Staying cool when stealing cars

Photo by Flickr user sparktography. Click for sourceStaying calm is a car thief’s biggest challenge, according to a study published in the British Journal of Criminology that explored the psychology of looking inconspicuous when driving a stolen vehicle.

Criminologists Michael Cherbonneau and Heith Copes interviewed 54 car thieves from Tennessee and Louisiana about their experience of stealing automobiles, particularly focusing on what strategies they use to maintain an appearance of normality while driving away with a stolen vehicle.

Perhaps the most striking point to come out of the interviews is that dealing with the psychological pressure of the drive is by far the biggest challenge. As one offender noted “that‚Äôs where the adrenalin is, it‚Äôs in the drive. The actual theft is really no big deal.”

Some of these strategies were common sense, for example, not doing too much damage when breaking in or driving recklessly, but others were clearly thought out with ideas of how other people would perceive what a ‘normal’ driver would look like.

This can involve thinking about the sort of driver that would be in the type of car the person wants to steal – and dressing accordingly. Offenders reported that they specifically ‘dressed up’ to match their target car and avoided stereotypically gangsterish clothing, while another reported that instead of changing his appearance to fit the car, he made sure he stole cars to fitted his day-to-day look.

This could even take even involve thinking about the potential prejudices of the police, with one offender reporting that he avoided specific types of car “because if police see a young black person like me in a nice car they will easily pull me over”.

But these more practical measures also needed to be accompanied by the right psychological approach which was seen as the most challenging aspect of stealing cars. ‘Police panic’, even if only internal, is common and offenders not only had to conceal the fact they were spooked but conceal the fact they were trying to hid their stress.

This often involved specific mental strategies to focus on certain aspects of behaviour to dampen the effect of emotions:

Some car thieves often respond to the physiological arousal of police encounters by ‘covering their concern with a tightly held cloak of unconcern’, but to over-perform complacency invites suspicion and magnetizes observers doubt as ‘[t]hose who treat the presence of the police as other than normal are seen as other than normal themselves’. A delicate balance must be struck.

In managing composure, some offenders prefer to focus more on the task at hand than on the interactional pressures of the abrupt threat. ‘When I see police,’ explained one thief, ‘I would just maintain my composure and do everything a driver is supposed to do.’ Attending less to the emotional sensations associated with the encounter and monitoring more controllable behaviours instead allows offenders to maintain composure and exhibit normal reactions. Doing so helps minimize the urge to immediately flee when police are in sight.

Some auto thieves were very confident in their ability to act normally, stating that ‘police are only as smart as you make them’. The ability to maintain composure by removing feelings of inferiority provided offenders with a sense of confidence, which in turn made it easier for offenders to act normally.

The study, published in 2006, counters the idea that such crimes are purely opportunistic that require little skill or ability. Instead, while the technical aspects of stealing a car are relatively trivial, the psychological challenges require significant effort.

Link to DOI and summary of study.

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