Hatton Garden raiders aren’t decent old geezers in an Ealing comedy

At the sentencing of the Hatton Garden safety deposit box burglars (well those who were present, the sentencing of Brian Reader has been delayed due to his ill health, the illusive fugitive nicknamed ‘Basil’, remains an evasive enigma) the judge said that the raid was in a ‘class of its own’ due to the ‘ambition, planning and scale of the spoils’ involved. In many ways this is correct, the thieves heist, estimated at some £14 million has also largely remained unaccounted for, with seemingly only some £4 million in property recovered.

It also strikes that it was a crime now slightly out of its time, committed by professional criminal types of yesteryear (indeed the advanced age of the guilty parties is a useful reminder that serious criminality is not always a young man’s game). The burglary is notable, (and for some of the public, seemingly admirable) for its Oceans 11 meets an Ealing comedy character, but the lengthy sentences handed to participants is a reminder that we should hardly celebrate these men as simply rebellious spirits or ordinary decent criminals.

The Hatton burglars were not involved in some admirable Last of the Summer Wine style heist (although it was perhaps not so organised as the prosecution presented, though in reality serious organised crimes are frequently accompanied by examples of poor planning and blatant mistakes).

Yet one of the reasons the Hatton burglary has become such a national sensation is that many of the public seemingly see it as just that, good old rogues having a good last try. For these people the Hatton is also often seemingly a throwback to that halcyon period of organised crime in the good old days where ‘ordinary decent criminals’ plied their trade without recourse to violence and well away from the drug trade. In this imagined history, ordinary decent thieves were conscious about where they stole, and who they stole off. They targeted those who had, and did not bring trouble to their own doorstep.

A graphic of theft released by the Metropolitan Police
A graphic of theft released by the Metropolitan Police

Such was the myth that underscored the criminality of the violent brothers, Ronnie and Reggie Kray which was recently portrayed so well by Tom Hardy. That film, Legend actually accurately captured their selfish, destructive and malign violence, basing the story loosely on journalist John Pearson’s classic study ‘The Profession of Violence’.

Yet the truth is that the nostalgic fantasy that sets the Krays up as really rather decent chaps is a very forceful, if entirely invented one. While few can deny that the large scale drug trade has forever changed the world of organised crime (just as the internet is now doing so also) so too such classic fantasy nostalgia about the crimes of yesteryear is little grounded in reality.

Still many in the public celebrate or fondly remember the classic heists, to which Hatton garden will be added. The Great Train robbery is a classic example. We remember all too well the Great Train Robbers the likes of Buster Edwards (played on the big screen By Phil Collins) because films turn them into celebrity characters.

Indeed in popular culture the Great Train Robbery is also often remembered because the violent perpetrators are transformed into ‘loveable rogues’, a symbol of the admirable ‘rebellious spirit’ that often characterises both British and American cool culture, and explains in part why the popular media love a good crime story as a television adaptation or a big screen blockbuster. They sell the public back such myths.

Indeed many people are attracted to such films because of the tale of these stories, where enterprising criminals escape a life of mundanity by rebelling against the system, is also a rebellion against authority, mundanity, routine and normal social conventions. In criminology we call this ‘The Outlaw myth’, where the ‘outlaw’ represents the poor against the evil system, representing the rich and powerful of the establishment. It is all too apparent that this crime has captured the public mood, with people already clamouring on social networks for a big screen film adaptation featuring all the big names.

Criminology has it right, the rebellious outlaw it is a myth, and we should not be too ready to accept the Hatton Burglars as celebrity rebels or decent old geezers. While it is right to question the extent to which the law and legal system should place the value of property before say lives (and the sentences of the Hatton raiders may seem harsh when compared to say those that are levied against corporations that kill) it is not right to valorise of celebrate the Hatton garden raiders. It is all too apparent in the public’s sentiment to the specific gerontology and criminality of the Hatton heist that some are willing to celebrate them, and that is actually quite sad, because they would look on many of them celebrating them as naïve mugs.

CCTV stills released by the police show the raid in progress
CCTV stills released by the police show the raid in progress

In the case of the Great Train Robbers the travesty was that while we remember the perpetrators, it is the fate of train driver Jack Mills that is often entirely forgotten. The ‘decent criminals’ of the great train robbery hit Jack over the head with an iron bar. They were thuggish opportunists drawn from a backdrop of routine and regular offending, and they did not only rob off ‘them’, they robbed Jack of his future happiness.

There is nothing romantic about the sort of everyday crime that victims have to suffer. There’s nothing “Robin Hood” about the poor taking from the poor. It is true that often the type of crime people forget about is committed by the wealthy and powerful members of society, and there’s similarly nothing “Robin Hood” about the rich taking from the poor – usually the customer or the taxpayer, after all, as a society we would hardly afford jailed fraudster MPs much sympathy.

But so too we should feel no sympathy for the Hatton Garden raiders. For the most part they are long term criminals who had been involved in, or at the peripheries of organised crime for years. They had made their lives comfortable via deriving a degree of special liberty that permitted them to hurt others. That they stole from the rich does not mitigate this, and the judge was entirely right to note that.

As he sentenced Terry Perkins, a 67 year old criminal to be jailed for seven years for his role in burglary, Perkins may have uttered a “Thank you, Sir”, but his history of high value crimes suggests his respect for the law is superficial and his gratitude more to do with the sentence being lower than he may have been expecting. Indeed Perkins may have already had one eye on his portrayal in the inevitable movie.

Yet let us not slip into celebratory awe of these rather mundane criminals whose level of organisation extended to purchasing and consuming a copy of the introductory book Forensics for Dummies. Let us not believe that criminals can be separated into the decent and non-decent type.

What’s romantic, rebellious or even admirable about wanting to live like the most powerful and privileged group in society? How are calculating, conniving criminals seeking a shortcut to profit for themselves, willing to harm anyone who gets in their way (even if that harm is the loss of £10 million pounds of property) societal heroes? What does it say about our society that they are?

Of course, fortunately unlike the great Train Robbers the Hatton Raiders did not use violence, but had a security guard have discovered them do people honestly think they would have been unwilling to do so? The criminal acts committed by these not so poor old lags are not some heroic last caper uniting the old firm (and seemingly the old and infirm). That line about them being happy go lucky decent criminal sorts is as false as believing that their polite thanks to the judge is evidence of the ordinary decent criminal of a bygone age. The real truth of the matter is that such a criminal type never really existed.

Dr James Treadwell is a lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University

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