There's a criminal conundrum unfolding in New York City. Crime across the five boroughs was down significantly last year, but there was a 57 percent increase in bank robberies. New York City now averages more than one bank robbery a day — and 2009 is already proving to be another record year for holdups.
It's not that bank robbers are getting smarter. "The word on the street is that it's much easier now to rob banks than it has been in the past," says New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. He wants to force banks in New York to tighten security standards. Part of the problem, he says, lies in modern bank design.
"Banks simply don't look like banks anymore," he says. The commissioner says they look more like living rooms these days, with comfortable couches, free coffee and minimal barriers between friendly tellers and customers.
"Apparently, they think that works as far as attracting customers," Kelly says. "But it impacts on our business."
Who Decides What's Secure?
Last year there were 444 bank robberies in the city — most of them in lower Manhattan. And that's a thorn in the commissioner's side. The NYPD and the FBI catch about 75 percent of bank robbers in New York, but that takes a lot of work.
Kelly wants to mandate features like better camera placement and glass barriers that divide tellers and bankers — what folks in the security world call "bandit barriers." But banks want to make their own security decisions.
"Just because a bank does not have a bandit barrier in place, does not mean it's not using a full list of security procedures," says Michael Smith, president of the New York Bankers Association.
Smith is quick to point out that the banks are the victims in these stickups. They foot the bill for robberies — the average take is about $2,000 — and it's their responsibility to protect employees and customers.
As for those living room-like lounges, Smith says, "This is not your normal living room, I can assure you. Most living rooms don't have seven or eight cameras trained in and have people on the lobby level watching what's going on."
Scoring Banks On Broadway
To help measure how banks are using some of those features, Robert McCrie, a professor of protection management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, took a reporter on a tour down Broadway in Midtown — an area that's had a lot of bank holdups.
The first bank had the best score card. "When we walk into this branch," McCrie said, "we are actually captured by a number of cameras that are overtly and covertly placed around the bank branch. For example, standing where we are at this moment, I can count four cameras."
Inside, tellers were protected by floor-to-ceiling barriers and bullet-proof glass. "The significance of that is that if someone wanted to leap over the transparent barrier and get behind the desk, that wouldn't be possible," McCrie said.
Another bank had recently beefed up its features in response to Kelly's request to tighten up. It added bandit barriers and created an exit that looked like an obstacle course.
But of all banks on the tour, the closest thing encountered to a security guard was a branch manager who decided to kick out the people talking about robberies inside his bank.
One Bank That Isn't Changing
McCrie wouldn't name the least-secure banks, but Kelly isn't so shy. Toronto-Dominion does not use bandit barriers, he says. "They account for about 4 percent of the branches in New York, yet last year they were about 10 percent of the robberies. And this year, they're about 15 percent of the robberies."
But that's not all. "Robbers who go in there have a 100 percent success rate," Kelly adds.
Still, Kelly can't force Toronto-Dominion to change its policies without help from the city council, and both the bank and the New York Bankers Association say there's no proof that one security tactic is better than another.
Meanwhile, the NYPD and the FBI say they know the identities of the three robbers responsible for most of the bank holdups that have taken place in the city this year.
"We'll arrest these individuals," Kelly says. "It's just a question of time."