Some Fear Reduced Focus on Bank Robbery May Last
Mandaro, Laura, American Banker
Bankers have expressed concern that the increased focus on domestic terrorism initiatives could draw the attentions of Federal Bureau of Investigation away from crimes such as bank robbery and fraud, which in some states are on the rise.
"Our biggest fear is that Congress redirects the FBI not to do any more bank robbery investigations," said Bill Wipprecht, the director of security for Wells Fargo & Co.
Already bankers and people familiar with the workings of the FBI have said the devotion of additional manpower to the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks -- known within the bureau as the "Penttbom investigation" -- has pulled some agents away from their former duties, including the investigation of bank crimes.
Bank robberies have held steady or risen in many areas of the country in recent years. In the San Francisco division of the FBI, which stretches from the Bay Area to the Oregon border, there were 392 robberies in the first 10 months of this year, already surpassing last year's total of 307. Similarly, in North Carolina there have been 355 bank robberies this year as of last Friday, more than last year's total.
But the FBI's attentions have drifted in another direction.
"We've seen evidence of this already," said Paul H. Stock, the executive vice president and counsel for the North Carolina Bankers Association, which has worked closely with local agents to prevent robberies in a state where they have skyrocketed over the last few years.
According to Mr. Stock, some FBI agents that the association knew were previously assigned to bank robberies have been posted to other duties in the weeks following the terrorist attacks. "There are discussions that this may become official."
And according to former and current agents, the FBI's priorities have changed drastically in recent weeks.
"What we're experiencing now is a priority shift, because of the events of the last several months, into national security," said Robert A. Ruppel, a former agent who is now a regional manager for the investigative and security consulting firm Kerby, Bailey & Associates in the Detroit suburb of Clarkston, Mich.
Steven Berry, a spokesman for the FBI headquarters, has said that the agency will continue to respond to bank robberies. The Bureau's official response to such crimes "will be a measured response based on the type of crime committed against the bank," he said.
But in regional offices, agents said that there could be changes in priorities or assignments as a direct result of the renewed emphasis on terrorism initiatives.
"We're in a state of flux -- nothing definitive has been decided," said Erik Blowers, an agent and counsel for the FBI in North Carolina, who was acting as the state's spokesman last week. …