LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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.
MJ Davis has this report.
MJ DAVIS: It's not that bank robbers are getting smarter.
Mr. RAY KELLY (Police Commissioner, New York City): The word on the street is that it's just much easier now to rob a bank than it has been in the past.
DAVIS: That's 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.
Mr. KELLY: Well, banks simply don't look like banks anymore.
DAVIS: The commissioner says they look more like living rooms these days, with comfortable couches, free coffee and minimal barriers between friendly tellers and customers.
Mr. KELLY: Apparently they think that works as far as attracting customers, but it's impacting on our business.
DAVIS: Last year there were 444 bank robberies in the city — most of them in lower Manhattan. That's a thorn in the commissioner's side. The NYPD and the FBI catch about 75 percent of bank robbers in the city, but that takes a lot of man-hours.
Commissioner 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. Michael Smith is the president of the New York Bankers Association.
Mr. MICHAEL SMITH (President, New York Bankers Association): 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.
DAVIS: Smith is quick to point out that the banks are the victims in these stickups. They foot the bill for the 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…
Mr. SMITH: This is not your normal living room, I can assure you. Most living rooms don't have, like, seven or eight cameras trained in and have people involved on the lobby level watching what's going on.
DAVIS: I enlisted the help of a security specialist to measure how banks are using some of those features. Robert McCrie is a professor of protection management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He took me on a tour down Broadway in Midtown Manhattan, an area that's had a lot of bank holdups.
Professor ROBERT MCCRIE (Protection Management, John Jay College of Criminal Justice): We are now surrounded by banks.
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DAVIS: The first bank we walked into had the best scorecard.
Prof. MCCRIE: When we walk into this branch, 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.
DAVIS: Inside, tellers were protected by floor-to-ceiling barriers and bullet-proof glass.
Prof. MCCRIE: The significance of that is that if someone wanted to leap over the transparent barrier and get behind the desks, that wouldn't be possible.
DAVIS: Another bank had recently beefed up its features.
Prof. MCCRIE: The bank we're in right now didn't have this level of security some months ago.
DAVIS: That bank had responded to Commissioner Kelly's request to tighten up. It added bandit barriers and created an exit that looked like an obstacle course. But of all the banks we checked out, the closest thing we encountered to a security guard was a branch manager kicking us out for talking about robberies inside his bank. Professor McCrie wouldn't name the least secure banks, but Commissioner Kelly was not as shy. Toronto-Dominion does not use bandit barriers.
Mr. KELLY: They account for about four percent of the branches in New York, yet last year they were about 10 percent of the robberies. Now, so far this year they're about 15 percent of the robberies.
DAVIS: But that's not all.
Mr. KELLY: Robbers who go in there have a 100 percent success rate.
DAVIS: Toronto-Dominion says they're surprised by the numbers, but that bandit barriers aren't the answer. Both the bank and the New York Bankers Association said there's no proof that bandit barriers work or 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.
Mr. KELLY: You know, we'll arrest these individuals. It's just a question of time.
DAVIS: For NPR News, I'm MJ Davis in New York.
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