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Canadas declining bank robbery rate

Male robber vaulting over counter.

Today, the “vaulter bandit” is a rare breed of robber who has approached 20 robberies without being apprehended. Credit: York Regional Police

By Dr. Frederick Desroches, Department of Sociology and Legal Studies, St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo

A recent article in The Economist reports on the declining crime rate in the developed world and the near disappearance of bank robbery in the United Kingdom.

Data from Statistics Canada similarly reveal a reduction of 22 per cent in police-reported property and violent crime from 2000 to 2012. Bank holdups have declined even more dramatically — 46 per cent — across the country from a total of 1,098 robberies in 2000 to 591 in 2012.

Demographics

Research shows that most crimes are disproportionately committed by younger men and that involvement in crime declines with age. The recent drop in Canada’s crime rate can be partially attributed to an aging population (from a median age of 36.8 in 2000 to 40 in 2012).

Snapshot of a modern bank robber

Almost all offenders are men. Robbery is a crime of violence that is seldom committed by women. When women are involved, they typically assist a male partner.

Younger bandits. Although most robbers are still in their 20s, the police will occasionally arrest young offenders for bank holdups. This was a rare occurrence in the 1980s.

Less serious criminal records. The police report that they now encounter more offenders with minor criminal records or no record at all.

Fewer robberies per offender. These days, offenders are committing far fewer robberies before being arrested. The serial robber has not yet disappeared but is much less common than in the past.

Disappearance of old-time professional robbers. The police report that very few professional criminals now rob banks. Bank robbery is no longer a lucrative crime and serious criminals have moved into drugs, fraud and other offences that pay better.

Ethnic background of offenders. The majority of bank robbers in the 1980s and early 1990s were Caucasian. These days, the offender population includes newer immigrant groups.

This demographic change doesn’t in itself account for the large decrease in the bank robbery rate. Credit has to be given to the banking community for improved security and to the police who have taken advantage of new technology, forensics and communications to reduce robberies.

Improvements in bank security

The amount of money stolen in bank robberies is small (often less than $1,000 per robbery) and banks are relatively unconcerned about these financial losses. Instead, their focus has always been the safety of their employees and customers.

For this reason, the banking community trains and directs staff to co-operate with robber demands and hand over the money as requested. This policy is meant to minimize confrontations with the offender and ensure that robbers depart bank premises as quickly as possible. A policy of compliance and co-operation is supported by the police as a means of reducing the risk of violence against staff and customers (Desroches, 1997).

In recent years, banks have increased security by limiting the cash available to robbers and through the increased use of time locks, alarms, rewards, guards, digital cameras, dye packs and other security devices.

Perhaps the most important improvement in security has been the extensive use of digital cameras in banks, which began after the January 1999 killing of Nancy Kidd, a Brampton bank teller who was shot during a takeover robbery by four armed men.

Evidence at the ensuing murder trials included surveillance camera photographs of the holdup. However, the “poor quality” of the photos was reported in the media and was blamed, in part, for the difficulty in convicting one of the accused of the most serious charge of first degree murder (Peel Law Chambers, 2000).

Challenges and improvements

Today, investigators credit improvements in technology including high-resolution security cameras/videos and police computer systems for their ability to successfully apprehend offenders.

Photographs are particularly helpful in identifying and apprehending individuals who use minimal disguise in committing their crimes.

Offenders who stand in line and pass a note to a single teller — often referred to as “note pushers” — typically make up more than three-quarters of all bank robbers and usually don nothing more than a baseball cap and sunglasses to disguise their appearance.

Takeover style robbers (solo gunmen and bank robbery crews) use a commando-style modus operandi and rush into the bank, display a gun, utter threats and commands, often vault the counter and empty several tills (Desroches, 1995: 142-153).

These offenders are more difficult to identify since they typically wear full facial disguises. Videos and photographs nonetheless provide valuable information including height, race, clothing, voice and other features that can help officials or the public to identify who they are. This information is used in robbery bulletins sent out to officers in their cruisers, correctional personnel, and the media in an attempt to identify culprits.

Police today also make use of improved forensics including fingerprints and DNA to apprehend criminals sooner.

In April 2013, two armed men shot a teller and customer during a bank holdup in Brampton, Ontario. One of the suspects was identified from a fingerprint found in the stolen getaway car. Investigators received more than 50 tips after releasing security camera footage of the incident to the media. Both suspects have since been arrested and charged.

Improved bank security and police investigative practices have increased clearance rates for bank robberies from approximately 70 per cent in the 1980s and 1990s to 90 per cent in recent years (Desroches, 1995).

Offenders are identified much sooner and no longer have the opportunity to embark on a robbery spree. Consequently, most commit far fewer robberies before being apprehended.

The median number of convictions per offender as reported in Force and Fear was 10 bank robberies. Of 80 offenders interviewed, 21 were convicted of one to five holdups; 19 were convicted of six to 10 robberies; 20 did between 11 and 20 holdups; and the remaining 20 had more than 20 bank robbery convictions.

During that time, it was common practice for the police and media to give nicknames to robbers based on their M.O. and/or appearance such as “the pot-belly bandit” and “the subway bandit” (Desroches, 1995).

Today, the “vaulter bandit” is a rare breed of robber who has approached 20 robberies without being apprehended (Financial Post November 22, 2012). A recent review of Hold Up Squad files for the years 2010 to 2012 found surprisingly few serial robbers since most have been arrested after only one holdup.

The mass media

Bank robberies are high-profile crimes that are often reported in the media. In addition, the police routinely make use of newspapers, television and social media to assist them in their investigation.

One of the significant findings reported in Force and Fear is that approximately one-third of offenders conceived of the idea to rob a bank from ongoing newspaper reports that portrayed bank robbery as non-violent, impersonal, fast, easy and a low-risk means of obtaining cash in a hurry.

Typically, newspapers in the 1980s reported many robberies in which offenders escaped but far fewer in which culprits were caught.

Today, would-be robbers receive a different message from the media. There are far fewer reports of offenders getting away with robbery and more articles of robbers being arrested. These facts discourage others from taking up this activity.

Conclusion

Bank robbery has always been a high-risk crime with severe penalties. By increasing the risk even more and decreasing the potential profit, the banking community and police have made this criminal activity even less attractive.

The changing nature of financial transactions has also diminished robbery opportunities. The increasing use of debit and credit cards, direct deposits and online banking means that people rely less and less on cash to conduct business.

Consequently, bank robbery rates have declined significantly and bank robbery is a crime that may disappear altogether in the near future.


References

Canadian Bankers Association. 2013.Bank robbery statistics 2000-2012.

Desroches, Frederick J.1995. Force and Fear: Robbery in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Desroches, Frederick J.1996. Behind the Bars: Experiences in Crime. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Desroches, Frederick J.1997. Robbers and Heroes. Canadian Banker. Volume 104, No. 6:21-24.

Financial Post. 2013. One of two suspects in violent weekend bank robbery arrested by Toronto police holdup squad. April 23.

Financial Post. 2012. Vaulting Bandit tops Toronto Police bank robber wanted list. November 11.

GTCLAW. 2005. R. v. K.T. Sentencing for bank robbery with homicide. June 30.

Peel Law Chambers. 2000. Bank robbery killer convicted, December 20.

Statistics Canada. 2012. Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, Jurisdat.1998-2012.

Statistics Canada. 2012. Estimates of population by age group and sex, Canada and provinces.

Statistics Canada. 2012. Incident-based crime statistics, by detailed violations.

The Economist. 2013. The Curious Case of the Fall in Crime. July 20th-26th. (pp. 9, 21-24).

Toronto Star. 2013. Two shot by Toronto bank robbers after customer “decided to stand up to them.” April 22.

Toronto Star. 2013. $50K reward offered in string of violent bank robberies in GTA. July 25.