Tellers at a San Bernardino bank branch looked up one day last fall to see three men--two dressed in camouflage and one in a business suit--trying to push through the glass-enclosed vestibule at the front of the bank. At the moment the men opened the first door the metal detector alarm buzzed and the bullet-resistant interior door automatically locked shut.
Defeated by one of the region's newest security innovations, the puzzled trio turned around and walked away.
After watching the security tape, investigators determined that all three men were wearing body armor--a factor reminiscent of the notorious 1997 North Hollywood bank shootout--and at least one was armed with a rifle.
"I looked at the clock about five minutes later and thought: 'By all rights we should be going through hell right now--and we're not,' " recalled Cheryl D. Angello, a branch manager for the Business Bank of California's East Highland Avenue office.
Through its use of cutting-edge security technology, Business Bank of California has contributed to the most dramatic drop in Southern Californian bank robberies in two decades. Advances in bank security, increased cooperation between industry and law enforcement officials, and stiffer federal sentencing guidelines have put a crimp on robberies, security experts say.
According to recent FBI statistics, there were 749 bank robberies last year in the central federal district, which includes seven Southern California counties. That total was down 33% from 1996 and 250% from the region's high of 2,641 robberies in 1992.
This regional trend reflects national figures, which also show a downward turn--from 8,241 robberies in 1996 to 7,850 last year. Bank robberies in Los Angeles, excluding the San Fernando Valley, were down 60%. They were down 51% in both the Valley and Ventura County. Orange County has seen a 21% decline.
But with 3,500 bank branches, 17 million people and innumerable freeways and surface streets serving as getaway routes, Southern California still has more bank robberies than any other region. However, the decline has also been marked by a substantial increase in the number of takeover robberies since 1994. "That's the most disconcerting statistic with these bank robberies," said one federal agent.
In takeovers, bandits take command of the business and everyone in it at gunpoint, usually shouting orders and brandishing weapons. The technique presents greater danger of gunplay than the alternative--quietly holding up a teller and fleeing before other customers know what is happening. Last year, the FBI reported that about one-third of all bank robberies in Southern California were takeovers. In 1996, takeover robberies accounted for less than a quarter of the region's heists. Violence has also increased, with seven deaths, four of whom were robbers, and 32 bank customers and employees being assaulted during robberies last year.
"These takeovers are an inheritance of the Brown-Thompson era," said Special Agent William J. Rehder, head of the Los Angeles FBI bank robbery unit. Robert Sheldon Brown and Donzell Lamar Thompson made bank robbery history after they were implicated in 175 heists between 1989 and 1993. Both are serving time in federal prison, but Rehder said the pair devised the modern takeover robbery and inspired others to mimic their technique.
Brown enlisted youths, crack addicts and members of various gangs to conduct 85 bank robberies in which a note was presented to a teller, and later, 90 takeover robberies, Rehder said.
"All we were doing was stomping on forest fires and running from one robbery to the next--and we were on the run. I'll make no excuse for that," Rehder said.
Fueled by crack-cocaine-induced courage, lengthened banking hours and masterminds such as Brown, 1992 was the worst year ever for bank robberies in Los Angeles, with a bank being hit every 42 minutes, Rehder said. "Things were almost out of control here."
In response to the alarming number of robberies, law enforcement officials began frequent meetings with security experts from some of California's largest financial institutions to devise new ways to combat bandits.
Guards vs. Barriers
Many time-honored security strategies benefit investigators after a robbery, but do little to stop heists. Security cameras provide investigators with valuable footage of crimes in progress. Tracking devices and exploding red-dye packs often expose escaping robbers. But as violent bank robberies increase, bank executives are looking for more preventive measures.
In recent years, banks have boosted hiring of highly trained armed security guards, both in plainclothes and uniformed.