Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

The Problem of Bank Robbery

Guide No. 48 (2007)

by Deborah Lamm Weisel

What This Guide Covers

This guide begins by describing the problem of bank robbery and reviewing the factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local bank robbery problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem of bank robbery as identified through research and police practice.

Bank robbery is but one aspect of a larger set of problems related to robbery and to financial crimes involving banks. This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms created by bank robbery. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide include:

  • robberies of financial couriers, including armored carriers;
  • burglary, larceny, and extortion of banks;
  • bank fraud, including check and credit card fraud;†

    † See Problem-Specific Guide No. 21, Check and Card Fraud.

  • insider crimes, such as embezzlement;
  • robberies at automated teller machines;† and

    † See Problem-Specific Guide No. 8, Robbery of Automated Teller Machines.

  • other types of commercial robbery.†

    † See Problem-Specific Guide No. 34, Robbery of Taxi Drivers.

Each of these problems requires separate analysis. Several are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this article. For the most up-to-date listing, see www.popcenter.org.

A bank is a specific type of financial institution but the term is widely used to refer to all financial institutions, including banks, savings and loans, and credit unions. In the United States, the term primarily refers to financial institutions with deposits that are federally insured and that fall under the federal Bank Protection Act. This guide is focused on individual retail bank branches at different locations while the term bank refers to the financial corporation that operates the branches. Most bank robberies are robberies of bank branches.

This guide is not about investigating bank robberies. Neither does it cover serial bank robberies—that is, bank robberies that are committed by the same offender or offenders over a period of time—because patterns related to a single offender are not generally consistent with the problems and solutions described in this guide.

Trends in Bank Robbery

Bank robberies are relatively uncommon: only about 2 of every 100 robberies are of a bank.1 Although violence is rare, employees and customers are at some risk of injury. If nothing else, being victimized can be terrifying. In addition, bank robberies can invoke fear in the community at large, as most are well-covered by the media. And in fact, a distinctive bank robbery such as the fatal 1998 shoot-out between police and two bank robbers armed with assault weapons in Los Angeles can influence public images of crime for many years.

† Injuries occur in about 2 percent of bank robberies in the United State s and in 6 percent of robberies in Australia (Maguire and Pastore, 1997; Pastore and Maguire, 2005; Borzycki, 2003). A death occurs in about 30 percent of U.S. bank robberies (Pastore and Maguire, 2005).

Because of the potential for violence, police always respond quickly to a bank robbery in progress. As one police commander said, “When a bank robbery goes down, all hell breaks loose in a police department.”2

The likelihood of catching a bank robber on or near the scene is higher than for other crimes. This is because most bank robberies are reported very quickly, most occur during daylight hours, many have multiple witnesses, and some produce photographic images that can be used to canvass the surrounding area for suspects. Consequently, many robbers are caught the same day. In fact, the clearance rate for bank robbery is among the highest of all crimes—nearly 60 percent. Although the FBI has jurisdiction over most U.S. bank robberies, local police typically respond first.

† Although the FBI has jurisdiction over most bank robberies in the United States, offenses are investigated concurrently with local police; in fact, local agencies may handle the entire investigation. The FBI maintains the Bank Crime Statistics database (BCS), an important investigative tool that documents offender and offense characteristics across jurisdictions. Despite the federal role, the primary impact of bank robbery is inherently local, as citizens and political leaders look to local police for solutions. Local police are often best positioned to advise banks about preventive strategies because of their established relationships with local bank employees.

The United States experienced a dramatic increase in bank robberies between 1965 and 1975, when the number of crimes quadrupled from 847 to 3,517. Despite the enactment of the federal Bank Protection Act in 1968, robberies continued to rise through the early 1990s and now average around 8,800 per year (see Figure 1).† Other countries have faced similar fluctuations in the number of bank robberies.

† The number of bank robberies in Figure 1 are those reported by local police to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, not those recorded in BCS.

For the most part, the incidence of bank robbery is closely related to other crime trends, especially commercial robbery.3 In the United States, banks have comprised an increasing proportion of the nation’s commercial robberies: in 1989, 6 percent of commercial robberies were of banks; this proportion increased steadily to 9 percent in 2004.4 (See Figure 2.)

† The contribution of banks to the total number of commercial robberies can change over time. For example, although bank robberies in Australia increased 52 percent during one seven year period, they also dropped from 9 to 6 of commercial robberies during that same period (Taylor, 2004). In the Netherlands, banks comprised an average of 26 percent of commercial robberies over seven years, but the proportion varied from as little as 15 percent to as much as 33 percent in any given year (Van Koppen and Janssen, 1999).

Although bank robberies track crime trends, they vary by the size of the jurisdiction. In recent years, bank robberies in smaller U.S. cities have comprised an increasing share of commercial robberies: nearly 12 percent of commercial robberies in smaller cities are of banks, compared to 8 percent in larger cities. (See Figure 2.)

† Computed from data in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports: Crime in the United States (1989-2004).

Figure 2. Banks as percent of  Commercial Robbery in  the United States  1995-2004
Row of Banks

In commercial or retail shopping areas, bank branches often cluster. On this busy street across from a shopping center, six banks are located adjacent to one another. Credit: Julie Trinks

Evidence suggests that urban bank robberies have been somewhat displaced in recent years; the share of bank robberies in small towns increased from 20 percent in 1996 to about 33 percent in 2002.5 Still, the majority of bank robberies are concentrated in urban areas. Although this concentration is often attributed to the fact that there are more branches in urban areas, the number of robberies is disproportionately higher than the number of branches. In Canada, for example, seven cities have 30 percent of all bank branches but 66 percent of all bank robberies;6 in the United Kingdom, London has 10 percent of the nation’s branches but 39 percent of its robberies.

† The concentration is most visible at the city level. For example, California has 15 percent of all U.S. bank branches and a proportional 18 percent of all U.S. bank robberies (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2003 [PDF]); most of the state’s bank robberies, however, are concentrated in the Los Angeles area.

Just as bank robberies are more common in urban areas, bank robberies within a jurisdiction tend to cluster where there are more banks. Branches are often located in groups near retail shopping areas, in commercial districts, and along major transportation corridors. Although individual branches in poorer areas seem to suffer more robberies,7 this primarily reflects the fact that there are fewer branches in such areas. Bank robberies are actually more numerous in more affluent neighborhoods. In one city, for example, only 3 percent of bank robberies occurred in areas considered as poor.8