Banks weigh measures to deter robberies

Balto. County's rapid rise in holdups stirs officials, police to discuss resources

September 30, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County posted more bank robberies in the first eight months of this year than in all of last year, and police met with bank officials and other law enforcement agencies yesterday to discuss ways of halting the rapid rise.

In January, Baltimore County police, Baltimore City police and the local office of the FBI formed a joint task force to investigate area bank robberies. The group has been successful in making arrests, said county police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan, but the number of bank robberies in the county continues to rise.

The meeting yesterday focused on steps that banks could take to deter robberies and ways banks and police could work together to solve the crimes, Sheridan said at a news conference afterward.

Some banks were considering improving their video surveillance technology and increasing training for tellers, urging them to look for people who may be casing the bank, said bank officials who attended the meeting.

The Maryland Bankers Association is considering lobbying the legislature to specify bank robbery as a state crime, more serious than robbery alone and with potentially more severe consequences, said John F. Cavanaugh, a vice president of the association.

Ed Hale, president of First Mariner Bank, also said that "lobbying judges is a key ingredient.

"They're threatening to kill" tellers, he said of bank robbers. "These bank robbers need to be put away for as long as possible."

Although bank robbery numbers are up in many counties across the country, Baltimore County's increase is particularly notable, Sheridan said.

There were 33 bank robberies in the county in 2000, and last year there were 56, according to police statistics. There have been 61 this year, putting the county on pace to post more than 90 by the end of the year.

If Baltimore County were a state, Sheridan said, it would rank 13th in the nation in bank robberies. The FBI's Maryland-Delaware office has the highest number of bank robberies per capita of any FBI field office.

Sheridan said he isn't sure what has caused the numbers to spike in recent years, but both he and Kevin L. Perkins, the special agent in charge of the local FBI office, said there have been fewer federal resources -- in terms of manpower and tools such as wiretapping -- available in recent years for bank robbery investigations.

"Many of our resources have been shifted to counterterrorism efforts," Perkins said. "The mission of the FBI has changed, but our responsibilities, like investigating bank robberies, have not."

Bank robbery is a federal crime, but it often is prosecuted instead at the state level as armed robbery.

Sheridan agreed that the FBI's new focus on counterterrorism has affected its ability to assist in bank robbery investigations.

"They're being pulled in all sorts of directions," he said. "I understand fully that they can't be everywhere and everything. But now we're getting back to a middle ground with them [where] they're able to be more involved again with the investigations."

The national clearance rate for robberies has been on a steady decline since 1999 and has dropped markedly since September 2001, according to FBI crime statistics.

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