Banks fighting heists with shrewd precautions, technology

March 23, 2009
Banks prefer not to talk about it. But during the last three years, 97 Marion County branches have been robbed. That's more than one in three. And a few unlucky institutions have been robbed repeatedly.

"One of the things we know, if you think about crime in general, it's not random," said Terry Baumer, director of programs in criminal justice and public safety at the IUPUI School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "That's the big myth, that crime is random. It's not random, and we're not all equally at risk."

Banks take many precautions to prevent robberies and minimize their impact. And FBI statistics show the safety measures work. Bank heists have declined steadily across the nation since 2001, though not dramatically.

Thanks to banks' use of technology, most robberies are solved — eventually. Law enforcement cracks just over half of cases within a year. Stretch the time line toward 10 years, and solution rates rise to over two-thirds, FBI figures show.

Bank robberies are declining in Indianapolis, too. Even so, the threat remains high for some branches.

IBJ analyzed Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department records from 2006 to 2008, finding 150 bank robberies in Marion County. The incidents were concentrated in 97 of the 275 branches in the county.

IBJ found 37 branches had been robbed more than once. A few were hit a stunning four or five times in the three years.

New York-based JPMorgan Chase and Co., which has 51 local branches, was the most frequently robbed brand, with 38 incidents on record. It was followed by Cleveland-based National City Corp., whose 43 local branches were robbed 25 times. National City was acquired by Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group Inc. Dec. 31.

Like all banks contacted by IBJ, Chase spokeswoman Nancy Norris said her bank will say little about its security procedures. That's because banks don't want to inadvertently share details with the bad guys.

"If ... it looks like more Chase branches have been robbed, well, we're in more places," Norris said. "It can happen at any branch at any time, which is why we have security measures at all bank branches."

The Chase branch at 3000 Southeastern Ave. has endured four robberies since the start of 2006, the most of all local Chase offices. It stands in the rundown Twin Aire Plaza strip mall. There's a row of shuttered homes across the street. A few doors away from the branch, Cash America Pawn Shop offers bargain jewelry and payday loans.

The parking lot is riddled with potholes and the sidewalk is cracked. Nearby, a large billboard displays the oversized mug shot of a suspected cocaine dealer, and offers a cash reward for anonymous tips leading to his arrest. Inside the branch, thick bulletproof glass protects the tellers, and hanging security cameras are clearly visible everywhere.

IMPD reports reveal white males robbed the location four times in 2007. Perpetrators in two of the incidents handed notes to the tellers and threatened violence. One read, "This is a robbery. Don't do anything stupid, I have a gun. Give me all the money in the drawer." That robber walked out with $2,989.

Nobody was harmed in the incidents. But Chase's biggest local competitor abandoned the area long ago. Just a short walk away, there's an empty National City branch at 3215 English Ave. It's been shuttered since April 28, 2004, according to the sign on its door.

Taking precautions

Branch security is foremost about deterrence. That's because the vast majority of bank robberies aren't the elaborately planned crimes depicted in movies, but instead done on a whim, often by perpetrators with drug problems, Baumer said.

"People robbing banks are generally not the people who are going to be shooting up the place like 'Dog Day Afternoon,'" Baumer said. Most times, "It's somebody who is desperate and says, 'I'm going to rob the bank,' and it just happens to be the closest."

Banks have plenty of overt precautions to choose from, such as armed guards, bulletproof glass and "man trap" double doors, in which the interior entrance can't be unlocked until the outer is closed. Each technology has its proponents. All are intended to keep criminals outside the branch.

But banks are reluctant to use them everywhere for fear they'll scare off customers as well as criminals. FBI stats show banks prefer less-threatening forms of security. Jim Rechel, a former FBI agent who spent 11 years as Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bancorp's vice president of bank protection, helps branches strike a balance between convenience and safety. Rechel now manages his own Cincinnati-based security consultancy called the Rechel Group Inc., and runs seminars here for Indiana banks.

Rechel trains bank personnel to integrate defense into customer service. Tellers learn to look for signs of anything unusual so they can assess danger and activate silent alarms, whose triggers are never more than a few feet away. Rechel also tells them to keep everything meticulously clean. Crime scene analysts have a better chance of isolating fingerprints from counters that are wiped daily.

A busy branch with alert personnel can often frighten off potential robbers, who generally want to avoid confrontation. Rechel also tells banks to place guards outside where they can be seen and to mount exterior video cameras where they'll be noticed.

"Engage every person that comes in," Rechel said. "Clearly, with the vast number of robberies ... they want to get in and out without being noticed. If they sense this is a place that pays attention, they're going to move on to a place that doesn't."

Birmingham, Ala.-based Regions Financial Corp.'s red brick branch at 7916 Madison Ave. looks crisp and friendly from the outside. Inside, there's coffee and cookies in the lobby. Personnel approach customers to offer assistance as soon as they enter.

It was robbed three times in the last three years, according to IMPD records.

Two of the robbers wore ski masks. One, a black male, bore a silver handgun, and ordered everyone in the branch down on the ground. Then, referring to the bills whose serial numbers have been recorded, he told the teller, "Don't give me no bait money," then walked away with a plastic grocery bag full.

Another, a white male, had a black semi-automatic pistol. He lined customers up against a wall, then handed a teller a red pillowcase and asked for $10s and $20s. Bank personnel complied, but the robber wanted more.

"If you put the bait money in there, I'll take a customer and shoot them," he reportedly said before fleeing. An IMPD canine unit tracked him, but lost the scent.

Visit the branch today, and you'll find a uniformed guard posted outside the door.

Scene of the crime

When robberies happen, banks have just one priority: Get the perpetrator out of the building as quickly as possible without violence. Personnel are trained to comply with robbers' demands while security cameras record the scene. Banks limit the currency in tellers' drawers and mark money so it can be tracked if bills are spent later. If possible, tellers slip exploding dye packs into money bags.

"Everyone should do what the robber says. Don't try to be a hero," said Lance Foster, a Florida-based security consultant and spokesman for the International Association of Professional Security Consultants. "But watch as much as you can to assist law enforcement in apprehension."

As soon as a robber leaves, banks lock doors to prevent his re-entry. They ask customers not to talk to one another, because eyewitnesses' perceptions vary, and can change in conversation.

Local police reports don't consistently disclose how much money robbers steal. But most of the time, it's clearly four figures or less. Whatever the robbers pinch, it never comes out of depositors' pockets.

"Customers' money is never involved in a bank robbery," said Chase's Norris. "It's not like the Old West. Any loss is the bank's loss. And, like any other business, we have set aside our loss reserve. Lost money from bank robberies would be included."

Robberies resulting in injuries are rare, Foster said. That's why banks don't fret too much about the impact of crime on their brands, even at a branch that's been repeatedly victimized. Unless they're heavily publicized, most bank robberies are quickly forgotten.

"The unfortunate truth is, people have short memories," he said. "In the near term, yes, they might be concerned. But unfortunately, after a while, it doesn't seem to matter."

Robberies with grisly, newsworthy details are another matter.

Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares Inc.'s branch at 2030 N. Post Road is attached to the rear side of a CVS drugstore. Several gas stations, a liquor store, a Waffle House and an Interstate 70 interchange are nearby. Around the corner, a Super 8 Motel offers hot-tub suites for $49 per night. The neighborhood is filled with modest 1970s ranch houses.

IMPD records show the bank was robbed five times in the last three years — the most of all Marion County bank branches. Although the first four incidents involved guns, there were no injuries.

That changed on April 22, 2008, when a robber leapt over the counter and shot employee Katherin Shuffield in the abdomen. The incident was highly publicized because Shuffield was six months pregnant, and ended up losing the twin girls she carried.

Shuffield subsequently sued Huntington, alleging the bank was negligent for ignoring the branch's history of robberies and failing to enhance its security. Shuffield and her husband have since spoken in the General Assembly in support of toughening Indiana's laws against feticide. A pair of men are now on trial for the crime.

Meanwhile, the branch has been shuttered. Its kiosks are empty, and wires hang from the ceiling. A plywood board covers the space where a drive-up ATM stood. A sign in the window, bearing Huntington's slogan, "A bank invested in people," says the doors closed June 27, 2008, and directs customers to another Huntington branch three miles southeast.

Chase and Charter One bank branches remain open on the same corner.

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