Finger-Pointing, Few Answers amid N.Y.C. Robbery Spike

By Bergquist, Erick | American Banker, May 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Finger-Pointing, Few Answers amid N.Y.C. Robbery Spike


Bergquist, Erick, American Banker


The situation in New York is beginning to resemble the plot of a Batman movie.

In the first four months of this year there were 184 bank and thrift robberies in the city, three times as many as in the same period last year. Public officials, including Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, are blaming the local banks, which they say have not done enough to protect their customers.

Adding insult to injury, on Monday, the same day Commissioner Kelly lauded the safety records of four area banks at a press conference, three robberies occurred in Manhattan.

The timing was reminiscent of an April 23 press conference, during which politicians castigated leading local banks for not doing enough to deter the robbery epidemic. Meanwhile, a man in his thirties was holding up the HSBC branch across the street from City Hall.

Bankers are at odds about how to solve the problem. However, most say that their hands are tied and that even the latest high-tech gadgets, such as digital cameras and in-branch flat-screen displays, have failed to deter criminals.

Some banks say extra security drives customers away. Commerce Bancorp Inc. of Cherry Hill, N.J., which calls itself "America's Most Convenient Bank," refuses even to install the familiar bulletproof "bandit barriers" between its tellers and their customers. It says they destroy the friendly atmosphere of its branches.

Commerce's 11 branches in New York City have been robbed 10 times this year.

"Unfortunately, nobody seems to have the answer," said Edward G. Hausdorf, the director of security at North Fork Bancorp of Melville. "I wish I could say there was one, but I don't honestly see anything being a very strong deterrent. If someone is intent on robbing a bank, they're going to rob the bank."

Banks are struggling to find solutions. At the meeting two weeks ago, Commissioner Kelly passed out a list of 14 security "best practices." Many banks interviewed for this story said they had implemented almost all of them, including closed-circuit television systems, bullet-resistant glass, lobby greeters, dye packs, serialized currency, and unobstructed views from the bank to the street.

The police department wants to explore additional measures, such as interbank and bank-to-police-car video links, so that banks in the area can be notified of a robbery and cops can get on the hunt as soon as one happens.

Commerce's strategy of openness appears to be a welcoming one for criminals. According to the NYPD, it has the highest ratio of robberies this year to branches in the city, almost 1 to 1. Next on the list are Banco Popular, with 11 robberies at 31 branches, and North Fork, with 27 robberies at 78 branches, a ratio a little higher than 1 to 3 for each. Washington Mutual Inc. has had 11 robberies at 46 branches, a ratio just under 1 to 4.

David Flaherty, a spokesman for Commerce Bank, said, "There is a list of bank robberies and it makes one comparison that can be a bit deceiving. There are banks in New York that have had more robberies than we have had."

If one thing is clear, New York's financial institutions vary widely in their approaches to the crime wave.

Some are upgrading security primarily at branches that have already been hit by note-passing robbers. Others have made virtually systemwide upgrades and are adding the most cutting-edge deterrence equipment to branches in the riskiest areas. Still others, especially a national bank with one of the highest number of branches in the city (which asked not to be identified), are sticking with what they have already got but are worried enough to think seriously about deploying one or more new-fangled anticrime tools.

North Fork calls its "full-blown" system the latest in deterrence technology. Digital cameras mounted in multiple locations on the ceilings of its branches track anyone who enters. …

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