To deter robbers, banks in Maryland hire one

September 25, 1994|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

Metropolitan-area bank executives were in a tizzy last year, the state's worst for bank robberies. This year, they're paying a notorious bank robber $1,500 to tell people how it's done.

His name is Joe Schapiro, and he spent 10 years in federal prison for bank robbery. He robbed 43 banks in the Los Angeles area in the late '60s, a life of crime that he says began after his wife gave him an ultimatum to bring home more money.

Mr. Schapiro, 48, brought home thousands of dollars from the robberies. But his wife left him, anyway.

"Crime just doesn't pay. You get caught up in that game, that lifestyle, and eventually your luck always runs out. That's the message I'm trying to get across," said Mr. Schapiro, a lecturer and security consultant hired by the Maryland Bankers Association as part of a campaign to reduce robberies.

Since last year, when Maryland had a record 334 bank robberies, the association has tried to come up with innovative ways to prevent robberies. Bankers and the FBI credit the initiatives with a 30 percent reduction in robberies this year. To date, 178 banks have been robbed, compared with 250 this time last year.

Tomorrow, the association will begin airing an anti-bank robbery commercial on local TV stations.

And Tuesday night, Mr. Schapiro will lead a seminar for security specialists, tellers, FBI agents and others. That day, he'll also speak to students at Arnett J. Brown Middle School in Baltimore about crime.

Mr. Schapiro, who lives in Seattle, says times have changed for bank robbers. He cites the adage attributed to Willie Sutton, a famous bank robber of the '30s, '40s and '50s.

"He used to say he robbed banks because that's where the money was. But that's not really true any more," Mr. Schapiro said. "The tellers aren't allowed to have much money in their drawers. You can make more money digging a ditch than you can robbing a bank today."

Although some robberies -- usually where a bank commits a security error -- result in heists of $100,000 or more, most bank robbers get less than $2,000, court records indicate. Banks routinely instruct tellers not to have more than $2,500 in cash drawers.

"Is that worth 25 years in federal prison? That's what I got," said Mr. Schapiro, who was paroled in 1978 and opened a creamery business. He became a security consultant in 1985.

In the commercial, titled "Crime doesn't pay -- very much," two actors play robbers who hold up a bank. The scene switches to the pair in a jail cell, with a voice-over saying, "When you figure in the average jail sentence for armed robbery, the average bank robber gets about $2 a week . . . while they sit on their butts in prison."

Bank executives said they are trying to teach children a basic lesson with the commercial: Bank robbery is a no-no.

"We're breaking it down to a basic level. It's another thing that we have to tell our kids not to do," said T. Wayne Kirwan, vice president of the Maryland Bankers Association.

Mr. Schapiro has lectured across the country. Last year, he gave about 160 seminars, earning a sizable income from the very industry he once preyed upon.

"In a conservative industry like ours, it seemed like a radical idea: We're hiring someone who held us up," Mr. Kirwan said.

But local bankers decided that Mr. Schapiro's insights were worth their $1,500 investment.

Investigators with the FBI said the bankers' tactics seem to be paying off.

"After the big year in 1993, there was a considerable amount of attention given to the problem by the bank officials. It's really made a difference," said Mel Fleming, a supervisor in the FBI's bank robbery division. He said that in August, not a single bank was robbed in Baltimore, where most Maryland bank robberies are committed.

For Mr. Schapiro, who said he went through 10 years of painful self-examination while he was in prison, bank robberies were his life. Now he lives by the rule, "those who can't do, teach."

"I try to put the bad things I learned to good use today," he said.

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