Pickpocketing: An Art That's Stealing Away Few crimes have disappeared as dramatically as pickpocketing. These days, law enforcement officials don't even track statistics on pickpockets. What happened to it?
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Pickpocketing: An Art That's Stealing Away

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Pickpocketing: An Art That's Stealing Away

Pickpocketing: An Art That's Stealing Away

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, the occasional Amish Ponzi scheme notwithstanding, most crime in America has been on a steady decline since the 1990s, and few petty crimes have declined faster than pickpocketing. And while he's not necessarily pining for its return, writer Joe Keohane says that's kind of a shame.

Mr. JOE KEOHANE: It's a very human crime, I would say, in the sense that you're man to man.

RAZ: Joe wrote about the decline of pickpocketing for Slate magazine.

Mr. KEOHANE: There is no real advantage in terms of physicality or weaponry. And you just outsmart your victim.

RAZ: Take this scene, Joe says, from the caper "Ocean's Eleven."

(Soundbite of movie, "Ocean's Eleven")

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (As Danny Ocean) Do you think we need one more?

RAZ: George Clooney is assembling his 11-man team for a casino heist.

(Soundbite of movie, "Ocean's Eleven")

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) All right, we'll get one more.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: His eleventh is Matt Damon.

Mr. KEOHANE: And he is riding the CTA in Chicago, riding the El Train.

RAZ: George Clooney is watching. Damon maneuvers close to a passenger.

Mr. KEOHANE: It looks like he has money. He's a pretty prime mark for a pickpocket.

RAZ: They're riding along, and suddenly, the train lurches.

Mr. KEOHANE: Damon bumps into him and then just shoots his hand into the guy's jack pocket.

RAZ: And it seems like a successful pick.

Mr. KEOHANE: He gets off the train, and moments later, he reaches into his pocket to try to find the wallet and there's a card from Danny Ocean, who is George's Clooney's character. And the implication is that Clooney is twice the pickpocket Damon is because he has defeated this master pickpocket without him ever even seeing him on the train.

(Soundbite of movie, "Ocean's Eleven")

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) Hello, Linus. Whose is this?

RAZ: Now, this type of pickpocketing, Joe Keohane says, doesn't happen anymore. It requires skill that modern criminals just don't have.

Mr. KEOHANE: Poise. You need someone whose hand's not going to shake, who's going to have the patience, number one, to develop the skills required, but number two, have the patience to just wait and look for the proper mark.

They need to be able to read humanity. They need to be able to predict how certain people are going to respond if they do catch them pickpocketing. They need to predict patterns of behavior that'll allow people to become bigger targets for pickpocketing.

RAZ: Thing is, just 20 years ago, American cities were rife with pickpockets. In 1990, in New York alone, there were over 23,000 cases reported.

Mr. KEOHANE: It amounted to $10 million in losses. Now, five years later, the number of reported incidents fell by half. And by around 2000, there were less than 5,000 reported pickpocketing incidents.

Today, the NYPD doesn't even track those numbers at all. They're just lumped in with larceny.

RAZ: It's the same story in a lot of other major U.S. cities, and that's partly because no one teaches pickpocketing anymore. There's no longer a system of apprenticeship. And there used to be one, older pickpockets called wires would teach younger ones the craft.

Mr. KEOHANE: Each wire would be good enough that he started training five pickpockets underneath him. And then they would train five, and they would train five, and it would just keep the system going. It used to happen a lot more. In New York, you'd have organized pickpocketing schools in New York.

Mr. SHERMAN POWELL: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is O.T., and I'm a retired pickpocket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: That's Sherman "O.T." Powell, speaking to an audience at the Moth, a storytelling organization in New York. When we reached him at his home in Harlem this week, he described training at a pickpocketing school in 1969 in a room full of dressed mannequins.

Mr. POWELL: They would have these bells on them, and so your hand had to be light enough to lift this wallet and yet not let the bell ring. And like my teacher used to say, you had to be like a pianist.

RAZ: O.T. trained for three months. Then, he hit the streets.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. POWELL: You dress in a suit or nice casual clothes. You look clean-cut.

RAZ: On a good day, he could make two grand.

Mr. POWELL: My toughest picks were when I started going to Macy's. They had these revolving doors. And I mean, going through that door and opening up a woman's pocket, get the wallet and then close the bag. And as she's going into the store, you're just revolving right back out to the street and hailing a taxi.

RAZ: O.T. says he couldn't do that kind of work today even if he wanted to. Pickpockets everywhere now face stepped-up surveillance and cameras. And the wide use of debit cards hasn't helped.

Mr. POWELL: When people stopped carrying money, that was the beginning of the end of the pickpocketers.

RAZ: Not to mention, he says, it's a lot easier for criminals to just use a weapon.

Mr. POWELL: Pickpockets don't have no respect for thugs or robbers. You know, we consider them, you know, ancient, you know, prehistoric. We feel that anybody can stick a gun in a person's face and just - that's not hard to do. But to take a person's money and them not knowing it's gone, that's the art of it. That's the cleverness of it.

Mr. KEOHONE: Yeah, it's funny. I mean, is it okay to be nostalgic for a crime? Probably not. You know, it's probably good that people aren't being robbed anymore or with the frequency that they were before. But your tendency, your nostalgic tendency, is to mourn for the loss of something that requires skill and style and panache.

(Soundbite of movie, "Ocean's Eleven")

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) You're either in, or you're out, right now.

Mr. KEOHONE: And in a lot of ways, this is the way that pickpockets have been viewed, you know, for age eternal.

(Soundbite of movie, "Ocean's Eleven")

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) That's the best lift I've seen you make yet.

(Soundbite of song, "A Little Less Conversation")

RAZ: Joe Keohane. His story on the lost art of pickpocketing appeared in Slate magazine. Sherman "O.T." Powell is writing an autobiography. His story first aired on "The Moth Radio Hour" presented by PRX. You can find it and others at themoth.org.

(Soundbite of song, "A Little Less Conversation")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Singer): (Singing) A little less conversation a little more action, please. All this aggravation ain't satisfactioning me. A little more bite and a little less bark, a little less fight...

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