Forensic Topology
July 13, 2013 5:35 PM   Subscribe

Forensic Topology. "In his 2003 memoir Where The Money Is: True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World, co-authored with Gordon Dillow, retired Special Agent William J. Rehder briefly suggests that the design of a city itself leads to and even instigates certain crimes—in Los Angeles’s case, bank robberies. Rehder points out that this sprawling metropolis of freeways and its innumerable nondescript banks is, in a sense, a bank robber’s paradise. Crime, we could say, is just another way to use the city."
posted by homunculus (14 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Look at that hussy of a city, going out dressed in freeways like that--she's practically begging for it!

Makes a change, I guess, to see that argument in the realm of property crimes.
posted by yoink at 5:39 PM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

ha! I own a copy of Rehder's book.

if I remember correctly, the quantity of very nice equipment left behind at the second tunnel job led someone to balance gains from the first job against labor and capital losses from the second, and calculate that between the two jobs, the gang probably would have made more money staying in construction.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 5:45 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Tad Friend piece mentioned in the article (subscription required): The Pursuit of Happiness

Tad Friend talks with Ben Greeman about police car chases in Los Angeles and what they mean to the city.
posted by homunculus at 5:47 PM on July 13, 2013

Shouldn't that be forensic topography?
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:12 PM on July 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

One semester, I settled on selecting the optimal bank for robbery in my city, as I was required to have a project for my GIS (Geographic Information Systems) course. Where The Money Was, by bank robber Willie Sutton, was inspiring. It was attributed perhaps apocryphally to Sutton that when asked why he robbed banks, he replied, "because that's where the money is." Where is a very GIS-sy sort of question.

First, I found the best location to steal cars: not around intersections with red light cameras, far from police stations, and a spot known for car theft to begin with. You want a getaway vehicle not attached to your name, after all. Now, after you hotwire it, you don't have to be in a hurry and head straight for the bank. After having my own car stolen, police in the city thought I might file a report, if I "thought it was really necessary." No rush, take your time, officer. Sutton's typical method at this point included an inspection of the stolen car to see if it were in fact road-worthy and capable of high speeds.

Then I picked out a bank which was far from police stations but had a short driving time from an intersection of major highways, where the route selected again avoided red light cameras and also came without any left-hand turns. You need a fast exit in your stolen getaway car, all the way to a junction where you might speed away, in one of many directions, so I put a greater weight on this route.

Finally, to see how well my method worked out, I checked and found that bank was indeed one of the most-hit in the eleven years of crime data I had pulled. Only one other bank had been held up more in the previous decade. The interesting part was that, aside from painfully acquiring the input data, I automated everything else in my process, which means I could, in just a few hours and given the right information for a city, either suggest to police banks which might require more defensive planning or set up heists for the enterprising and armed.

This town deserves a programming class for criminals.
posted by adipocere at 6:14 PM on July 13, 2013 [28 favorites]

Why do you care if your stolen car is photographed by a red light camera? You're going to be photographed by a zillion other cameras anyway.
posted by ryanrs at 7:02 PM on July 13, 2013

Good point Ryanrs. I've often thought that, if I was going to rob a bank, I'd find some reason not to be around my friends for a little while. Then grow out my hair and beard. Go into the bank with a big hat and sunglasses. Then, after I've made my getaway, shave and get a hair cut.

The thing about bank robberies is that they aren't as a big a deal as people think. The average take is just $800 (according the my old bank training materials). The way it usually goes down is that the guy (and it's almost always a guy) stands in line. When it's his turn, he hands a note to the teller which at a glance from anyone else, isn't unusual. The note will usually claim that the robber has a gun and it's almost always lie. Even if it doesn't, it doesn't matter, if you tell a bank teller that you're robbing them, they're instructed to give up the money. The teller hands him the money and the guy leaves. As soon as the robber leaves and the teller feels safe, they'll tell someone what happened and the doors get locked, police get called and the bank will have some protocol to follow.

Almost every one in the bank will TOTALLY surprised that the bank got robbed. The time the bank I worked at got robbed, all I saw was the teller supervisor walk quickly to the front door and announced to the bank, "Attention everyone, we've just been robbed, the robber has left, the doors are locked, and the police have been called. Everyone is safe." I had no idea what was going on. The only thing that was a little scary was when three squad cars came screaming up to the bank and cops jumped out with guns drawn looking they were looking for someone to shoot. Otherwise the whole thing was no big deal. They caught the guy not long after (maybe even the same day) but I don't remember how.

Most places don't even have dye packs or anything anymore. When I worked as a teller, we just had "bait money" which was a group of bills that we recorded the serial numbers on so that when the police caught the robber, they could look for those bills and use them as evidence.

The movie Out of Sight has a decent example of what a typical robbery looks like. George Clooney is a lot more charming that most robbers and it's WAY more elaborate than it usually is.

If you want to get the kind of money that most people imagine they'll get by robbing a bank, you'd have to stage a "take over" style robbery like in Point Break and empty all of the teller drawers. Then we're talking more like $50,000 for the average branch. It takes a TON more time, it's WAY more dangerous, it's far more likely that someone will pull the alarm while you're still there, and if I thought the cops were pissed at the guy who passed a note and got a few hundred bucks, I wouldn't want to be the guys who robbed a bank guns drawn and got tens of thousands.
posted by VTX at 7:41 PM on July 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you want to get the kind of money that most people imagine they'll get by robbing a bank, you'd have to stage a "take over" style robbery like in Point Break and empty all of the teller drawers.

To be fair, thats a movie I have avoided, but will watch because of that scene alone.

If you want to see an ORGANIZED and professional fire team doing this job, I suggest "Heat".

Not only does that movie touch on environmental criminology (what it used to be called at the turn of the millennium), it has been used as a template for a few other robberies.

Also, its a bit close to my heart, as it was used and critiqued in comparison to our fire team in the Corps.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:47 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I, too, was surprised to see "topology" instead of "topography", and initially expected to find that the author had used the word incorrectly. But either by accident or by dint of the author really knows his stuff and is politely not making a big deal about showing off his math knowledge - just quietly using a technical term accurately without any fanfare - he does seem to be using the term accurately, mainly talking about connectedness.
posted by eviemath at 6:32 AM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't avoid Point Break. It is a truly excellent stupid movie.
posted by rdr at 6:42 AM on July 14, 2013

"But, observe, we know what the cohomology group of the crime scene is! Therefore we can deduce the identity of the perpetrator by application of Ext and Tor!"
posted by oonh at 8:21 AM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

...led someone to balance gains from the first job against labor and capital losses from the second, and calculate that between the two jobs, the gang probably would have made more money staying in construction.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar

It's hard to put a price tag on the excitement of a good caper.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:54 AM on July 14, 2013

...grow out my hair and beard. Go into the bank with a big hat and sunglasses. Then, after I've made my getaway, shave and get a hair cut.

A bank robber near here wore a fluorescent yellow construction vest and other distinctive gear, then simply strolled away after the crime. He had placed an ad on Craigslist for construction workers to report to that location for hiring, "must bring your own yellow construction vest."
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:02 AM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was assaulted six months ago, and I've spent some time thinking about what makes a city or neighborhood unsafe. A couple things stand out from my experience, which began and ended with a sucker-punch (no words exchanged, no money taken) while I was out walking:

1. I felt completely alone. This should have been a warning sign, but I was two months into my residence in Pittsburgh, so I didn't know where to go, and rarely are January streets well-populated at night. But still, the neighborhood, while mostly occupied, felt dead, like some Eastern European warzone.

So why were the streets completely dead? That neighborhood (Garfield, for those scoring at home) qualifies as a food desert (I was looking for the local community farm set up to alleviate said food woes), and there are no shops, bars, grocery stores, or even well-lit parks in the area. Thus, no reason to be outdoors. (But why was that neighborhood forsaken?)

2. It happened on a main thoroughfare, but a stretch far from housefronts and businesses. I wonder now if walking in that spot, even though it carries high automobile traffic, was inherently risky because I'm far from basically anywhere people would see me, and road noise would drown on the approach of the attacker or me yelling.

3. Pittsburgh feels dark at night. This, personally, feels like the most significant physical contributor to feeling unsafe. I don't know what it is, but the spacing of the lightpoles, the sodium bulbs, and maybe even the terrain make it seem far shadier than most other cities I've visited. One friend thinks it's the crumbling infrastructure of a formerly great city with financial woes, or possibly that Pittsburgh has a lot of big trees that block the light. Whatever it is, Pittsburgh has terrible lighting compared with Grand Rapids, NYC, Seattle, DC, or anywhere else I've been.

It's too bad the author didn't spend more time dissecting the topographic nature of crime in other cities, because I think that would be an interesting conversation. Pittsburgh has plenty of topography, and I want to hear theories about how the hills and valleys funnel different crime to certain areas.
posted by Turkey Glue at 4:45 PM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

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