Trying to stop bank robberies in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Jason Michael Green stepped into the First Tennessee Bank a desperate man, authorities say.

Seventeen hours earlier on Dec. 10, 2007, the 27-year-old had scaled a fence at the Silverdale Detention Center, stolen a car and set about making a getaway, according to Hamilton County Sheriff's Department deputies.

At 11 a.m. that day, they said, he robbed the First Tennessee branch on Broad Street, which is just a few miles from the Interstate 24 on-ramp where he was captured.

Bank robbery is a growing problem in East Tennessee and elsewhere in the nation, according to the FBI.

"There were nine bank robberies in the first nine months of 2006 in Knoxville, and then we had 24 during the last three months," said Special Agent Gary Kidder, spokesman for the FBI office there.

FBI officials say most bank robberies occur at branches before noon during the workweek. More than half of those robbers demand money with a written note and claim to have a weapon, though only an eighth of them actually produce a gun, knife or bomb, according to FBI data.

In 2006, there were 17 such crimes in the Chattanooga area. Nationally, however, they occurred 7,000 times that year, the FBI reports. Robbers got away with $72.7 million, and authorities recovered only $11.2 million of that, according to the FBI.

In Chattanooga during the same period, the FBI reports banks lost $295,000 to robbers. About $200,000 of that was lost in one heist alone, records show.

"I hate to say it, but it's the dummies out there robbing banks," said Keith Sanford, executive vice president of First Tennessee. "It's a federal offense, and armed robbery is a much stiffer sentencing guideline than any other form of robbery and, again, if you are going to get 10 years in jail for $1,000, that's not much risk reward."

Of the 12 Chattanooga robberies in 2007, police have arrested suspects in seven, records show.

Though bank officials don't like to discuss specifics, many banks use high-tech security equipment: cameras, silent alarms and money baited with electronic trackers and dye packs.

Also, the FBI investigates the crimes, which means if you're caught it's a federal offense with stiff prison sentences and no chance for parole.

"I would say 90 percent of the robbers are desperate and on drugs," Special Agent Kidder said.

Most people in their right state of mind are scared off by the threat of federal prison time, said Special Agent Ed Galloway, supervising senior resident agent at the Chattanooga FBI office.

"Most people know that bank robberies are going to bring some pretty hefty prison sentences," he said. "And they know we're busy, but the FBI still takes bank robberies pretty seriously."

Special Agent Galloway said bank robberies usually are spur-of-the-moment crimes.

In Mr. Green's case, records show he was arrested four hours after the robbery. His hands were stained red from an exploded dye pack, police said.

TAKING PRECAUTIONS

In Chattanooga, security officers from local banks meet and share information on robberies and other frauds, Mr. Sanford said.

Bankers say they train their employees in how to spot potential problems, and they keep track of changing technology.

"As the old football coach says, the best defense is a good offense," Mr. Sanford said. "We've done a lot of training for our employees. We have state-of-the-art security systems, cameras, alarms, all that kind of stuff. We don't keep as much money in our centers as we used to keep because a lot more transactions are electronic now."

After last month's branch robbery, First Tennessee stationed an armed guard outside the front door, Mr. Sanford said.

"We were scheduled to get (a guard) later this year there, and (the robbery) just moved that up a little," he said.

"If you come to one of our centers with a guard, we hope that your encounter with that guard will be a pleasant experience," Mr. Sanford said. "I know that guard we have downstairs is very friendly and speaks and talks to customers and helps out."

Banks are investing more in security features, as well.

With $7 million in renovations completed last year, SunTrust Bank added bullet-resistant glass at some of its branches, including the teller area at the bank's St. Elmo branch.

Mr. Sanford said that, while banks use bullet-resistant glass in various ways, having it inside the branch would spoil the customer service experience. You won't find it anywhere except at the drive-through at First Tennessee's Chattanooga branches, he said.

"In my history at the bank, only one time has anybody attempted to rob us at the drive-in," Mr. Sanford said. "We had a Santa Claus on a motorcycle (who) tried to rob us at a drive-in once. He didn't get away with anything. It was probably eight or 10 years ago."


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