Dr. Casey Jordan, Criminologist - Attorney

Anatomy of a Bank Robber

June 7, 2011 - DANBURY -  NewsTimes by Libor Jany, Staff Writer

Maybe Willie Sutton had it wrong all along.

When asked why he robbed banks, the prolific 20th century bandit famously responded, "Because that's where the money is."

Yet, some bank security experts argue that the impetus for robbing banks today is not only economic. Many heists, they report, are induced by drug use or even philanthropy.

"The economic motivations are less than you would think," said Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management policy for the American Bankers Association. "That's usually not the reason why they're robbing the institution.

"We don't see an increase in robberies during recessions."

The number of bank robberies has dropped 25 percent since 2003, when about $80 million was stolen in 7,465 robberies nationwide, according to an FBI report released last week.

In 2010, there were 5,546 robberies across the country, and the perpetrators made off with more than $40 million, the FBI's Uniform Crime Report notes.

The previous year, at the height of the recession, there were 5,943 bank heists.

It is "difficult to pinpoint a specific profile of a robber," Johnson said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., but "we find that drug use is a prevalent indicator. When you have the combination of drug use and economic distress, that would be a volatile combination."

In addition to the drug addict, Western Connecticut State University law professor Dr. Kathleen Casey Jordan said she has identified two other types of bank robbers: professional and opportunistic.

The latter group is the most "common among today's bank robbers," Jordan wrote in an email.

"They sometimes have incredible debt, where they are losing their homes, lost a job and trying to hide that fact from family. Some even robbed banks to pay for medical bills or college tuition," she said.

"(Still others) are financially desperate, but also personally desperate, as well. If they are recently divorced or widowed, have lost a child, or just suffering a mental breakdown, they might resort to bank robbery as a means of empowerment."

Experts said Preston Hanlon, the suspect in the January robbery of the Webster Bank branch on Main Street, New Milford -- who carried a plastic air gun -- falls into this group.

According to police, the 27-year-old New Milford man fled the scene on a HART bus with less than $3,000 before engaging police in a five-hour standoff.

Most researchers agree today's opportunistic robbers lack the organization and cunning of criminals past, and for that reason some banks utilize decidedly low-tech security approaches.

"We also find that robbers have a tendency to not want to be noticed," Johnson said from Washington, D.C. "We find that greeting customers ... can actually serve as a good deterrence measure."

Johnson said modern robbers takes less risks and are far less violent than in the past, a fact corroborated by the FBI report.

In last year's 5,628 U.S. robberies, burglaries and larcenies, 16 people were killed. All but three victims were the robbers themselves, the report says.

Today's bank robberies are often "note jobs," Johnson said, where the suspect hands the teller a note demanding money. The FBI report says only 29 percent of robbers displayed a weapon.

Experts say that not everyone in the business of robbing banks is in it for the money.

Robert Paquette, Union Savings Bank's senior security adviser, tells of a woman who robbed five local banks, including two in Danbury, with the idea of donating the loot to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"(Bank robbers') motivation runs the gamut," he said. "From simply getting money to live to (buying) drugs."

The former Danbury police chief spent 23 years with the FBI, including 12 years working on bank robbery cases in New York City.

"(In those days), there were armed and organized gangs that robbed banks on a very, very regular basis. That was their sole occupation," Paquette said.

"It used to be, too, that economic conditions necessitated the criminal element (and) a rise in bank robberies, but even that is changing ... We're seeing the numbers not really increase that dramatically," he said.

In recent years, even as financial institutions have opened a new front in the fight against cyber-thieves, they have continued fine-tuning their security protocols, with the deployment of more and more advanced countermeasures, such as sophisticated video surveillance systems with facial-recognition software.

With banks keeping less cash at their local branches, Paquette said, bank robbery is simply not as profitable as it used to be.

"At one time ... you could get a lot of money (between $50,000 and $60,000) robbing a bank, but now, because of the activities, the protocols, that have been put into effect by banking institutions, that ability to steal large sums of money is severely restricted and minimized," Paquette said.

"You can go to a 7-Eleven and get more money. Or go to a gas station and get more money," he said.

"That's sort of been the evolution of bank robbery," he said. "At one time you could get a lot of money from the bank. Now, because the amount of cash is so limited, it makes it almost not worthwhile, considering the criminal exposure and the amount of time you're going to get (in prison) if you get caught."

Contact Libor Jany at ljany@newstimes.com or 203-731-3350. Follow him at twitter.com/ljanyNT

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