Banks fight robberies with new policies, camera positions

There is an old adage that desperate times call for desperate measures, and as more people have fallen into financial despair during these tough economic times, some have resorted to robbing banks to make ends meet.

Of course, most bank robbers don't enter with Halloween masks and guns blazing, but rather choose to keep a low profile by wearing a disguise and either calmly speak to a teller or pass them a threatening note with cash demands. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's bank crime statistics for 2007, a weapon was only used in 30 percent of robberies nationwide. Most robberies were carried out via a note or oral demands.

To combat this, many banks have decided to implement a no hats and sunglasses policy at its branches, hoping that it will deter a majority of would be thieves.

One bank that has recently implemented this policy with success is Houston-based Sterling Bank, which has more than 60 branches throughout the state of Texas.

According to Jack Harris, director of corporate security and investigations for Sterling Bank, the bank began to see an increase in robberies at its branches last spring. Harris said that the bank, which on average suffered between two and three robberies a year, ended 2008 with total of 10 for the year.

"We were looking at a way to implement different things to hopefully deter those robberies, and of course we looked at all types of things, be it security devices, different setups for the banking centers, etc. One of the things we found through our research was that some jurisdictions in some states were using this (no hats and sunglasses policy) for customers or non-customers who were coming into the bank," he said. It wasn't just for bank robberies... but it also in effect also helps deter check fraud and ID theft."

In implementing this new policy, however, Harris said that there were multiple factors that had to be taken into consideration before it went bank wide this year.

"There are several different ways that you can handle (enforcing the policy). One is just to post a sign and basically, that's it, you don't try to do anything, you don't try to enforce it. The second way, which is the way we're doing it, is a very passive policy. When someone comes in and has a hat or sunglasses on, we ask them politely once to remove it. If they don't, that is the end of it, because we don't want any confrontation between our tellers and the individual coming in," Harris explained. "The third way that is out there is that if a person does not take off their hat or sunglasses, you take them to a special area of the bank and deal with them that way. We feel if we've asked them to take off (a hat or pair of sunglasses) it draws enough attention to them to make them feel uncomfortable and other people in our bank will pay attention to them if they do not comply with our request."

Bank security consultant Clint Armstrong, who has worked as vice president of corporate security for both Bank of America and SunTrust, agrees with the way that Sterling Bank has decided to implement the policy

"It's not worth getting into a big argument over," he said. "The bad guy who is intending to do harm or intending to rob the bank is probably going to leave. Even with people doing check fraud, they're probably going to leave, so it's a great deterrent."

Armstrong added that banks may also want to think about employing greeters, who could ask customers to remove hats or sunglasses, rather than leave that responsibility to tellers alone.

To date, Harris said that Sterling Bank has only received a few complaints about the policy and added that most of their longtime customers understand the need for the change.

According to Bill W. Thompson, security consultant and trainer for the National Association for Bank Security, one of the most common problems with instituting these types of policies is being able to make them apply to everyone, no matter how long they've been a loyal customer.

"One of the difficulties we've faced with these policies is when good customers, who are well known to the employees and who have been coming in for years and are comfortable wearing their hat or sunglasses, get told to take them off," he said. "The problem you are dealing with is if you don't apply it to everyone whether you know the customer or not, is the issue of someone claiming that it is unfair, you're discriminated against a particular group and so forth."

Another thing that Thompson says banks need to consider when they implement this policy is employee training.

"When we teach robbery training, one of things we really focus on is safety. We tell the employees don't say or do anything that you think may alienate the robber," he said. "At the point you ask him 'please remove your hat and sunglasses' you don't' know if he's a robber or not. If he becomes the least bit hostile about it or is argumentative, we don't want to push him from the standpoint if he is a robber, we don't want him to hurt anyone. Through the whole process, the most important thing we tell them is that the safety of employees and customers is the number one priority. "

Rather that instituting polices like this, however, Armstrong said that some people in the bank security sector have begun looking at new ways to mount surveillance cameras in which hats and sunglasses would no longer give robbers an advantage when it comes to hiding their identity

"The ways that we have traditionally mounted cameras in bank have been high and shooting down. The bad guys have figured, if they were a baseball cap and don't look up, that you're not going to get a good face shot of them," he said. "One bank that I know of has started a program where they are actually placing the teller line cameras face high, shooting them directly in the face instead of putting them on the wall behind and shooting down at an individual."

While it's all but impossible to determine how many robberies have been averted using the policy, Harris said that a man, who is believed to have robbed several banks in Texas, recently entered one of their branches and seemed to act suspiciously after an employee asked him to remove his hat and sunglasses.

"When we first looked at this policy, if it could stop one or two robberies we were all for it," Harris said. "We realize that it's not going to stop the overt robberies, where two or three people come in with guns, but 95 percent of robberies are still what we refer to as covert robberies, where they just come in with a note and don't want anybody to know they were there."