Banks looking for ways to stem flood of holdups

June 06, 1993|By Michael James and Roger Twigg | Michael James and Roger Twigg,Staff Writers

Eight Baltimore-area banks have formed a task force to come up with ways to battle a raging tide of robberies that has put both the city and Maryland well on the way to record years for bank holdups.

"It's really been amazing, the crimes have been so brazen," said T. Wayne Kirwan, of the Maryland Bankers Association. "The industry is frustrated to try and explain it. It's not even Christmas season."

Police agencies and the FBI report bank robberies typically surge at the end of the year, when criminals presumably seek fast money for the holidays. But in the past six months, there have been more than 192 bank robberies in Maryland, the FBI reports, a surge like never before. Between January and May 1993, 145 banks have been robbed statewide, putting Maryland on a pace to shatter the record of 219 set in 1992.

"We've never had anything like this, a whole year's worth of robberies in six months," said Special Agent Andy Manning, a spokesman for the FBI office in Baltimore. "It's starting to feel like Los Angeles [the nation's bank robbery capital]."

Leading the way is Baltimore with 54 bank robberies, putting it on a pace to break the city record of 96 in 1980. At this time last year, there were only 19 in Baltimore.

In Baltimore County, 38 banks have been robbed this year.

The new task force will discuss possible ways to deter robbers, such as increasing reward money, a public affairs campaign to heighten awareness of the problem and buying advertising to show robbers' pictures taken by bank cameras.

"We have an old saying: Smart crooks don't rob banks," said zTC Peter M. Martin, president of Provident Bank of Maryland, which has been robbed twice in recent weeks. "You get your picture taken by the bank camera, you don't get much money, and the odds are pretty good you're going to end up in jail."

'Get the message

Nevertheless, Mr. Martin adds, there seem to be a lot of stupid criminals out there. "I wish these guys would get the message," he said.

The FBI reports about 68 percent to 70 percent of all bank robberies are solved, with the robbers usually getting the maximum prison sentence of 20 years; 25 if a gun was used.

Authorities are unsure why bank robberies have escalated. They theorize the causes may be the stagnant economy, high unemployment, greater availability of guns and rampant drug abuse.

Usually, the thief is a drug addict just looking to grab a handful of $20 bills to buy a fix.

"The vast majority are junkies who are satisfied with getting three or four hundred dollars. You'd be surprised how many don't go for the big bucks," said Special Agent H. Thomas Moore, who coordinates bank robbery investigations for the Baltimore FBI office.

Most bank robbers use a note to demand money. But for those who are armed, the weaponry is alarming -- Mr. Moore said the firearms of choice are 9 mm semiautomatic pistols and sawed-off shotguns.

"It used to be they carried 'Saturday night specials,' but not anymore. There's a lot more firepower available to them now and that's scary," said Mr. Moore, who has been investigating bank robberies in Maryland since 1971.

The streak of robberies in the Baltimore area seems to have begun within days after the Oct. 26 robbery of the Farmers Bank & Trust Co. in Randallstown, when two gunman herded four female employees into the bank's vault and shot them all in the head. Two of the victims died. Police arrested two suspects minutes after the robbery.

Although the robbery was unusually brutal -- most bank robberies don't involve injury -- it had two typical elements of some of the robberies that followed. The holdup men were well armed, one with a Mac-11 handgun, and they netted a relatively small sum -- $5,865.

About seven of this year's robberies are "somewhat more professional" and are believed to have been committed by gangs of two or more men, Mr. Moore said.

He said one such gang of three masked men has robbed three banks -- one each in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. The gang's method is to vault over the tellers' counter and clean out the cash drawers.

The main weapons used by bank security officials are exploding dye packs, high-quality video cameras, occasional security guards and -- in some cases -- bulletproof teller windows at downtown banks.

"These robberies are terrifying experiences for our customers and our employees," said Mr. Martin, the Provident bank president. "If there's any tendency to think of this as a victimless crime, it's just not true. These are corporations with people who are being traumatized."

On the front lines are the tellers, who in most cases earn between $16,000 and $18,000 a year -- a low wage considering the number of times they've been confronted by robbers.

A teller at a Provident Bank who has been confronted by five different robbers said criminals seem to be aware tellers have been instructed by the FBI not to resist.

"They know we'll give them the money. One time a guy just waited in line, came up to the window, and showed me his wallet, saying, 'I need money, I need money. Give me the 20s.' And I gave them to him," said the teller, who asked that her name be withheld.

After the robberies are committed, it is standard procedure to lock the doors while investigators do their work -- but the tellers must still process transactions for any customers still inside, she said.

"We should get some kind of hazard pay. It's kind of crazy in this job," she said.

'Deep concern'

As a result of the recent surge, Baltimore police are considering expanding the robbery unit, which now consists of a lieutenant, two sergeants and 12 detectives, said Lt. Earl Nesbit, who heads the unit.

"There is deep concern by everyone," he said. "We don't know why it's happening. Hopefully, it won't continue."

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