Is It Time for a Fresh Look at the Bank Protection Act?

Chris Swecker and the Security Executive Council examine the 41-year-old physical security legislation

The stated purpose of the law is “to discourage robberies, burglaries and larcenies and to assist in the identification and apprehension of persons who commit such acts.” Surely the crimes of robbery, burglary and larceny have not changed much, even if the methods of banking have changed. Per Webster’s, burglary is breaking and entering at night or after hours for the purpose of committing theft. Larceny is the unlawful taking of personal property. Robbery is larceny through threat of violence. These terms apply to bank crime in fairly obvious and conventional ways — a bank robbery or burglary is a crime perpetrated against a bank office or branch. If the law was intended to deal specifically and solely with those threats in their traditional sense, then we can look at history as a measure by which to gauge its success.

Has the BPA been successful in discouraging robbery, burglary and larceny? A 1983 report by Philip J. Cook, contracted by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that between 1970 and 1980, the number of bank robberies increased at a compounded rate of 11 percent each year. In his 1981 book Bank Security, R.E. Anderson wrote, “There is little doubt whether the (Bank Protection Act) has been successful in controlling bank robberies. It has not.” Publicly available FBI bank crime statistics indicate that the rate of bank crime in general has waxed and waned since 1970, but overall has continued on an upward trend. We certainly cannot blame all such statistics on a failure of the BPA to discourage bank crime; however, based on this evidence, it seems the BPA has not made great strides forward in the first stated part of its mission.

Has it been successful in increasing the identification of perpetrators of these crimes as understood in 1968? That remains unclear. Bank robbery has one of the highest clearance rates of any crime, meaning that bank robbery suspects are apprehended at a high rate compared with suspects in other crimes. This implies that identification methods work. However, according to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, the clearance rate declined from 80 percent in 1976 to 58 percent in 2001.

So it seems that even if we limit the interpretation of the BPA to address strictly burglary, larceny and robbery in their traditional brick-and-mortar, branch bank sense, the legislation has not made a great, lasting impact.

A Case for Hardening Security

The BPA’s standards are broad and clearly intended to provide flexibility for banks of different sizes, in unique locations, with unique needs. However, over time, many individuals have offered up ideas on how to enhance the baseline security the BPA requires in order to help it fulfill its mission. Some examples:

• Surveillance in the parking lot. Most banks have cameras or other monitoring technologies inside to help meet the BPA’s requirement for devices that help identify perpetrators. Few institutions have cameras facing the parking lot. Robbers are likely to case a bank before they rob it, and parking lot cameras with broad scanning capability and strong resolution could help identify perpetrators before they put their masks on. They could also act as a deterrent.

• Minimum surveillance standards. The BPA no longer expressly requires CCTV or video surveillance, though many banks use those systems to meet its broader requirements. Perhaps minimum standards for surveillance systems would help banks in implementing technology that will best meet the needs of their environment.

• Design considerations. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a powerful mitigation technique that many banks already use. It would be difficult to set a complex standard for this given the variances in architecture and location, but baseline guides could be set, such as ensuring that the main entrance is not obstructed with foliage and other natural hiding places.

• Alarm protocols. The BPA requires alarms, but what about redundancy? What about backup power? There are some protocols around alarms that could be helpful for many banks. For instance, one popular method of burglarizing a bank is to probe the building to set off the alarm, wait for the police to come and leave, and then go in again for the burglary. Often, the police do not return immediately because they have already had one false alarm. A useful protocol could require that someone from the bank respond at a second alarm.

• Minimum training standards. The BPA requires employee and officer training, but none of the supervisory agencies specify what that training should entail. Broad minimum standards would ensure that employees have the knowledge they need to help deter and identify perpetrators.