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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 January 2008, 04:20 GMT
The changing face of armed robbers
An armed Securitas robber
The Securitas robbers have been described as 'audacious'
As five men are convicted of kidnap, robbery and firearms charges following the 53m raid at a Securitas depot, The World Tonight's Paul Moss examines the shifting mentality of the criminals once tempted into carrying out such heists.

There were many words used to describe the Securitas raid, which netted its perpetrators more than 50m.

"Audacious," said some. "Absolutely brutal," was another's description.

But the former head of the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad had a rather different thought - a well-planned operation, featuring a man working on the inside, the use of guns, and above all, months of planning.

This was, according to Roy Ramm, an "anachronistic" crime.

"Actually committing an armed robbery - it takes some balls, it takes some determination," he says.

"These days, organised criminals see more money in drugs, more money in people trafficking. They've backed away from these highly risky, set-piece robberies."

In the old days, a successful robbery was one where you got in and out without even firing a shot
Professor Roger Matthews, South Bank University

That backing away does make sense. Carry out a simple cost-benefit analysis, and you can see that armed robbers tend to get caught, and tend to earn themselves long sentences.

Drug and people smugglers can net as much money or more, with lower risks of being caught, and for that matter, a lower risk of being confronted by gun-carrying police officers waiting at the bank.

Figures just released confirm the suggestion that the traditional, highly-planned armed robbery is increasingly a crime of the past.

According to the British Bankers' Association, 2007 had the lowest number of bank robberies on record.

"It's also a matter of technology," says Anna Gilmour, a security expert at Jane's Book of Country Risk.

She describes how new technology has been brought to bear on the task of protecting banks and any other place where cash is kept.

"You've got CCTV cameras with digital feeds sending the images back to a central control room. You've got movement detectors, infra-red sensors.

"If anything is spotted, you can close the doors of a bank and seal it in seconds."

'Clever and organised'

But if the banks have changed, so too has the character profile of those still trying to raid them.

The writer and former prisoner Erwin James noticed it towards the end of his sentence in the 1990s.

He is at pains to emphasise that he makes no excuse for anyone using violence to commit a robbery.

"But," he says "a lot of the traditional bank robbers I met were very clever people, highly-organised. In another life, they would have been very successful."

That all changed when, he says, crime became more wrapped up with drugs and drug culture.

"There were a lot of guys who would get themselves high on drugs, and just take a chance.

"Out they would go, on their own and with a gun, and try to take a post office. There was no professionalism."

That word "professionalism" might seem provocative. We are talking here about armed robbery, not chartered accountancy.

But it is a word very much understood by criminologists, many of whom argue that the world of criminal work is a direct reflection of the legal working world.

Shifting perspective

Professor Roger Matthews from South Bank University has studied the change in armed robberies and those who commit them over the past couple of decades.

"In the 1970s and 1980s," he says, "life was organised around careers, and you stayed in a job for life.

"A young armed robber would aspire to be like the big-name armed robbers, the 'faces.'"

All that has gone. The job for life culture is a thing of the past, job security more fragile than ever.

And just as ordinary working people have been forced to pursue a "portfolio career", maybe changing roles several times, so too have criminals.

"The younger ones do robbery one day, maybe deal drugs the next," says Prof Matthews.

"They don't see armed robbery as a career. What you're seeing is a cultural shift."

Not that this provides any reassurance to the British Bankers' Association.

Their figures claim that although fewer banks are bring robbed, the perpetrators are more willing than ever to use violence. Once again, this is no surprise to Prof Matthews.

"In the old days, a successful robbery was one where you got in and out without even firing a shot. That was the aim.

"With the young kids doing it now, all that has changed."


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