Killing Bank Robberies with Kindness A new security approach in banks called "safecatch" advises smothering a suspect with "customer service on steroids" to deter him from robbing a bank.
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Killing Bank Robberies with Kindness

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Killing Bank Robberies with Kindness

Killing Bank Robberies with Kindness

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

By now, you may be used to chirpy welcomes from greeters at Wal-Mart or your local Gap. Don't be surprised if you start getting the perky - Hi. May I help you? - at the bank too. Bank tellers in Seattle are personally welcoming customers as a way to prevent robberies. Yeah, it doesn't sound quite as intimidating as an armed guard at the front door, but the new strategy may have stopped a local criminal known as the Garden Glove Bandit a few months back.

Scott Taffera, a manager at First Mutual Bank says he noticed a guy who walked in wearing a hat and gloves.

Mr. SCOTT TAFFERA (Manager, First Mutual Bank): And I immediately walked up to him and I greeted him and said I hadn't recognized him before, and is there anything I could help him with. All he said is, actually I just came in for quarters. So he immediately changed his approach.

COHEN: Did you give him the quarters?

Mr. TAFFERA: He got the quarters.

COHEN: This new approach geared towards preventing bank robberies is called: SafeCatch. Here to explain it is special agent Larry Carr of the FBI's Seattle office. Larry, welcome to the program.

Mr. LARRY CARR (Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Seattle): Thank you.

COHEN: How do you tell these bank tellers who to look for? I mean, assuming it's not going to be so obvious as a guy walks in and there's a ski mask, kind of, poking out of his pocket. What are, kind of, the clues that this someone you should zone in on?

Mr. CARR: I think, we as human beings instinctively know when something's not correct. The key is empowering them to act on their suspicions. You know, traditionally, in the banking community, when it comes to bank robbery suppression, the axiom is to do nothing. So what we have assured is going to happen. Hey, here comes a guy, who walks inside the bank with a parka on, and surgical gloves, and sunglasses, and it's 80 degrees outside. We found across the board no matter what, bank employees were just standing behind the teller line doing nothing more than waiting to become the victim of a crime.

COHEN: Let's start first with the voice. Do you train these tellers? Is there a certain customer service voice that you're supposed to be using when you approach these would-be robbers?

Mr. CARR: The greeting is just a small portion of the safe part of it, but it is the key. And what we ask them to do is, we have to take advantage of that fight or flight syndrome that the bank robber's in. And when we walk up to them, and we say: Hi, welcome to the bank. I don't recognize you as one of our customers; I can help you right over here on our new accounts desk. I just need your identification.

What we've done is we really got into that paranoia phase because what the bank robber's hearing: I know you're here to rob the bank. I'm going over here to make a phone call. You might as well just leave. And he hasn't committed a crime, so he has an opportunity to leave the bank before committing the crime. And now we've given him the golden ticket to do that by asking for his identification. He's going to pad his pockets and he's going to say: Oh, you need my ID? I left it in the car.

COHEN: You've surely gotten the language down for how you first greet them. Let's say you've got a particularly bold robber. He is not thwarted by being asked for ID. He takes it to the next level, hands a note saying, hand over all the money. Have you talked to the tellers about what language they should use then?

Mr. CARR: Absolutely. I can help you right over here, sir, sorry. And that's it. There's - that's the safe part about SafeCatch. We always comply with the demand. Once...

COHEN: Now wait a minute, you're supposed to continue to be nice and pleasant and polite, then, even after they told you they're going to rob the bank? Do you still say, oh sure, just come on right over here, I'll help you out?

Mr. CARR: We do nothing to increase the level of conflict. It's friendly, friendly, friendly even after the demand has been made, nothing threatening at all.

COHEN: Larry, I would imagine it's a little bit scary if you're a bank teller approaching someone who could be robber. You don't know if they've got a gun on them or what. How do you tell employees to keep their cool while they're doing this customer service spiel?

Mr. CARR: What's frightening is being placed into a financial institution, and in the back of your mind - especially here in the Pacific Northwest - you know at some point in time that's going to get robbed, and all you've been given is do nothing.

So now you're put into an environment where you're afraid, and what makes it worse exponentially so is that you can't do anything about it. And SafeCatch is oh no, no, there's a lot you can do about it.

COHEN: I would imagine it would be a little bit hard to measure the success of this program because you don't know how many people would actually turn out to be bank robbers. But do you have any sense of whether or not this is working?

Mr. CARR: Well, you know, we do have a sense of it's working by our numbers. They averaged out our first quarter number of bank robberies. And over a 10-year average, we should be at 80 bank robberies right now for the first quarter of the year, and we're at 44. Now, of course, it's too early to say absolutely this is working, but something's happening.

COHEN: Special agent Larry Carr works with the FBI in Seattle. Thanks so much.

Mr. CARR: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

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