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THE NORTH HOLLYWOOD SHOOTOUT

Pressure to Increase Bank Safety Seen Rising

Holdups: Experts say Friday's shootout will lead financial institutions to consider more costly, cumbersome security measures.

March 01, 1997|JESUS SANCHEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Financial institutions will be under greater pressure to adopt more costly and cumbersome security measures in the wake of Friday's deadly bank shootout in North Hollywood, according to security and banking officials.

The holdup at a Bank of America branch will once again find bankers and others weighing the merits of more stringent security measures--such as armed guards and bulletproof shields--against their costs and potential for alienating and even scaring off customers.

"This may be a pivotal point in that debate," said John Stafford, a spokesman for the California Bankers Assn. "Do you go to full red alert at every bank? There does seem to be a trend" in that direction.

Despite a dramatic drop in bank holdups, the Los Angeles area remains the nation's capital for such incidents. Southland bank robberies totaled 1,126 last year, about the same as in 1995 and well below the peak of 2,641 reached in 1992, according to the FBI.

However, the number of violent "takeover" robberies, which involve multiple bandits and sometimes the taking of hostages, surged 20% last year to 222.

Many security experts have long criticized banks, savings and loans, credit unions and other financial institutions for cutting back on security or failing to adopt higher levels of protection.

In recent years, more banks have purchased closed-circuit television systems and "bandit barriers"--sheets of bulletproof plastic placed in front of teller windows--to boost security.

These more visible and costly precautions have spread from high-crime, inner-city locations to suburban branches, where extended hours, open floor plans and easy access to freeways have made them tempting robbery targets.

But there is debate over the effectiveness of some security methods. As takeover robberies have increased, bandit barriers do little to protect customers and bank employees who are left in unprotected areas, said commercial security expert Bud Figliola.

"They do little to stop that kind of robbery," Figliola said. Bandits "will take a hostage and threaten to kill someone if they don't get what they want."

Many financial institutions have also moved away from armed security guards, whose presence has been found to often provoke more violent attacks. Many such institutions prefer unarmed, uniformed guards to help deter and report crime.

"Armed security personnel can only do so much," said Dereck Andrade, a spokesman for Encino-based Pinkerton's Inc. "These individuals [in Friday's attack] . . . showed up at the bank prepared for a small war. It's hard to prepare for something like that unless you have an army at your bank."

Pinkerton's said it had already received calls from companies in the San Fernando Valley to take a closer look at their security. It's a common occurrence after such a violent and well publicized robbery as the North Hollywood holdup, Andrade said.

"People are scared," he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Bank Robberies

Roughly a fifth of all U.S. bank robberies occur in Southern California. Here is a breakdown.

*--*

Total U.S. Total L.A. Area* L.A. Area Takeover** Bank Robberies Bank Robberies Robberies '91 9,381 2,355 140 '92 9,062 2,641 448 '93 8,646 1,674 435 '94 7,091 1,200 206 '95 5,500 1,122 185 '96 U.S. Total unavailable 1,126 222

*--*

* Los Angeles area includes Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties.

** Takeover-style robberies involve bandits who take bank customers and employees hostage while they steal the money.

Source: FBI

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