Banks to try boxing bandits in or out System designed to catch guns or departing robbers

March 01, 1997|By Scott Higham FTC | Scott Higham FTC,SUN STAFF

Going to the bank will never be the same.

Responding to the rising rate of bank robberies in cities like Baltimore, financial institutions are striking back with the latest crime-fighting tool -- a contraption that can block and trap bandits in vestibules made of steel and bulletproof glass.

A savings and loan in Baltimore has become the first financial institution in the region to install the device. Signet Bank has also decided to try the technology in a downtown Baltimore branch office, joining the ranks of banks in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Miami.

"We had to do something," said Steven P. Elsnic, president of Madison & Bradford Federal Savings & Loan Association on Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore, who now spends part of his days showing customers how to navigate through the chambers of the high-tech security vestibule.

"We want the bad guys to go somewhere else."

The bad guys, including one with a sawed-off shotgun, robbed the family-run savings and loan three times last spring and summer in the worst year for bank robberies on record for Baltimore, when bandits held up 134 financial institutions.

American bank executives are slowly starting to follow the lead of their counterparts in Italy and Germany, where the entrances to many financial institutions were transformed into small, glass-enclosed fortresses a decade ago.

Nearly 100 have been installed in U.S. banks.

Called people traps or access control systems, the devices work this way: Workers install two boxes of bullet-proof glass, aluminum and steel side by side at the bank entrance, one for entering and the other for leaving and each with a separate entrance and exit.

Customers open the entrance door and step through a metal detector. If they are not carrying metal objects, they are cleared through a second door into the bank. If the metal detector sounds, the second door locks, and tellers ask the customer to place metal objects on a ledge and step through the detector a second time.

If someone is carrying a weapon, they can leave the bank, but they can't get in.

On the way out, customers step through the exit chamber. Once the inside door closes, the outside door opens, letting them leave. If someone robs the bank by passing a note, they can be trapped inside the exit chamber by bank executives and tellers, who carry panic buttons that control computerized locking systems.

"This can virtually eliminate bank robberies," said David K. Schwartz, vice president of Baltimore-based International Security Inc., maker of the "Persontrap" installed last month at Madison & Bradford.

The first device of its kind in the United States was installed less than two years ago in a Mellon bank office in Philadelphia by a Puerto Rico-based company called Novacomm Inc. The Pittsburgh-based bank has the "Access Control Unit" in 22 of its 430 branch offices.

While the devices -- which range in cost from $30,000 to $70,000 and up -- are designed to deter robberies, they have trapped a few hapless holdup men. On Christmas Eve, one of the devices in a Mellon bank office in Philadelphia trapped a robber until police arrived.

"They're working out great," said Manuel Urbina, president of Novacomm, which has installed nearly 85 of the devices in the United States -- 45 in Puerto Rico. "We're receiving a lot of requests from the United States, South America and Latin America."

Another security company in Fairfield, Ohio, Hamilton Safe Co., has entered the market, installing a few dozen of the devices in banks in Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia and Dallas. The company recently signed a contract to install its "Hamilton Entrance Control System" in a Signet branch office in Baltimore.

It should be up and running within the next month. A Signet spokeswoman declined to say which location will be equipped with the system. Last year, two Signet branch offices in Baltimore -- 1 N. Charles St. and 7 St. Paul St. -- were among the most frequently hit banks in the city.

"We really don't want to say too much about our security," said Signet spokeswoman Gail Sanders. "It's a demonstration for us in terms of the success of the technology. We're going to see how this works and go from there."

Maryland and Baltimore have a long tradition of high bank robbery rates, in part because they have so many branch offices. Each year, Maryland usually has the fourth-highest bank robbery rate in the country behind California, New York and Florida, according to the FBI.

In Baltimore, the bank robbery rate refuses to go down. The city is outpacing last year's tally with 26 holdups in the first two months of 1997, according to Baltimore Lt. Larry Leeson, who heads the robbery squad.

Elsnic, the savings and loan president, said he doesn't want his bank to be a victim again.

Elsnic, the third generation of his family to run Madison & Bradford, said the neighborhood near Northern Parkway has been steadily declining.

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