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  • September 21, 2018

    My Pal Lash: Fighting Crime One Taco at a Time


    It turns out that my pal, Larry “Lash” LaRue, who died last November, was ahead of his time. I already knew that, but a recent article I read reminded me that Mr. LaRue knew way back when, what social scientists are just figuring out now.

    In the 1960s, when Larry was working his way through Long Beach State, he had a gig as the overnight guy at Taco Bell in Long Beach. On the wall behind him was a clock imbedded inside a giant Mexican sunburst.

    Late one night, this young kid comes up with a gun, sticks it through the window, and demands all the money. Instead of giving him the cash, Larry whispers to the kid to put the gun down out of sight. “There’s a camera hidden in the clock,” Larry tells him, “just act normal.” The kid looks scared, then says, “OK” and puts the gun down.

    Then Larry in a loud voice says, “Yes Sir, two bean burritos and a taco,” speaking for the benefit of the make-believe camera.

    He puts the order in the bag, gives it to the would-be robber, then tells the kid to take off before they both get caught. The kid runs off with his bag of fast food, and Larry calls the police.

    It turns out that Larry’s dad, Al LaRue, was a lieutenant on the Long Beach Police Department at the time. His dad was irate. How stupid are you, he wanted to know. You risk your life for a couple of hundred bucks that doesn’t even belong to you?  Are you insane?

    But Larry wasn’t insane. He just didn’t want to get the kid in trouble over a couple of hundred bucks in the Taco Bell register.

    The Taco Bell robbery story all happened before I knew Larry, but he told about that night on several occasions when we were out drinking, and I laughed every time. Because it was funny and because that’s the kind of guy Larry was.

    Now, 50 years later I read a story on Zocalo by sociology professor Anne Nassauer. The professor writes that social scientists are using closed circuit TV recordings of robberies and other events to discover what makes people act the way they do. Setting up social experiments with human subjects in a lab or doing a survey is always limited by the awareness of the subjects that they are part of a test. And because they are aware, they consciously or unconsciously act as the think they should act.

    But on closed-circuit TV, you get a picture of the subjects who are part of a real-life experience rather than a closely controlled experiment. And with the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras, there is lots of material to choose from with a wide range of cultures and nationalities. It turns out that most of us follow scripts during encounters with other folks.

    “How are you,” somebody says to you.

    “I’m good,” you say, even though you may have a toothache and your wife just filed for divorce. “And how about you?”

    “I’m doing just fine,” the other person says. “Have a great day.”

    “You too,” you answer.

    It’s a script, and with some variation, most of us follow it dozens of times a day. It turns out to be the same thing with robberies.

    The robber brandishes a gun, bursts into the store, and shouts in an angry voice, “Give me all the money!”

    And the clerk? He or she puts their hands up, and turns over the cash.

    It’s all part of a script. But it turns out, that’s not the way it always goes. In about a third of robberies, the victim does not follow the script. And when he or she goes off script, it throws the entire robbery dynamic out of sync – kind of like when an actor unexpectedly starts to ad lib in a play.

    Sometimes, the clerk doesn’t put up his hands. Sometimes the clerk reaches under the counter, pulls out his or her own gun, and shoots back. Sometimes the clerk is fed up with people just marching in and demanding money and tells the robber to get lost.

    Here’s the Zocalo account of a robbery caught on video in Riverbank, California.

    ‘Two robbers enter the Circle T Market in Riverbank. One carries a large assault rifle, an AK-47. Upon seeing them, the clerk behind the counter puts his hands up. Yet the elderly store owner finds the weapon absurdly big and casually walks up to the robbers, laughing. His shoulders are relaxed and he points the palms of his hands up as if asking them whether they are serious. Both perpetrators are startled upon seeing the elderly man laughing at them. One runs away, while the one with the AK-47 freezes, is tackled, and is later arrested by police. They had robbed numerous stores before.”

    Which brings us back to the robbery at Taco Bell so many years ago. It doesn’t always work out as well as one might hope. The young robber could have shot my friend Larry LaRue and killed him before Larry and I ever met. That could have happened, but it didn’t.

    It could be that the young robber took the lesson to heart, gave up his plan to be a criminal, and lived a happy and productive life. We would all like to believe that, but it is almost certainly not what really happened. And that’s OK.

    Larry did his best for the kid, because that’s the kind of guy Larry was. And maybe in the end that is all that really counts.

    George Lee Cunningham

    Do you have a dissenting opinion or any opinion at all on the subject? Contact me at george@georgeleecunningham.com and let me know. Meanwhile, you can always subscribe and get an email reminder of blog postings. Your name will not be shared and you may cancel at any time.