Bank robberies seem to be the crime of our time.
A masked man walked into South Carolina's Greenville First Bank last month with a handgun and demanded cash. The alleged suspect, Bruce Windsor, who owns a local real estate business and was a deacon in his church, allegedly entered the bank while brandishing a firearm with the intent to commit robbery. He has been charged with attempted armed robbery and kidnapping.
A grandmother from Ohio, a former bank teller, reportedly robbed three bank branches to support her son, who was apparently deep in debt. Barbara Joly, 68, was sentenced to six years in prison for robbing several banks last year.
And in the country's largest city, bank robberies have spiked 57 percent in the past year.
"It's a real big problem in the city of New York," said Butch Neacy, who heads the New York Police Department's major case squad. "We had 444 bank robberies last year citywide. ... That's the most bank robberies that the city experienced in 15 years."
The major case squad tracks bank robberies citywide, responding to every single incident. It appears to be an endless chase.
"Nightline" tagged along with the team on a recent night, when the latest thorn in the squad's side had struck again.
One man, whose series of robberies have been dubbed "Pattern Two" by the team, has been approaching bank tellers in a heavy coat, with his face covered. He hands the teller a note, threatens violence and makes a quick escape with his prize.
Since late January, he is believed to be responsible for 14 robberies, including four attempts in a single afternoon. He has walked away with more than $14,000, including more than $2,000 from a Wachovia bank branch in Midtown Manhattan.
"He's very smooth, he walks in very quietly," NYPD Det. Janice Meehan said. "It's frustrating that we were here earlier and because we had another incident a few blocks away, we went to that."
By New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's calculation, "It's become easy to rob a bank; you don't need a gun, you don't even need a threat -- all you need is a pen and a paper. That's the reality and that's the word in the criminal community."
To Prevent Robberies, Banks Should Look Like Banks
Contrary to popular fiction, most robberies in New York City are not the "shoot 'em up" Hollywood-style operations. Police say the robbers rarely flash guns; most pass notes ranging from hostile, to polite, to comical, to crudely artistic.
"Some of the incidents that we investigate are laughable, the way the perps walk in there, pass a note and they're able to walk out with money," Neacy said.
While the notes may be funny, these robbers get away with serious money.
Kelly says the banks are "a significant contributor" to the problem. "We didn't see this percentage of bank robberies when we had banks that looked like banks," he said.
At TD Bank, the head of retail services sees things differently.
"If you look at the economic times, people that can't make it don't always take personal responsibility," Linda Verba said. "So I think it has more to do with that than just about anything else."
Kelly acknowledged that the recession may be a factor, "but it really hasn't manifested itself to us. Is it a possibility down the road? Probably."
Kelly has saved his greatest criticism for TD Bank, which prides itself on its convenience and welcoming environment.
And therein lies the rub, Kelly said. "We believe that their business model, or the architecture in the bank, is such that it's conducive and inviting for individuals coming in and trying to get money, rob the bank," he said. "We believe that the ballistic barriers are a significant deterrent and, obviously, some other best practices as well. And that bank has resisted."
Verba disagrees. "In 2003, the last time that robberies really occurred at the same sorts of levels, there 14 different items that a commission that worked with Commissioner Kelly identified as best practices. TD Bank exceeds nine out of 14, complies with 13. ...The only thing that we have not acquiesced to is bandit barriers. It's really simply an issue of bandit barriers."
Ballistic barriers or "bandit barriers," are bullet-proof or bullet-resistant shields between bank tellers and customers. They impede a robber's attempting to jump over the counter to access the cash drawers. Other security measures recommended by the NYPD include visible security cameras and guards and counter-tops that capture clean fingerprints.
TD Bank, whose tellers work in the open rather than behind barriers, says its priorities are "service and convenience."
When asked if security is secondary, Verba said that "service and convenience is part of security."
"There are security measures everywhere," she said, pointing out the bank's security cameras, security guards and open environment. "You can look outside. ... The openness actually enhances the safety and soundness. Because it is open, everyone can see what's going on."
Kelly said, "I think it's fair to say that many banks see a robbery as just the cost of doing business."
In defense of TD Bank, however, Verba said, "There is a process that goes on immediately following a robbery that this is not a pleasant experience for anyone that is involved, but at the end of the day this is about an industry issue. This is not a TD Bank issue. This is absolutely an NYPD and industry issue. Banks are being robbed. There is an increase in bank robberies, and it is not good for the industry."
Legislating Security Measures at Banks
But the number of bank robberies has reached such a critical point that Kelly is even considering supporting legislation that would force banks to enact security measures, a move that Kelly himself rejected back in 2003.
"We're doing an analysis of each robbery," he said. "We're meeting with bank executives. We're imparting that information to them. We're working with the bankers association. But I must say that we're also looking at legislation. We're also looking at the possibility of requiring these security measures in the banks which, by the way, were proposed in June of 2003 and I testified against it."
He said he once believed that the banking industry would make the necessary changes on its own. "Hasn't happened," he said. "So we may have to resort to legislation. ... I now think that it probably is the only way to go to get everybody on board."
Additionally, the NYPD Crime Prevention Division advises consumers to watch out for their own safety at ATM machines:
Watch out for suspicious-looking people near the bank entrance
Use well-lit, populated ATMs
Avoid ATMs with unlocked doors or doors directly on the street
Block bystanders' views when entering personal information
Put away cash, ATM card and receipt before exiting
Make sure the door closes behind you