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Robbery Risk Reduction

BANK ROBBERS SUCCEEDED IN STEALING nearly $61 million in cash in 2008; of that, only about $9 million was ever recovered, according to FBI statistics. And although the number of robberies appeared to be trending down as 2009 drew to a close, the size of the losses was still significant, with more than $20 million taken from banks in the first six months. Additionally, at least seven deaths and more than 40 injuries were attributed to bank robberies in that time period alone.

Figuring out the best way to protect a public place where so many financial assets are available on a daily basis can be extremely difficult. Banks are taking on that challenge by working closely with law enforcement and their peers to spot trends and patterns. They then use that knowledge in conjunction with technology to counter the identified threats in new and creative ways.

Proactive Policing

There is no such thing as a bank robbery panacea, but what experts do know is that bank robbery tends to be a serialized crime. “Once an individual robs one bank, chances are that he or she is going to keep robbing banks until they’re apprehended,” says Detective Sergeant Robert Doyle, of New York’s Suffolk County Police Department. Thus, every time one bank robber is caught, multiple future incidents of robbery are prevented.

Cooperation between police departments and banks is a key element in developing intelligence on robberies that can lead to apprehension and lessons for improving security, but the level of cooperation varies depending on location, crime counts, and resources. Doyle’s police department, located in a suburban county near New York City, takes a proactive approach, reaching out to banks in its jurisdiction. It also confers with police departments outside of county lines to get advance notice of trends or new robbery scenarios that may not yet have hit Suffolk County.

The department has always prided itself on a high bank robbery “clearance” rate (meaning the rate of cases solved), according to Doyle. However, a few years ago, Suffolk County experienced a 100 percent increase in robberies, which spurred the department to get more involved with the banks. Doyle’s department pinpointed about 50 banks that were being robbed at a higher rate than the rest of the more than 450 branches in the county, and officers analyzed the likely contributing factors, such as location, design, and security technology.

Based on those findings, the police provided the banks with training on robbery prevention and also taught them how to help preserve the crime scene for police to aid in apprehension. As a result, the level of bank robberies per year stopped rising.

Industry Networking

In addition to working more closely with law enforcement, banks also need to share intelligence about bank robberies more effectively with each other. Experts say robberies are often committed at banks in a locality without other banks finding out for hours or days—a critical intelligence gap that robbers exploit.

Mike Alerich is a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detective who worked on bank robberies. He now runs a security business called Scorpio Security Services, and he addresses the interbank communication problem by providing real-time robbery alerts to his banking and security clients. He also provides information on whether one robber’s “MO” (modus operandi, or method of operating) matches that used in any other recent robberies. This could be helpful if successful robbers plan to hit a few other banks in short succession.

“Time is of the essence to let [banks] know that there is a problem within their small circle in their neighborhood,” says Alerich. Steve Ryker of Wells Fargo Bank agrees. He says that his bank has made a concerted effort to cooperate with other banks, law enforcement, and the community on spreading bank robbery information in a timely manner.

Bank Design

Like any retail establishment, banks must provide a convenient customer experience, with easy access to service providers, such as tellers, and unencumbered access to exits. Banks understand the need to incorporate security into design, but like other public businesses, they must balance that need with the requirement to be a welcoming place for customers.

Design options can, however, have mixed security implications. For example, a glass façade may enhance security by enhancing visibility—a basic principle of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED). But it also makes it easier for criminals to case the facility. Tom McKay, constable in crime prevention services with the Peel Regional Police in Ontario, Canada, points out that a decades-old Banking Association Institute report found that robbers will often take advantage of high visibility into the bank, and McKay has seen real-life cases where robbers have done so.

Related to the issue of visibility into and out of the bank is the question of sight lines. Some experts recommend impeding the view into the bank by placing obstructions, such as bushes, to disrupt a potential robber’s view into the facility. But Doug Kohlsdorf, CPP, president of Tri Tower Group, says that it’s better to let the bank personnel within have a clear view out. “The farther away you can see that threat coming at you, [the better],” says Kohlsdorf. Moreover, that visibility may give the robber pause, because of the potential for witnesses. “The person who is going to commit that crime knows, or feels uncomfortable, that somebody’s watching,” he says.

Entrances. There is disagreement about the effects of other design elements as well. Consider entrances. Doyle says that in his experience, robbers prefer banks with two entrances, which provide more of a chance for escape. However, McKay says that it depends on the robber. For example, a more timid robber might prefer additional escape options provided by multiple exits, while a more confident robber might prefer only one exit, because it affords him or her more control over the bank.

Comforts of home. Doyle says that banks sometimes attempt to look less like traditional (and impersonal) banking institutions and almost more like a residential living room, with lower teller windows and a more relaxed atmosphere. This atmosphere puts customers at ease, but it might also make potential robbers feel less intimidated.

Unusual designs. Some banks will try something completely unique. Several years ago, Washington Mutual Bank patented its Occasio branch design, which positioned teller towers in a circle or oval, accompanied by a concierge station and a kids section. The bank’s releases stated that the design concept was an attempt to provide a welcoming environment for the customer and contrast traditional bank branches; it has been referred to as a “coffeehouse” approach to banking.

The design was not without controversy. Washington Mutual was sued in 2006 after someone was robbed. The robber allegedly saw the man’s cash sitting at one of the teller towers. The lawsuit alleged negligence and reckless misconduct by the bank.

When Washington Mutual was sold by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to JP MorganChase last year, the Occasio design was discontinued in branches. According to JPMorganChase spokesperson Thomas Kelly, Chase’s traditional approach would afford customers a sense of security about their money. “We think that customers feel like they’re in a traditional bank and that just makes them feel more secure about the place that they’re doing business,” says Kelly.

Location. The location of a bank is another factor in how vulnerable it may be to robbers. If it is located on a busy thoroughfare, it might be attractive to bank robbers because they like the easy access and quick getaway that the road provides. Doyle says robbers in Suffolk County seem to prefer banks on main roads. But a bank is not necessarily safe just because it is in a strip mall that is difficult to drive out of quickly; in that case, robbers may just flee on foot, says Kohlsdorf.

Kohlsdorf recommends possibly putting up hedges or other obstacles behind the bank so that no one can just run into the neighborhood and disappear. They might also have windows in the back of the bank so that robbers know they will be watched as they go. Of course, these elements can be a double-edged sword—the bushes may give robbers a hiding spot from which to surveil the bank through the back windows.


After a bank has maximized security by using elements in design, it is standard practice to further safeguard the premises through technology, such as surveillance cameras, dye packs, access controls, and bandit barriers.

Cameras. Cameras may not deter robbers but they are often the key to catching them after the fact. Doyle says, “We find the number one thing that solves bank robbery is great video.”

For cameras to achieve the objective of suspect identification, however, they must be properly installed. Doyle recommends that cameras be installed at lower levels and at teller stations. He recommends positioning cameras at eye level to get the best pictures of potential thieves. He also advocates having some hidden cameras.

Michael P. Smith, president of the New York Bankers Association (NYBA) recommends that the system be set up so that data can be sent between branches and to law enforcement electronically to facilitate information sharing when there’s an incident. Smith recommends providing signage so that potential robbers know they are being recorded.

Dye packs, GPS. Dye packs placed in with stolen money are still a popular choice to help catch bank robbers, according to those interviewed for this article. But technological advances have also given way to the use of more expensive GPS tracking devices in money packs that can help law enforcement trace robbers. Doyle says the GPS initiative has been going on for a couple of years in Suffolk County. The police department trains bank employees and police officers on how to effectively use the GPS and tracking software.

The GPS packs have yielded results, says Doyle. In one Suffolk County case, a robber entered a branch and demanded cash; a teller slipped a GPS pack in with the currency. The police were immediately notified of GPS activation; a dispatcher tracked the pack’s direction on mapping software and was able to direct responding units to the pack’s location. The pack wound up in an apartment building, and police were even able to pinpoint the exact apartment. Two suspects were found in possession of the GPS pack and stolen money. When they were apprehended, they also confessed to three other robberies.

Access control. There are many access control options for banks, but doors are typically open to the public during business hours. Alerich says one of the only ways to truly prevent bank robberies is to employ a sophisticated access control system at the bank entrances. He recommends having a double set of doors, along with a metal detector check in between before an individual is allowed to pass through the second set of doors and enter the facility. Called a mantrap, this is a fairly high security option that has not been widely adopted by banks. For a softer deterrent at the doors, some banks use greeters with the intent of making customers feel more welcome and potential robbers feel like they are being watched and could be identified.

Bandit barriers. Transparent ballistics-resistant shields at teller windows commonly termed “bandit barriers,” provide a high-visibility security option for banks to place between tellers and the public. Not everyone thinks these are essential to bank security. In Suffolk County, for example, Doyle says the money bandit barriers cost could be better spent on upgrading camera systems. Some banks worry that such barriers change the look and feel of the institution.

Bandit barriers garnered attention recently when the New York City Police Department recommended that the installation of bandit barriers (at a certain minimum resistance level) be made mandatory at all city banks. The move was sparked by a 57 percent increase in bank robberies in 2008.

The city council took up the issue. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly testified at a city council hearing that 47 percent of bank robberies occurred in branches without bandit barriers. He added that TD Bank branches, which did not have barriers, were three times more likely to experience robbery attempts than Chase branches, which did have bandit barriers. But New York Metro Market TD Bank President Gregory Braca attributed the difference to TD’s longer hours of operation. And a survey by NYBA found that two-thirds of bank robberies in the city were at banks with bandit barriers.

Although NYBA recommended using bandit barriers in its 2003 best practices for bank security, it opposed making them mandatory. Without clear evidence of a technology’s effectiveness, he says, banks should not be forced to retrofit existing facilities.

Additionally, Smith says that bandit barriers might not be the best way to avert some of the robberies occurring now, which are predominantly note-passing, nonviolent robberies.

Alerich says bandit barriers placate the public and provide the banks with a defense against civil litigation. However, some contend that the presence of bandit barriers may make the other customers in the bank more vulnerable to violence, although Kelly testified that his department had not seen any indication of that. The proposed legislation has since been “laid over” in committee, so it will not be coming to a vote anytime soon.

Staff Training

Some banks employ private security (uniformed and plain clothes, armed and unarmed) to serve as guards. It is, however, still important to train the other bank employees on how to respond to robbery attempts. Employees must also know how to use the relevant technologies, such as how to set off an alarm or insert a dye pack or GPS without arousing the robber’s suspicion. They also need to know how to preserve evidence after a robbery and how to interact with police during and after robberies.

One training challenge for banks is that employee turnover can be high, according to Doyle. His department recently implemented a “train the trainers” program to ensure that bank managers and assistant managers have the tools that they need to train any new employees as they come on board.

Most sources declined to comment on how they advise tellers to behave during a robbery situation, although some sources stated that it’s common knowledge to robbers that tellers typically will comply without resistance.

As mentioned earlier, some banks also train staff to greet customers and make eye contact with anyone who enters the bank, because robbers do not want to be greeted and would prefer to be anonymous. In Washington state, the FBI’s Seattle field office launched a greet-the-customer program they called SafeCatch. The program instructs bank employees to greet customers and engage them. After the training for SafeCatch started, Washington banks experienced a significant decline in robberies.

Bank robberies are extremely difficult to prevent, but the right mix of design principles, training, and technology can work together to make a bank a harder target for potential criminals. It can also make apprehension of robbers that much easier for law enforcement, thus ending the serial robbery cycle.

Laura Spadanuta is an associate editor at Security Management.