Records set for bank robberies City, with 97, follows state in topping old mark

November 02, 1993|By Michael James and Roger Twigg | Michael James and Roger Twigg,Staff Writers

Baltimore broke its 13-year-old record for bank robberies yesterday, a dubious milestone in a year that has seen bandits flocking to Maryland banks and bank officials scrambling for solutions.

"The problem is we've already broken the record and the holiday season is coming up. What's going to happen next?" said Peter M. Martin, president of Provident Bank of Maryland. "The holidays are usually when we get most of our robberies."

Yesterday's record-breaker occurred about 10 a.m. at the Household Bank in the first block of E. Fayette St. when a man with a threatening note escaped with a bag of money.

The robbery was the city's 97th of the year, breaking the old record of 96 set in 1980.

The statistics only get worse, according to the FBI: Maryland also has set a record with 273 bank robberies. The previous state record was 236, set last year.

"We've seen a steady rise, year after year. We're more than 100 bank robberies over what we had in 1988 [when there were 151 bank robberies in Maryland], and we're still cooking," said FBI Special Agent H. Thomas Moore, a supervisor in the bank robbery unit.

Authorities can't pinpoint why the robberies have increased. Theories include frustration over the stagnant economy, high unemployment, greater availability of guns and rampant drug abuse.

"The economy seems to play a big part in it," said Sgt. John E. Slawinski, head of the city police robbery unit. "People don't have jobs. When the economy goes down, we see bank robberies go up."

Of the 97 robberies this year in Baltimore, 48 have been in the downtown district, Sergeant Slawinski said. Suspects were arrested in connection with 67 cases, or 71 percent, he said.

The FBI reports that arrests are made in 68 percent to 70 percent of bank robberies statewide and that the robbers usually get the maximum prison sentence of 20 years, 25 if a gun was used.

But the threat of going to prison isn't deterring the robbers.

"The bottom line is, if somebody wants to rob something, they're going to do it," Sergeant Slawinski said.

Most of the bank robberies in the Baltimore area involve unarmed men with notes who typically escape with no more than $1,000 or $2,000. But the sheer number of the holdups has alarmed bank executives so much that they formed a bank robbery task force in May.

The task force, made up of representatives from about a dozen banks, met throughout the summer. But "it's been a very tough thing for us to get our arms around," said T. Wayne Kirwan, a

vice president of the Maryland Bankers Association and an organizer of the task force.

Chief among the problems facing bank officials is that most criminals seem to be aware of policies requiring tellers not to resist robbers. Even in cases where no weapon is displayed, tellers -- for purposes of protecting them -- are instructed to cooperate and hand over some cash.

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

But because of the recent surge in robberies, there is talk of bringing back an old type of security measure: the bank security guard.

"Banks have tended to veer away from the security guards, both for liability and cost issues," Mr. Kirwan said. "But the industry is in a robust period profit-wise. They're willing to invest in extra security."

Among those investments might be an innovative electronic tracking device similar to the Lojack car theft security system, Mr. Kirwan said. The device would be placed in a bag of money given to the robber, and the police could track the loot via an electronic signal, he said.

The device, which some cities have begun to use, is costly and might not catch on right away, Mr. Kirwan said.

Even with all the bank robberies, the industry is not being overwhelmed financially by holdup men. Mr. Kirwan said the banking industry loses more to fraud schemes such as #i check-kiting to robbers.

"We're starting to look more at the bank robbery problem. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers," Mr. Kirwan said. "Usually we see these bank robberies occurring seasonally, during the holidays. But this year it's been spring, summer and fall, with winter on the way. It's just off the chart."

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