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FRIDAY REPORT / An in-depth look at people and policies
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Banking on Technology

Robberies are declining in Southland because of more sophisticated security devices, such as access control units. Federal sentencing guidelines are also making penalties stiffer.


Undercover guards have the element of surprise on their side and can often stop robbers before they know they are being watched. Two undercover Great Western Bank guards shot and killed one robbery suspect and wounded another in a furious gun battle in Van Nuys last fall. The guards, a retired Los Angeles police officer and a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, saw the men drive up behind the bank, pull on ski masks and attempt to enter the building.

But some security experts say that armed undercover guards are only good after a robbery starts, and do little to deter it. Uniformed security guards are often used to deter would-be robbers.

Some banks are doing away with armed guards altogether, saying that their presence could escalate an already tense situation.

"I emphasize deterrence," said Union Bank of California Vice President Stephen Ward. "You have a greater chance of somebody getting hurt with a guard than with a bandit barrier. Introducing another gun into another situation like that [and] you're putting a lot of reliance on that guard's judgment."

The bandit barrier is a bullet-resistant glass shield between tellers and customers. FBI statistics indicate that the barriers are extremely effective--last year there were only four robberies at bandit barrier locations in Southern California.

Critics of the barriers, which cost as much as $40,000, say they create an impersonal atmosphere and drive away customers. Others say they do nothing to prevent armed robbers from getting inside the bank, as was the case in the bloody North Hollywood bank robbery last year.

In that incident, the two bandits bullied customers and shattered the glass shield at a Bank of America branch with a torrent of AK-47 rounds before they pillaged the vault. The siege ended after a furious gun battle with police that left several officers injured and both robbers dead.

Perhaps the most effective security device on the market is the access control unit, or ACU. After being repeatedly robbed, Business Bank of California installed the units in five of its six branches.

The units consist of vestibules enclosed in bullet-resistant glass with two sets of doors that lock automatically. The first door has to close and lock behind entering customers before they can open the interior door--but if the instrument detects metal, that door locks and an alarm sounds. The detectors, which scan for the mass and density of metal, are the same kind used at the doors of the heavily fortified State Department in Washington.

A big drawback is the cost--$50,000 each (some buildings need more than one), plus the expense of structure modifications necessary for installation and personnel to monitor the door.

A Business Bank spokeswoman said none of its ACU-equipped branches has been robbed. California has become a proving ground for the security systems that have been installed in more than 30 financial institutions in the state--only about 125 have been sold nationally, according to Jim Etheridge, vice president of Ontario-based Hamilton Safe Inc. The company's Ohio plant is the sole manufacturer of ACUs in the United States, Etheridge said.

Home Savings of America has purchased 50 units for Southern California and out-of-state branches since June 1996, making it the industry's leading buyer of the system.

"From a cultural standpoint we haven't felt bandit barriers were very customer friendly," said Bob Stevens, vice president and corporate risk manager for Home Savings. "With an ACU, once you get in the branch you're very free to move around and interact with customers."

Most important, Stevens says ACUs have been 100% effective, a source of great comfort for the company's workers.

"One of our branches outside of San Diego was robbed three times in a 12-month period with a takeover robbery . . . three or four guys brandishing automatic weapons, grabbing employees, one got their head shoved into a wall and pistol-whipped," Stevens said. "We put in an ACU and it hasn't been robbed since."

Stiffer Sentences

Another factor in the decline of bank robberies is the uniform sentencing guidelines Congress enacted in 1987.

"Los Angeles became the bank capital of the nation in 1978--that was the first year we had over 1,000 robberies," Rehder said. "In the 1980s, judges saw so many of these cases that routinely their sentences were lower here in Los Angeles than they were in other districts, just because of the fact there was such a volume of these cases in front of them.

These days, federal judges have less discretion because sentences are fixed to a complex mathematical computation based on a convict's record, the type of crime committed, how many counts and other factors. Now, federal offenders usually have to serve up to 85% of their sentences.

Another factor, Rehder said, is the deterrent effect of recent foiled robbery attempts covered by local media.

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