Reducing Violent Bank Robberies in Los Angeles

Article excerpt

During the 1960s, an average of 400 bank robberies occurred each year in the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office (FBILA) jurisdiction, which exceeds 40,000 square miles and consists of seven counties. In the 1970s, the number of bank robberies doubled to almost 800 each year. In 1978, the number of robberies exceeded 1,000, placing the Los Angeles area ahead of the rest of the nation in total bank robberies per year and earning it the title "Bank Robbery Capital of the World." The area retained this title with an average of 1,400 bank robberies per year in the 1980s, which accounted for 20 to 30 percent of all bank robberies in the United States. After peaking at 2,641 in 1992, by 1998, the number of robberies had plummeted to 656, the lowest in 30 years. A number of factors contributed to both the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of these violent crimes.

CONTRIBUTING FACTORS

In general, two factors caused the extensive number of bank robberies in the FBJLA territory. First, the area of Southern California surrounding Los Angeles has experienced unprecedented population growth since the 1960s. Approximately 17 million people now reside there. Second, California law historically has permitted unlimited branch banking. Today, more than 3,500 federally insured commercial banks, savings banks, and credit unions conduct operations in seven counties. This vast number of robbery targets, coupled with the population growth, and attendant social and criminal problems, particularly increased narcotics addictions and the invasion of youthful street gangsters onto the bank robbery scene, produced an increase in bank robberies.

Nothing, however, prepared the region for the explosion of bank robberies in the early 1990s. In 1992, the 2,641 robberies that occurred in the FBILA area compelled FBI agents to investigate approximately 1 bank robbery every 42 minutes of each business day. This dramatic increase in the number of robberies occurred as California banking, always a fiercely competitive industry, faced the dual challenges of an influx of new branches of out-of-state banking corporations and a renewed incidence of bank mergers. To address these competitive challenges, the executives of various banks decided to solidify their customer base by expanding daily business hours. Banks opened earlier, closed later, and expanded their business hours to Saturdays, and, in some instances, Sundays. In order to keep pace, other bankers throughout the state quickly followed suit. These additional hours of operation dramatically increased the exposure to robbery of California bank branches by approximately 40 percent. Using various methods, bandits took full advantage of this newly widened opportunity.

Bank Robbery Methods

Even more alarming than the increasing number of bank robberies was the type of robbery expanding fastest. Generally, criminals use two basic methods to rob banks -- the "one-on-one" robbery, frequently featuring a demand note, and the "takeover," a rapidly growing violent tactic.

In one-on-one situations, robbers deliver a spoken or written robbery message to a single victim teller. Robbers avoid attention by speaking softly to one victim, if they speak at all, and by keeping commotion to a minimum. Other individuals in the bank may remain completely unaware of the robbery.

In contrast, criminals who use the takeover robbery method usually demand attention and involve multiple subjects. They intimidate victims with various combinations of aggressive action, including storming into the bank, shouting obscenities, jumping on or over counters, physically attacking employees or customers, and waving or firing guns. These forms of aggression help give the bandits complete control of the premises. Control is central to takeover robberies, which sharply escalate the level of threats and violence. More traumatic and potentially explosive than one-on-one robberies, takeovers accounted for just 3 to 5 percent of all bank robberies in the Los Angeles area until late 1991. …