical data collection associated with commercial and bank robbery can be traced back to the early 1930s, under the Federal Bank Robbery Act, as a way to deter gangsters from committing commercial crimes (Ponsoldt 1983). Over the years, data collection has improved tremendously, and the FBI continues to publish periodic information specific to commercial robberies (see Federal Bureau of Investigation 2010). For example, Federal Bureau of Investigation 2003 provides three data sources (e.g., Uniform Crime Reporting [UCR], National Incident-Based Reporting System [NIBRS], and Bank Crime Statistics [BCS]) that vary in their collection protocols and can be used to study commercial robbery trends in terms of similarities and differences. Baumer and Carrington 1986 also provides a comprehensive analysis of bank robberies across various topics ranging from bank security devices to sentencing outcomes for offenders. This particular research offers several explanations for trends across multiple years and in doing so considers bank security features that help researchers and practitioners become better informed about these trends. Bureau of Justice Statistics 1984 also provides sets of circumstances (e.g., physical harm, legal representation) associated with bank robbery trends. Outside the United States, European scholars and practitioners are also collecting and analyzing commercial robbery trends (Jammers 1995, European Banking Federation). Using more sophisticated analyses, Samavati 2006 collates state data from a decade and offers insight on how state-level unemployment and law enforcement trends influence bank robbery across all US states.

  • Baumer, T. L., and M. D. Carrington. 1986. The robbery of financial institutions: Executive summary. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, US Department of Justice.

    A historical background of bank robbery trends, followed by a more precise examination of bank security devices and procedures, disposition of robbery cases, and sentencing outcomes. This source yields a comprehensive analysis of bank robberies that documents why robbers select banks based on security features, police clearance, and length of sentence. A must-read for researchers interested in bank-specific commercial robberies.

  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. 1984. Federal offenses and offenders: Bank robbery. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice.

    An excellent statistical summary of federal bank robberies garnered from Bureau of Justice Statistics sources that trace case processing from police investigations through the correctional stage. This source provides a historical perspective of topical areas such as physical harm, offender characteristics, legal representation, recidivism, pretrial violations, and much more. A highly accessible source that provides more holistic trends from investigation to incarceration.

  • European Banking Federation.

    Provides a series of European reports by members of the European Banking community consisting of bank robbery time trends, losses, modus of operandi, and duration of robbery across thirty-five countries. A comprehensive source for international bank robbery trends that can be used comparatively and as a resource for assessing trends in bank robbery.

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2003. Special report: Bank robbery in the United States. In Crime in the United States: 2002, 303–313. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation.

    A highly informative report and systematic examination of bank robbery incidents across three different federal data sources (e.g., UCR, NIBRS, and BCS). The report consists of time-series analysis that compares similarities and differences of bank robbery data from 1973 to 2001. An excellent introduction to bank robbery data, trends, and similarities/differences between data sources.

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2010. Offense analysis. In Crime in the United States: 2010. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) UCR report of yearly counts of commercial robberies. The categories include distinctions for banks, gas stations, and convenience stores as well as other commercial categories. Very useful for comparing personal and commercial victimization patterns and the distribution of offenses within commercial targets. Arraying the UCR data over time would also provide insight into commercial robbery trends.

  • Jammers, V. 1995. Commercial robbery in the Netherlands: Crime analysis in practice. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 3.3: 124–136.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02242933

    A comprehensive description of commercial robberies in the Netherlands showing the type of data that is collected across a wide spectrum of characteristics, such as target, offenders, loot, and other attributes. The article provides a snapshot showing time of day when most commercial robberies are committed. More important, unlike other countries, the Netherlands collects such data in a central repository known as the National Robbery Registration System. A good source for non-US studies on commercial robbery. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Ponsoldt, J. F. 1983. A due process analysis of judicially authorized presumptions in federal aggravated bank robbery cases. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 74.2: 363–390.

    DOI: 10.2307/1143081

    A comprehensive legal analysis of bank robbery that analyzes various federal circuit case law, criminal law issues, and decisions pertaining to due process, all of which are associated with prosecutions under the Federal Bank Robbery Act. An ideal source for legal trends that can be used as a historical compliment in the evolution of enforcement practices and case precedence. Available online by subscription.

  • Samavati, H. 2006. Economics of crime: Panel data analysis of bank robbery in the United States. Atlantic Economic Journal 34.4: 455–466.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11293-006-9033-y

    A research article that examines annual bank robberies over the course of ten years for every US state. While bank robberies are rare events, the authors show that aggregate measures of unemployment tend to significantly influence bank robbery. Moreover, a states’ police population ratio was found to be negatively related to bank robbery. An ideal source for aggregate analysis of bank robbery. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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