Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, CRIMINOLOGY AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 29 May 2017

Bank Robbery in Popular Culture

Summary and Keywords

Bank robbery is an uncommon, but highly fascinating, type of crime. The media often focus on bank robberies, especially if an event was violent or involved weapons. However, data show that bank robberies are generally uneventful—rarely involving weapon fights or injured bystanders. Instead, perpetrators tend to use verbal or written commands to obtain their money. Movies and video games depict the unusual bank robberies, which are violent and deadly because they are exciting and action-filled, which appeals to the public. Although generally a misrepresentation of empirical reality, media depictions can highlight criminological theory in action and bring to light issues around impulsivity, thrill-seeking, brain development, group behavior, and the behavioral consequences of social strains.

Keywords: Bank robbery, criminological theory, media, movies, video games, violence


This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.

Clyde Barrow – Bonnie and Clyde (1967), directed by Arthur Penn

Bank robberies are the subject of many movies, books, video games, and folklore. There has always been a fascination with the adrenaline-pumped process of going into a bank, threatening workers and patrons, and making off with a big “score.” Depictions of bank robberies make for good action movies, ranging from classics such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), about the benevolent bank-robbing duo who embarked on a thrilling life of crime, and The Getaway (1972), directed by Sam Peckinpah, about an ex-felon entrapped by a local sheriff to rob a bank and pass along a piece of the loot; to contemporary movies such as the bank-robbing surfer action film Point Break (1991) and the comedy Sugar and Spice (2001), about bank-robbing cheerleaders. Sherlock Holmes, in the short story Red-Headed League (Doyle, 1983), investigates an ingenious bank robbery in which the robbers tunnel into a bank by digging through a neighboring basement floor. Not surprisingly, because of the action and thrilling images connected with bank robberies, the crime has been translated in recent years into video games such as Payday and Grand Theft Auto.

Bank robbery is clearly defined and codified in the U.S. legal code. The first part of the code states:

(a) Whoever, by force and violence, or by intimidation, takes, or attempts to take, from the person or presence of another, or obtains or attempts to obtain by extortion, any property or money or any other thing of value belonging to, or in the care, custody, control, management, or possession of, any bank, credit union, or any savings and loan association; or

Whoever enters or attempts to enter any bank, credit union, or any savings and loan association, or any building used in whole or in part as a bank, credit union, or as a savings and loan association, with intent to commit in such bank, credit union, or in such savings and loan association, or building, or part thereof, so used, any felony affecting such bank, credit union, or such savings and loan association and in violation of any statute of the United States, or any larceny—

Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.

18 U.S. Code § 2113

Banks are federal institutions, and taking money from banks by force or threat of force is defined as a violent federal crime. Therefore, the punishment for bank robbery is harsh and sentences for the crime are generally more punitive than robberies of other establishments or people. However, bank robbers can, and sometime are, prosecuted at both the federal and state levels.

While bank robberies show up in the media with some regularity, the prevalence of the crime, and the process by which robbers conduct the act and get caught, are a bit different from the normal depiction. However, media depictions can also serve as a useful tool in illustrating this rather unique crime, as well as perceptions of the types of people who commit the act. Borrowing from cultural criminology, there exists an “essential role of the media in shaping the intersections of culture and crime” (Ferrell, 1995). Art really does imitate life—at least to some extent.

In this article, data on bank robberies in the United States are presented before moving on to explore how the empirical data correspond to the typical depiction in the media. In the third section, media depictions of bank robbery are given, which helps viewers and readers to understand theories of bank robberies specifically and antisocial behavior more generally. Finally, the discussion concludes with a section on how media depictions play a role in laws and policies concerning bank robberies.

Review of the Literature

The literature on media coverage of bank robbery is scant. However, Weisel (2007) notes that bank robberies are well covered by the media. The media often fail to provide specific details; rather, they focus on general features of robberies, especially any presence of weapons, hostages, and violence (Bučar-Ručman & Meško, 2006). Some believe that this type of attention to a bank robbery creates concern that copycats will attempt to reenact the crime and that the violence will spread. However, research from Australia by Ronald V. Clarke and Gerry McGrath (1992) suggests that there is no evidence for either a copycat theory or the inclination that the media pay unwarranted attention to bank robberies above other violent crimes.

The media also reinforce the notion that bank robberies are extremely important to the police. Media accounts reinforce the point that police are actively searching for the perpetrators to keep the community safe. Borrowing a quote from Bučar-Ručman and Meško (2006, p. 231), a police chief in Ljubljana states that the “Police reacted with all available forces, units, immediately after the report of a robbery. We notified neighboring Police Directorates. Straight away with this event, we also called for the assistance of Slovene police helicopter, which was at that moment already in the air.” This quote appeared the next day in the newspapers along with pictures of squad cars and police officers. In sum, the media make pointed efforts to show that police take bank robberies very seriously and make every effort to track down suspects.

Bank Robbery Prevalence and Descriptive Statistics

Kansas: My best friend got pregnant.

Mrs. Hill: Before you? Woo hoo.

Kansas: Yeah, I know, that’s what I said, too. Anyway, we want to help her get some money for the baby by robbing a bank.

Mrs. Hill: Well, shitfire, Kansas, that’s the sweetest thing I ever heard.

Sugar and Spice

To begin the discussion on bank robbery in the media, it is first necessary to get a picture of what the data show regarding the empirical realities of the crime. The following data are drawn from the Bank Crime Statistics Report of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI, 2015), unless otherwise noted. The data include all federally insured banking institutions from January 1, 2014, through December 31, 2014 (the most recent year available). All data come from reported bank robberies and, like any crime, there is a dark figure—namely, incidents that go unreported to official parties.

By far, the most targeted banking institution is the commercial bank. Commercial banks, which regularly deal with deposits, loans, and other transactions, make up 89% of all robberies. Credit unions are the second most targeted organization, making up about 8% of all bank robberies. Credit unions are very similar to commercial banks except that they are more exclusive. Only members of certain communities (e.g., occupations, neighborhoods, organizations) can use that type of bank for accounting and loans. Credit unions generally offer members better loan rates and investment opportunities than commercial banks. The remaining 3% of bank robberies have a mix of targets, such as armored vehicles, savings and loan associations, and mutual banks.

Bank Robbery in Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 1. The types of institution involved in bank robbery incidents from January 1, 2014, through December 31, 2014.

Obtained from the FBI’s Bank Crime Statistics Report (2015).

On the one hand, the risk of robbing these locations is high. The chance of getting caught on site is much higher than other crimes because police are apt to respond very quickly to reports of a bank robbery and some banks have their own private security on site to intervene quickly in the event of a crime. In addition, bank robberies are among the most cleared crimes, at about 60% (Weisel, 2007). On the other hand, robbing a bank can be fairly lucrative. The mean (average) score of a bank robbery in the United States nets the robber about $4,000 (Weisel, 2007). Couple this with bank tellers and employees who are trained to be compliant with demands, and the perpetrators can get away with a large sum of money without much effort or risk of injury. The interplay of risk and likely reward plays a major part in these crimes, more so than other violent or property crime.

Bank robberies match other violent crimes when gender is considered. By far, the majority (over 90%) of all bank robberies are committed by men. In terms of race, similar to armed robberies, Blacks are overrepresented as perpetrators compared to other races and ethnicities. Over 45% of all bank robberies are committed by Black men, while White men commit almost 40%. The gap between White and Black females is smaller than for males and almost identical, at 3.5% each.

Bank Robbery in Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 2. The race and gender of bank robbers in incidents from January 1, 2014, through December 31, 2014.

Obtained from the FBI’s Bank Crime Statistics Report (2015).

Bank robbers have a few options of how they want to “score.” Money is kept at the counter; in vaults, safes, and safe deposit boxes; in offices; at the drive-up/walk-up windows; and in automated teller machines (ATMs). Over 90% of bank robberies involve the counter as the primary targeted area. Vaults and safes—perhaps unsurprisingly given the current sophistication necessary to crack them—are only targeted about 4% of the time. Bank offices are targeted 3% of the time, and the remaining areas are each targeted about 1% of the time. Robbers can, and sometimes do, target multiple locations. Obviously, this increases the time needed to commit the crime—thus increasing the risk of detection.

Bank Robbery in Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 3. The area of the bank robbed in incidents from January 1, 2014 through December 31, 2014.

Obtained from the FBI’s Bank Crime Statistics Report (2015).

To commit bank robberies, perpetrators use various methods. Again, during any one robbery, more than one method can be used. Overall, the most common strategy is to use nonviolent means such as a demand note (26% of robberies) or verbal demands (26% of robberies). In another 20% of robberies, the use of a weapon is threatened but not used. Of course, weapons are sometimes used in the commission of bank robberies; such incidents make up about 22% of all events. Only about 3% of robberies are complete “takeovers” of banks, which generally include hostages and multiple targets.

Bank Robbery in Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 4. The mode of bank robbery in incidents from January 1, 2014 through December 31, 2014.

Obtained from the FBI’s Bank Crime Statistics Report (2015).

Violence is not usually a part of bank robberies. Out of the 3,879 recorded incidents in 2014, only 63 individuals were injured, 13 others were killed, and 31 people were taken hostage. When the robbery resulted in death, it was almost always the perpetrator who was killed (in 10 of the 13 cases). Only 3% of all robberies included violence (i.e., injuries, hostages, or deaths).

Bank Robbery in Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 5. Injuries, deaths, and hostages involved in bank robbery incidents from January 1, 2014, through December 31, 2014.

Obtained from the FBI’s Bank Crime Statistics Report (2015).

Media Correspondence with Data

Shit, we ain’t robbing stagecoaches, man! We need something to set it off with!

Cleo – Set It Off (1996), directed by F. Gary Gray

There are many stark differences between reality and what is portrayed in the media concerning bank robberies. Nearly all these differences are due to the inherent nature of the mainstream, or mass, media, which depict criminal events almost a third of the time (Robinson, 2011). Ray Surette writes that the mainstream media are “easily, inexpensively, and simultaneously accessible to large segments of the population.” As criminologist Matthew Robinson points out, the media have an incentive to portray crimes as fast-paced, high-action, and violent events. Viewers tune in to see conflicts and resolutions to these conflicts. Blowing the violence of crime out of proportion amounts to pandering to the audience. As such, the media generally present bank robberies as violent—resulting in many injuries and deaths.

In this section, media, such as video games, TV shows, and movies, are discussed as they relate to the reality of bank robbery. These examples are not randomly chosen and are not intended to be a representative sample of all bank robbery media. They have been chosen because they illustrate important points about how bank robbery is portrayed in the media and how that portrayal influences our perceptions of the crime. It is intended that the media chosen will represent what Nicole Rafter (2007, p. 3) calls the “dialectical” relationship between crime films and perceptions of crime. Bank robbery depictions in the media, even as they divert from the true picture, as will be seen, still hold many grains of truth. What is known about bank robbery reflects what is seen in the media—shaping not only perceptions of crime, but also the response to crime (see also Ferrell, 1995).

Video games and movies often include characters that rob banks using firearms and explosives. In the video game Max Payne, for example, one of the player’s first duties (surely to quickly entice him or her into the excitement of the game) is to stop a bank robbery. Alternatively, in Payday, the player must commit several bank robberies to progress through the game with varying levels of difficulty. Splinter Cell makes the player pull off a much more sophisticated crime by completing a complex heist that is staged to look like a routine bank robbery, but the robber actually intends to steal terrorist “intel.” One video game, Bank Heist, lets the player take on the role of a cop, robber, or civilian. This game, in particular, has raised much concern from the public and criminal justice practitioners.

In the very popular series Grand Theft Auto, the player must also commit bank robberies, a couple of which are integral to the missions that must be completed in the game. In Grand Theft Auto Online, the last major heist is a bank robbery in which the player must break into a vault, control hostages by firing at them, and escape in a fiery shootout “after shooting a large amount of police” (GTA, 2015). Grand Theft Auto has been the focus of much attention and criticism for its violent nature, including simulating experiences like running over civilians, shooting at the police, and stealing from and beating up victims on the street.

Video games have sparked research on their controversial role in promoting criminal and antisocial behavior (Ferguson, 2015). In 2013, the courts stated that a 15-year-old boy admitted to a “video game–style robbery” of a Barclay’s Bank in Liverpool, England (Rush, 2013). In 2015, the headline of a news story on a bank heist read, “Robbers Pull Off a Bank Heist Straight Out of Grand Theft Auto 5.” In this incident, the assailants committed a sophisticated robbery, stealing about 300 million dollars in cash and merchandise (Callen, 2015). The writer states that a “sequence from the smash-hit video game Grand Theft Auto 5 seems to have been the inspiration for it, including several of its techniques” and finishes with a thought of his own: “Life imitating games. It won’t be the last time.” In each of these video games, bank robberies are exciting, action-packed, suspenseful, and violent—not reflecting the reality of the more mundane (and common) bank robbery.

Along with video games, movies are a significant contributor to media depictions of bank robbery. Director Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon portrays the real-life events of the siege robbery of Chase Manhattan Bank in Gravesend, Brooklyn. What was intended to be a quick robbery to obtain cash turned into a full-day affair, complete with guns, action, and comedy. It is no surprise that the media would highlight this bank robbery, as it is an outlier that would grab the audience’s attention. After all, it is unlikely that the producers would want to create a movie based on a routine bank robbery that consisted of passing a note to a teller and took only 10 minutes. What is also significant about this film is the presence of media at the bank robbery. By depicting the crime “in action,” along with the strong political message of the robbers who consistently point out the police and criminal justice corruption evident at the time (especially the riots in Attica Prison), the media were able to bring the events to viewers—sparking sympathy and support for the robbers (Jameson, 1977).

Another interesting discrepancy is that, despite their relatively small percentage in the prevalence of bank robberies, females are depicted as perpetrators quite often in movies. In fact, all-female teams play significant roles in Sugar and Spice, Set It Off, and Bandidas (2006), directed by Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg, while other females play key roles as facilitators, such as Dot Burton in Lady Gangster (1942), directed by Robert Florey; and solo mastermind Karen McCoy in The Real McCoy (1993), directed by Russell Mulcahy. Perhaps this type of crime, which is portrayed as controlling and violent, is thought of as a “man’s crime,” and to depict a female in this role would be of more intrigue to viewers (see Bisi, 2002). The sexualization of females in these movies cannot be ignored either. The female bank robber or robbers are often depicted as attractive floozies, such as Salma Hayek’s and Penelope Cruz’s characters in Bandidas who complete training exercises in water wearing thin clothing and run alongside their (male) trainer, who is riding a horse.

Furthermore, movies and other media tend to focus on bank robberies committed by several offenders, regardless of the fact that 80% of robberies are committed by a sole individual (Weisel, 2007). Media also like to focus on offenders who wear masks and other disguises during robberies. The masks worn by the perpetrators in Sugar and Spice and Point Break add intrigue by presenting the anonymous (and likely mentally ill) criminal. Again, the media have an interest in portraying robberies as violent events perpetrated by several psychotic “bad guys.” The lone offender passing a note to a willing bank teller is not the making of a Hollywood classic although such a scene did appear in Woody Allen’s comedy Take the Money and Run (1969).

One of the most supported findings in criminology is that victims often experience several forms and incidents of victimization. This is referred to as polyvictimization. While this is true of people, it is also true of locations (i.e., establishments). Banks follow this pattern. Banks that have been robbed in the past are often targeted in the future. Like people, the risk of victimization is greatest shortly after the initial victimization. Weisel (2007) reports that banks that have been robbed often sit in the middle of several other banks that have never been robbed. This phenomenon is rarely featured or discussed in the media despite its regularity. This is probably related to the media’s preference for covering people instead of places—overlooking this empirical reality.

Integration of Criminological Theory

100% pure adrenaline!

Bodhi – Point Break, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Although the media are quick to oversell the violence and action of bank robberies and focus on only the rarest events, there are also opportunities to see criminological theory come to light—what Rafter and Brown (2011) call “popular criminology.” For example, Point Break is perhaps one of the best depictions of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) general theory of crime (i.e., self-control theory) in the media. Point Break is a fictional story about a group of surfers who rob banks and call themselves the “Ex-presidents” because they wear masks of former U.S. presidents during the robberies. Several times during the movie, the surfers state that they do not commit the crimes for the money, but rather as a part of a lifestyle that values thrill over dull conformity. Along with the action of surfing, most members of the group have a laundry list of minor thrill crimes on their rap sheet (or “analogous acts,” to use Gottfredson and Hirschi’s term) such as speeding, indecent exposure, and minor assaults.

Despite the surfing, bank robberies, and skydiving (one of the best-known elements of the movie), there is evidence that at least some self-control is exhibited by members of the group. The group’s leader, Bodhi, has a mellow demeanor and often controls the other members, who are more impulsive. Importantly, the group never tries to “get greedy” during bank robberies by trying to get large sums of cash from the vault; they only stick to the front counter—which reflects empirical reality. In fact, the nickname “Bodhi” comes from the word Bodhisattva, a Buddhist term meaning “enlightened one.” While at times Bodhi demonstrates his enlightened and controlled state, at his core he still lives for the thrill, just like those who are depicted by Gottfredson and Hirschi as having low self-control. One can also see parallels to the “stick-up man” depicted in Jack Katz’s (2008) Seduction of Crime, who gains much joy from being a “badass” on the street—robbing at will and attaining respect through violence.

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) believe that routine offenders are impulsive and do not put much planning into their crimes. This might not be the case for many bank robberies, though. For instance, bank robbers report that they select targets carefully depending on (a) the type of transportation available after the robbery and (b) the ease and number of escape routes (Weisel, 2007). When the bank robbery includes multiple offenders, a stolen car (which needs to be obtained ahead of time) is generally used to further obscure the identity of the perpetrators.

Bad Guy: What the hell are you gonna do with 152 dollars? We’re taking 18 God damn million dollars out of here on Thursday!

J. T. Barker: I know that. I just don’t wanna split my 152 dollars four ways …

The Real McCoy

For decades, it has been known that criminal activity is generally a group activity, and associating with delinquent peers may increase one’s own offending (Akers, Krohn, Lanza-Kaduce, & Radosevich, 1979). Criminologist Mark Warr (2002, p. 3) states early on in his book Companions in Crime, “Something about the presence of companions during the event provided the motivation, and perhaps the means, to carry out the crime.” Bank robbery strays pretty far from this consistent finding in the criminological literature. However, as previously mentioned, the film and broadcast media almost always show bank robberies involving multiple perpetrators, from the classic Bonnie and Clyde to testosterone-filled action films like Point Break to the all-female squads in Set It Off and Sugar and Spice. In a sense, this is true to life for many crimes, but it does not sync with the reality of the bank robbery.

In the documentary The Evolution of a Criminal (2014), the perpetrator (who is also the filmmaker, Darius Clark Monroe) discusses the commission of his and his peers’ offense. Had it not been for the group dynamic present at the time, it is likely that their crime would never have come to fruition. However, after getting pumped up by a song by Tupac Shakur in the car, the group came together to finish what they had started. Robbing a bank is bound to be an adrenaline pumping, anxiety-producing event. The group dynamic, especially among adolescents, is a likely contributor to the bad decision to go through with the robbery, despite its rarity in the real world (see Steinberg, 2008).

Sometimes the decision to rob a bank is related to the stressors in someone’s life. Again, the documentary by filmmaker Darius Monroe is illustrative here. Darius, along with his friends, robbed a Bank of America, and he gives his reason for doing so as wanting to help his mother pay bills. Like many robbers, Darius and his peers come from poor communities plagued with many risk factors for offending. Criminologist Robert Agnew’s (1992, 2001) strain theory states that strains which are frequent, seen as unjust, and high in magnitude are the most likely to result in criminal activity. After being the victim of a home burglary, Darius decided to begin criminal activity to “replace” the stolen goods—culminating in the bank robbery which would put him behind bars for a decade.

In a more comedic portrayal of bank robbery, Sugar and Spice, about a group of cheerleaders who come to the aid of their captain after she becomes pregnant by a football player, illustrates the interplay of gender and strain. The pregnant cheerleader, Diane, is “forced” into the crime because she is not able to live the lifestyle that she wants to live with just the salary of her boyfriend, Jack, who works as a video store clerk. With the rest of her squad, she plans to rob a bank, and they obtain firearms from the local dealer to help them. As previously mentioned, this type of violent crime is unexpected from females, making for good viewing (if not an accurate depiction of real life). However, the movie does highlight the types of situations that often drive females to commit crime (e.g., relationships, stressors).

To briefly introduce an example from television, the thriller The Blacklist shows a bank shooting in the fourth episode of the second season. A woman shoots up a Sun Bank after being refused an extension on her home loan. The stress of a crumbling marriage, tough job hunt, and now losing her home culminates in a violent expression of anger. We do not know for sure if the woman takes money from the bank, but one can extrapolate that from a scene in which she concentrates on two kids while flipping through a handful of cash. The viewer learns later that many acts of violence are being carried out in the area, and part of the reason is a genetic variation—the presence of the “warrior gene,” or variant of the MAOA risk allele, in combination with stress overload. This lends visual credence to the biosocial model of gene and environment interaction and adds one more theoretical depiction of crime in action (see Caspi et al., 2002).

The media have been successful in bringing in multiple theories, often across the life course, to explain the commission of bank robberies. In The Evolution of a Criminal, the perpetrators all had their own thoughts about why they decided to rob a bank. Darius Monroe believed that he was pressured into the crime because of his family situation and from the strain of being a victim—one of the most potent strains (Agnew, 2002). He also justified his stealing of VCRs (to replace the ones stolen from his family) by believing that the big corporation that sells the VCRs would not miss them. This is a classic example of “denying the victim”—a central component to Sykes and Matza’s (1957) techniques of neutralization theory. In one insightful recollection, an accomplice, Trey, mentioned that as an adolescent, he likely did not yet have the brain development to make good decisions in accordance with contemporary neuroscientific explanations of antisocial behavior (see Steinberg, 2008). At the end of the documentary, Darius’s uncle, who himself was involved with crime, describes his own identity not as a criminal, but as a new man. It appears as if he has changed his identity—a key component for desisting from crime (Paternoster & Bushway, 2009; Rocque, Posick, & Paternoster, 2016).

Importantly, the depiction of bank robberies can reflect the zeitgeist of the times. Bonnie and Clyde depicts the excitement and lucrativeness of bank robbery during the stressful and mundane depression era of the 1930s. Dog Day Afternoon plays off the political turmoil of the civil rights era and distrust of the criminal justice system that were prevalent shortly after the Attica riots in the 1970s. In Set It Off, the team of Black female robbers reflects the state of the Black inner cities of the United States and the strains placed upon the disadvantaged by the majority that were highlighted in the 1990s.

Policy Relevance

The media, for better or worse, are influential in policy-making. Because the media are profit-seekers, their depiction of crime, which is easy and inexpensive to cover, may reflect a biased view of the empirical reality, leading to poor policy decisions (McChesney, 2004). The media are one of the main sources of information on issues about crime and play a major role in the social construction of crime. The impact of popular criminology on the entire field of criminology and public policy is important, as film can be a strong force to determine which criminological theories are promoted and which are used as the basis of public policy (Rafter, 2007).

Early depictions of bank robbery in newspapers and in films such as Bonnie and Clyde influenced the design of modern banks (Weisel, 2007). The architecture and security systems of banks are based on the media’s focus on the violent takeover of banks. Almost all banks now have alarms, video cameras, and even bait money (bills that have their serial numbers recorded in order to be traced by law enforcement in the event of a robbery). However, bank robbers are rarely concerned with cameras, video, alarms, or trickery; they are primarily, if not solely, concerned with getting away from the bank.

Because of their coverage in the media, bank robberies tend to spark uneasiness in the general populace (Weisel, 2007). Therefore, it is unsurprising that the public supports target-hardening measures such as video cameras and armed security guards and that evaluation studies for these strategies have been mostly positive (Cozens et al., 2005). Since the media tend to present bank robbers as “armed and dangerous” (see Bučar-Ručman & Meško, 2006), citizens believe that they could be the target of violence any time that they frequent a bank. Even though bank robberies are extremely rare, people support measures to keep them safe “just in case,” and bank managers are eager to put in place policies, practices, and security measures that reflect concern for customers. One of these strategies is crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), which reflects the idea that crime can be decreased by modifying the surroundings of an area (Reynald, 2015). The CPTED model is very popular, particularly in protecting banks and other commercial locations from robbery and theft.

The media tend to be the first and most influential source of information on crime. Indeed, for rare criminal incidents such as bank robbery, it may be the only source. Therefore, the media have a major role to play in constructing rare crimes. In particular, it shapes the fear of crime and evaluation of the police response to crime. If the media portray bank robberies as violent and random, the public’s fear will likely increase. Similarly, if the police fail to find the culprits, the public might reduce their confidence in law enforcement. For the police to be seen as legitimate and effective, the media and law enforcement should form a close partnership, with a strong element of trust. Programs and policies, specifically media outreach officers and police-media liaisons, can work together to present criminal activity accurately and redefine the efforts of law enforcement to respond.


Like anything else in the media, sometimes they get it right and sometimes they get it wrong. With bank robbery, the media capitalize on extreme events that are unnaturally brutal or exciting, in spite of the irregularity of guns and injuries in true events. Along with real-life accounts (however unique), movies and video games often include bank robberies for the same reason: to pull in the audience that expects, and is drawn to, action and conflict. While seemingly harmless, these depictions construct reality for many Americans, giving them a biased (and untrue) representation of a specific crime. This can lead to poor policies and programs.

When the media get it right, they lend insight into the reality of the criminal experience. Documentaries provide a true-to-life depiction of bank robbery, but even Hollywood classics and contemporary feature films can highlight thrill-seeking behavior, peer relations, and the stresses and strains that lead to the crime of bank robbery. Race, gender, and class show up in various ways, but females hold a prominent place on the wide screen, while racial minorities are generally ignored. In the end, as with any medium, we can learn a thing or two, but we must also be cautious about the inaccuracy of depictions due to the monetary incentive of popular appeal.

Review of the Literature and Primary Sources

Recent research on bank robbery focuses on the psychological impact of the crime on victims (see Hansen, Armour, Shevlin, & Elklit, 2014; Hansen, Lasgaard, & Elklit, 2013). Despite the profound impacts of bank robberies on victims, including anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder, the media have not heavily focused on this issue. Rather, they have primarily focused on bank robbery offenses and offenders, with little attention paid to victims.

As technology has been increasingly used by law enforcement, new methods for detecting bank robberies and identifying bank robbers have also been developed. Thermal image analysis allows a better picture of perpetrators of bank robberies in poor lighting by enhancing the original image (Szczodrak & Szwoch, 2013). Other computer programs also can enhance and sharpen images and video for better identification of bank robbers, including face skin verification modules, face symmetry verification modules, and eye template verification modules (JayaMohan, Deepak, Manuel, & Wise, 2013).

Even as law enforcement using new technology, so are offenders. The issue of cyber–bank robbery has been gaining increased attention, and problems with securing cloud networks and protecting access to sensitive information online is only becoming more important. Attacks on banks are now being perpetrated through computers, laptops, tablets, and even smartphones, which adds another set of tools for perpetrators to use and for law enforcement to address (see Sood & Enbody, 2013). Given the interest in and excitement around this type of technology, it may be that the media will focus more attention on crime-detecting technology and more crime shows, such as CSI, will highlight the use of these newer technological methods.

Regardless of media attention, incidences of bank robbery will continue to be documented by primary sources. The FBI and the publication of the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics continue to be the primary sources for bank robbery statistics. As crime rates continue to fluctuate in the future, it is likely that these sources will be relied on to paint the full picture of violent crime in the United States.

Further Viewing

The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) directed by Uli Edel.Find this resource:

The Bank Job (2008), directed by Roger Donaldson.Find this resource:

Idiot Box (1996), directed by David Caesar.Find this resource:

Patty Hearst (1988), directed by Paul Schrader.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Ball, J., Chester, L., & Perrott, R. (1978). Cops and robbers: An investigation into armed bank robbery. London: Deutsch.Find this resource:

Batty, D. (2010). Wanted: Gentleman bank robber. The true story of Leslie Ibsen Rogge, one of the FBI’s most elusive criminals. Portland, OR: Nish Publishing Company.Find this resource:

Baxter, C. (2014). Breaking the bank: An extraordinary colonial robbery. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin.Find this resource:

Borzycki, M. (2003). Bank robbery in Australia. Canberra, Australia: Australian Institute of Criminology.Find this resource:

Carey, P. (2001). True History of the Kelly gang. New York: Vintage Books.Find this resource:

Hansen, M., Armour, C., Shevlin, M., & Elklit, A. (2014). Investigating the psychological impact of bank robbery: A cohort study. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 28(5), 454–459.Find this resource:

Hillerman, T. (2001). The Great Taos Bank Robbery and other true stories of the Southwest. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.Find this resource:

Kube, E. (1988). Preventing bank robbery: Lessons from interviewing robbers. Journal of Security Administration, 11(2), 78–83.Find this resource:

Matthews, R., Pease, C., & Pease, K. (2001). Repeated bank robbery: Themes and variations. Loughborough University Institutional Repository, Loughborough, U.K.Find this resource:

McArthur, J. (2013). The great heist—The story of the biggest bank robbery in history: And why all the money was returned. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.Find this resource:

Rubenstein, J. (2005). Ballad of the whiskey robber: A true story of bank heists, ice hockey, Transylvanian pelt smuggling, moonlighting detectives, and broken hearts. New York: Back Bay Books.Find this resource:


Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology, 30, 47–87.Find this resource:

Agnew, R. (2001). Building on the foundation of general strain theory: Specifying the types of strain most likely to lead to crime and delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 38(4), 319–361.Find this resource:

Agnew, R. (2002). Experienced, vicarious, and anticipated strain: An exploratory study on physical victimization and delinquency. Justice Quarterly, 19(4), 603–632.Find this resource:

Akers, R. L., Krohn, M. D., Lanza-Kaduce, L., & Radosevich, M. (1979). Social learning and deviant behavior: A specific test of a general theory. American Sociological Review, 44(4), 636–655.Find this resource:

Bisi, S. (2002). Female criminality and gender difference. International Review of Sociology, 12(1), 23–43.Find this resource:

Bučar-Ručman, A., & Meško, G. (2006). Presentation of police activities in the mass media. Editorial, 181, 223–234.Find this resource:

Callen, B. (2015, April 23). Robbers pull off a bank heist straight out of Grand Theft Auto 5. Top Right News.Find this resource:

Caspi, A., McClay, J., Moffitt, T. E., Mill, J., Martin, J., Craig, I. W., et al. (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science, 297(5582), 851–854.Find this resource:

Clarke, R. V., & McGrath, G. (1992). News paper reports of bank robberies and the copycat phenomenon. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 25(1), 83–88.Find this resource:

Cozens, P. M., Saville, G., & Hillier, D. (2005). Crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED): A review and modern bibliography. Property Management, 23, 328–356.Find this resource:

Doyle, A. C. (1983). The red-headed league. Edina, Minnesota: Perfection Form Company. Originally published in 1891.Find this resource:

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (FBI) (2015). Bank crime statistics report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation.Find this resource:

Ferguson, C. J. (2015). Do Angry Birds make for angry children? A meta-analysis of video game influences on children’s and adolescents’ aggression, mental health, prosocial behavior, and academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(5), 646–666.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J. (1995). Culture, crime, and cultural criminology. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(2), 25–42.Find this resource:

Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:

GTA. (2015). Retrieved November 17, 2015.

Hansen, M., Armour, C., Shevlin, M., & Elklit, A. (2014). Investigating the psychological impact of bank robbery: A cohort study. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 28(5), 454–459.Find this resource:

Hansen, M., Lasgaard, M., & Elklit, A. (2013). The latent factor structure of acute stress disorder following bank robbery: Testing alternative models in light of the pending DSM‐5. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 52(1), 82–91.Find this resource:

Jameson, F. (1977). Class and allegory in contemporary mass culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a political film. College English, 38(8), 843–859.Find this resource:

JayaMohan, C., Deepak, M. S., Manuel, M. A. E., & Wise, D. J. W. (2013). Face detection and recognition system in bank robbery using CFV modules based on video recordings. Computer Science and Engineering, 55A, 13255–13258.Find this resource:

Katz, J. (2008). Seductions of crime: Moral and sensual attractions in doing evil. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

McChesney, R. W. (2004). Media policy goes to main street: The uprising of 2003. The Communication Review, 7(3), 223–258.Find this resource:

Nelson, A., & Desroches, F. J. (2014). “‘Heroes’ and victims: Incarcerated bank robbers” accounts of victims and victimization. International Review of Victimology.Find this resource:

Paternoster, R., & Bushway, S. (2009). Desistance and the “feared self”: Toward an identity theory of criminal desistance. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 99(4), 1103–1156.Find this resource:

Rafter, N. (2007). Crime, film, and criminology: Recent sex-crime movies. Theoretical Criminology, 11(3), 403–420.Find this resource:

Rafter, N., & Brown, M. (2011). Criminology goes to the movies: Crime theory and popular culture. New York: NYU Press.Find this resource:

Reynald, D. M. (2015). Environmental design and crime events. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 31(1), 71–89.Find this resource:

Robinson, M. B. (2011). Media coverage of crime and criminal justice. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.Find this resource:

Rocque, M., Posick, C., & Paternoster, R. (2016). Identities through time: an exploration of identity change as a cause of desistance. Justice Quarterly, 33(1), 45–72.Find this resource:

Rush, J. (2013). Model pupil, 15, robbed bank with gun as if he was in a real-life video game. BBC News.Find this resource:

Sood, A. K., & Enbody, R. J. (2013). The art of cyber bank robbery. CrossTalk, 9–16.Find this resource:

Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28(1), 78–106.Find this resource:

Sykes, G. M., & Matza, D. (1957). Techniques of neutralization: A theory of delinquency. American Sociological Review, 22(6), 664–670.Find this resource:

Szczodrak, M., & Szwoch, G. (2013). An approach to the detection of bank robbery acts employing thermal image analysis. In Signal Processing: Algorithms, Architectures, Arrangements, and Applications (SPA), 2013 (pp. 297–301). Poznan, Poland: IEEE.Find this resource:

Warr, M. (2002). Companions in crime: The social aspects of criminal conduct. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Weisel, D. L. (2007). Bank robbery. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services.Find this resource: