Holdups of banks soar in Md., Del.

Highest level since 1997 fuels push in Annapolis to stiffen law

Drugs, repeat offenders are blamed

New customer-friendly lobbies are viewed as being less secure

February 20, 2005|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,SUN STAFF

Bank robberies last year rose in Maryland and Delaware to their highest level in seven years, prompting local bankers to seek stiffer penalties for such crimes.

The Baltimore division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which covers the two states, recorded 348 bank robberies in 2004, more than in any year since 1997, when there were 427 bank robberies. Maryland alone had 299 bank robberies last year, 28 percent more than in 2003 and 70 percent more than in 2000.

On a per-capita basis, Baltimore and its five surrounding counties last year far outpaced the Los Angeles area, which perennially logs the most bank robberies in total numbers.

The Baltimore area had 180 bank robberies in 2004, or about seven for every 100,000 people, more than double the rate in Los Angeles.

Law enforcement and banking experts point to a host of reasons for the upswing, including the prolific drug trade in Baltimore, repeat offenders getting out of prison after a spate of robberies in the mid-1990s, and trends in banking itself that have encouraged lobby designs that are more "customer-friendly" than security conscious.

"We're concerned about the rising numbers but also about the violent nature of some of these robberies," said P. Kevin Smith, a vice president at Chevy Chase Bank and chairman of the security committee of the Maryland Bankers Association. "Bank robbers will keep going until they get caught."

Bank executives are lobbying state lawmakers and judges for longer sentences for offenders. They are seeking to make bank robbery a separate crime under state law punishable by up to 30 years in prison. That would be 10 more years than the current maximum sentence for all types of armed robbery.

The FBI doesn't release its official national crime report until later this year, though a preliminary look at some major metropolitan areas shows that Baltimore and Maryland rank among the top in terms of the number of bank robberies per population, said Patrick S. Dugan of the FBI's bank robbery squad in Baltimore.

The FBI's New York City office, which covers a population about twice the size of Maryland's, had 386 bank robberies last year. The Las Vegas office, whose jurisdiction covers Nevada, had 145. The Chicago office, which covers the city and surrounding counties, logged 171. The Seattle office, with jurisdiction across Washington state, had 253 robberies. The Detroit office that handles Michigan and the Philadelphia office that handles parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey each reported 458.

Officials in law enforcement say the biggest contributor to the problem in Maryland is the prevalence of drug trafficking in Baltimore that also has been blamed for keeping the city's murder rate among the highest in the nation.

"People need money to feed their drug habit," Dugan said. "Maryland and this area have a propensity for violent crime as we see, and bank robbery is just one more manifestation of that."

The effect, however, is hardly even across the board. The increase in bank robberies was worst in Baltimore County, where bank thefts rose to 96 last year from 52 in 2003, and in Prince George's County, where bank robberies reached 62 last year from 40 the previous year. They also doubled in some of the outer counties, up to 11 from six in Harford County and up to seven from three in Carroll County.

But bank robberies also fell last year in several large jurisdictions, to 34 from 48 the previous year in Baltimore City, to 26 from 32 in Anne Arundel County, and to 28 from 30 in Montgomery County. Howard County reported six bank robberies each of the past two years.

"We have a large number of banks in the county, and many of them are located on arterial roads that make escape relatively easy," said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department. "But I don't know that we can point to a hard-and-fast reason why there was an increase last year."

Experts say banks are a persistent target "because that's where the money is," recalling Willie Sutton's famous explanation for his string of holdups in the 1930s. Many would-be robbers are also aware that bank employees are instructed to cooperate, they said.

"They hear that all they have to do is point their finger and threaten to spit, so they think banks are an easy mark," said J. Branch Walton, president of the National Association for Bank Security, a consulting firm.

Over the past few decades, banks have made it easier for robbers by abandoning traditional "teller cages" in favor of a more-open floor plan that allowed people to "reach over and press the flesh," said William J. Rehder, a retired bank robbery investigator for the FBI in Los Angeles.

"The retail side of the house wags the dog, and they have been on a constant march to make their banks more customer-friendly," said Rehder, now a security consultant. "Consequently, the more customer-friendly they make them, the more bandit-friendly they make them."

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