Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Responses to the Problem of Bank Robbery

Analyzing your local problem will give you a better understanding of the factors that contribute to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you can consider possible responses to the problem.

The following strategies will provide a foundation for addressing your particular bank robbery problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of studies and police reports. Several may apply to your local problem.

It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances and that you can justify each response based upon reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve several different responses. Because law enforcement alone is seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem, do not limit yourself to considering only what police can do; rather, carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and whether they can help respond to it. Remember that you are more likely to succeed if you can enlist the support of the actors and organizations that have the capacity to implement the most effective responses. For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems.

General Requirements for an Effective Strategy

  1. Enlisting the support of banks. Reducing bank robbery often requires that branches alter their properties or management practices. To justify this shift, police should analyze bank robbery data to distinguish between high risk and low risk properties, providing individual branches with explicit guidance on preventive measures. Because most branches are guided by corporate policies and practices, police need solid information to justify the recommended changes, particularly those that may be costly. It is also important to secure the cooperation and involvement of as many banks as possible, to ensure that banks nor branches feel unfairly targeted. For more detailed guidance on shifting responsibility, see the companion guide to this series, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems.
  2. Adopting a multijurisdictional approach. Because bank robberies are infrequent in smaller jurisdictions, multijurisdictional efforts may be needed to provide sufficient data and to guide the development of effective responses.

    Multijurisdictional data about bank robberies—preferably several years worth—will provide a better basis for statistical analysis. Because they are not common, the bank robberies within a single jurisdiction can spike where the robberies are the result of a crime spree involving one or more repeat offenders. In the short term, a serial robber can cause substantial fluctuations in the number of bank robberies within a city or even a state; using longer term data adjusts for this phenomenon.

    Because bank robbers travel farther than other criminals, often taking advantage of major transportation corridors, regional or even statewide approaches have the potential to be particularly effective. In addition, collating multijurisdictional data can provide a basis for increased cooperation between banks, the FBI, and local police agencies.

  3. Focusing on high risk branches. While basic preventive measures should be applied to all branches, some special preventive measures should be focused on high-risk branches. It is critical that you acknowledge the legitimacy of a bank’s profit motive.

    It is unlikely that all branches will need to adopt a standardized set of preventive measures; some branches will need different measures while others may need none. Insisting that all branches adopt security practices that may be expensive is likely to create conflict between police and the financial industry.

    Branches that have already been successfully robbed face the highest risk of robbery in the future, and this risk is most acute in the short term. Thus, prevention efforts should be implemented quickly to increase the difficulty of future robberies. While such tactics may be short-term, immediacy is key; the amount of preventive efforts should be increased proportionally based on the number and success of previous robberies.

  4. Focusing on specific types of bank robbery. Although it is tempting for police to focus predominately on violent takeover robberies—and this reflects much of the federal interest in bank robberies—robberies committed by unarmed, solitary offenders occur more often and may be easier to deter.

Specific Responses to Bank Robberies

Because bank robbery prevention efforts can involve a variety of responses, it may be difficult to assess the effectiveness of each individual strategy. The following section describes specific responses that can be combined to form an effective bank robbery prevention strategy. Despite the importance of multiple interventions, you should avoid trying a little bit of everything; instead, try to employ complementary tactics.

Reducing Rewards to Robbers

  1. Limiting cash access. Cash in banks is available at teller windows—the most frequent target of robbers—and safes. Most banks have cash management policies, such as removing cash from teller drawers when it reaches a predetermined amount. Some banks use vacuum systems to quickly and efficiently remove cash from teller drawers. Although such cash management procedures can be troublesome for tellers, they can help limit robbery losses.

    Access to cash can be further limited through the use of an automatic cash dispensing unit (CDU), which is positioned so that tellers must leave their stations to withdraw currency. The CDU limits the amount a teller can withdraw, thus capping the amount that can be stolen. More importantly, the CDU requires the teller to leave the window, thus reducing the exposure to violence and also delaying the commission of the robbery. A longer robbery increases the risk of apprehension.81 One Canadian bank reduced robberies 65 percent in two years by using such machines.82

    Although most bank robberies target teller windows, takeover robberies may involve the vault; losses in these robberies are usually much higher. Some banks have responded by limiting the amount of cash they keep in their in their vaults or by using time delay safes that cannot be quickly accessed by employees, even those under duress.

  2. Using dye packs. Dye packs are widely used by banks to prevent stolen money from being used. Dye packs stain both the robber and the cash, preventing use of the money and aiding in the detection of the robber. Many dye packs are supplemented by tear gas which is triggered by an electromagnetic field near the bank exit door; when tear gas explodes, the robber is effectively immobilized. Dye packs and tear gas systems cost about $4,000 to install and about $500 per pack.83 Dye packs are used by many banks, including 29 percent of banks that were robbed in 2000.84

    Dye packs that stain both the robber and the cash are widely used by banks. Credit: 3SI Security Systems, www.3sisecurity.com

Increasing Perceptions of Risk

  1. Slowing the robbery. Because bank robbers want the crime to proceed quickly, some banks have adopted strategies that are intended to slow the pace of the robbery. A slow robbery may increase the suspect’s perception of risk and will sometimes cause him to abandon the crime.85

    Resistance by bank employees can both thwart attempted robberies and limit the amount of cash taken 86 Resistance can be active—refusing the robber’s demands, walking away from the teller window, calling out for assistance, activating an alarm—or passive, as when employees act hesitantly or otherwise slow down the robbery.87 Because there is some concern that employee resistance can increase violence, the type and level of recommended resistance should relate to specific conditions, such as the presence of bandit barriers88 or the absence of customers.

    Interior obstacles such as revolving doors or customer service counters can slow the robber’s escape; timed safes and withdrawal limits on cash dispensing machines can further increase  the duration of the robbery.

  2. Banning disguises. Some banks require that customers remove hats, sunglasses, or other apparel that can be used as a disguise. Such a policy reduced the robbery rate 3 percent at bank branches in Massachusetts.89 However, this policy may be impractical if customers are likely to be wearing coats, scarves, or hats due to inclement weather.
  3. Employing greeters. Bank employees known as greeters welcome customers and reduce the anonymity of a would-be robber; this face-to-face interaction may discourage a robbery before it occurs. Greeters should be trained to be alert to suspicious behavior. Greeters were part of a package of measures that reduced robberies substantially at a Canadian bank.90 The response is more likely to discourage amateur robbers than professionals.
  4. Hiring security guards. There is disagreement regarding the effectiveness of bank security guards.91 Guards are expensive, generating recurring costs for banks of about $50,000 per year. They also may create an environment that makes customers fearful. Some research suggests that guards reduce the risk of bank robbery,92 although 7 percent of banks robbed in 2001 had guards.93 On the other hand, some studies suggest that armed guards increase the risk of violence during a robbery.94 For this reason, some banks only use armed guards in branches with high robbery rates.95
  5. Warning likely offenders. Bank robbers tend to overestimate the amount of money they will get from a robbery, to underestimate the likelihood of arrest, and to be unaware of the sentences they face if convicted.96 Thus, some banks and trade associations have developed publicity campaigns designed to educate would-be offenders about the low take, high capture rate, and other perils of a career in bank robbery.97 This may be effective, depending upon the expectation of the robbers. However, would-be robbers who know of offenders who have made big scores and have gone undetected are unlikely to be deterred by publicity.

Increasing Risk of Apprehension

  1. Using tracking devices. Some banks hide electronic tracking devices in the robbery money, thus aiding police in locating offenders. Tracking devices use low voltage transmitting microchips with transponders. So slim that they can be hidden in special packets of currency, these devices emit an electronic signal that can be tracked by police. There have been no evaluations of the effectiveness of these devices, but one FBI official stated that the system reduced bank robberies in his region by 55 percent.98 Since tracking devices are intended to increase the chance of apprehending offenders, they are not likely to prevent robberies from occurring.
  2. Using bait money. Bait money is cash with sequential serial numbers that are recorded by the bank. When the money reenters circulation, police track its use in hopes of locating the suspect. Bait money is already widely used by banks, even those that are robbed; 90 percent of banks robbed in 2001 used bait money.99
  3. Offering rewards. Some banks actively publicize “most wanted” bank robbers, displaying their surveillance photos and offering rewards for information leading to their capture. An initiative in Massachusetts included the use of a website to post photos of most wanted offenders.100 Since 1991, one bank has paid out 166 rewards that resulted in the capture of 228 offenders at an average cost of just over $3,000.101 Banks use websites, local silent witness programs, and tip lines to publicize crimes and to seek out offenders. There are also national tip organizations that coordinate information about highly mobile robbers.
  4. Upgrading electronic surveillance. Bank surveillance cameras are in widespread use: 98 percent of robbed banks have interior surveillance cameras.102 However, cameras do not appear to reduce robberies. Many bank robbers are not deterred because they simply do not believe they will be caught. Others believe that cameras can be thwarted with a disguise or by covert behavior or that cameras can be disabled such as with spray paint; or they simply do not think about cameras at all.103

    Surveillance images are valuable for police in identifying and apprehending suspects and can aid in prosecution as well. The use of good quality photographs during news broadcasts and on reward programs has contributed to the apprehension of a number of offenders.

    There are a variety of different types of surveillance, including constant imaging surveillance, surveillance cameras that must be activated by employees, two-way surveillance cameras—visibly located in lobbies to remind would-be offenders that they are under surveillance—and broad-band internet video feeds directly to police.104

    Although cameras have been credited as the key factor in about 25 percent of bank robbery arrests,105 police are often critical of the quality of surveillance images, attributing poor images to inferior or outdated equipment, failure of employees to activate cameras, or poor camera performance in recording images, sometimes because of poor camera placement.106

    Exterior surveillance cameras have not been widely used but have the potential to record license tags or to document other details of an offender’s escape. Similarly, automatic license plate readers have the potential to record the license plate of the offender’s getaway car.

  5. Rapidly activating alarms. Alarms are in widespread use by banks but do not appear to reduce robbery: 98 percent of banks robbed in 2001 had alarm systems.107 As early as 1986, research found that robbers were not deterred by alarms, as they expected that the crime would proceed quickly and that they would escape before the alarm was activated or before the police arrived.108

    While alarms lead to the arrest of bank robbers in only about 6 percent of crimes,109 there is evidence that prompt activation increases apprehension rates.110 Some bank employees do not activate alarms until after the robber has left the premises, reflecting concerns about the safety of employees and customers, lest police trap the robber inside the bank and provoke violence. In other cases, the delay might be due to panic or to comply with instructions made by the robber.

Increasing Difficulty of Offending

  1. Installing bandit barriers. The FBI recommends that banks install bullet-resistant glass barriers between tellers and customers.111 While most of these are permanent installation, some bandit barriers “pop-up” when activated by tellers or when an object crosses the counter. The prevalence of bandit barriers and the extent of their effectiveness is not known. In the late 1970s, 44 percent of banks in the Washington D.C. area had bandit barriers; these, however, did not prevent robbery.112 Among robbed banks, 10 percent in the United States and 85 percent in Germany had bandit barriers.113 In one bank, the installation of barriers reduced the risk of robbery by 25 percent.114 Even if bandit barriers do not prevent robberies, some research suggests that they reduce the success of bank robberies. In the United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland robberies at banks with bandit barriers were less successful.

    Some banks believe that bandit barriers increase robbery violence. Indeed, robbers took hostages in 17 percent of German banks with bandit barriers.115 Other banks are concerned that such barriers adversely alter the banking environment.

    Bandit barriers are relatively expensive—about $1,000 per linear foot116—and may put customers and unprotected employees at a higher risk of violence. However, bandit barriers do prevent some types of robbery (such as jump-over robberies) and may also reduce losses in individual robberies as well.

    Bandit barriers may discourage some bank robbers and also increase the safety of bank employees. Credit: Clear Security Systems, www.clearsecuritysystems.com

  2. Limiting bank access. Access to bank lobbies can be limited by keys, entry cards, or other special identification systems, such as personally encoded cards or identification numbers. Such systems can be overridden by bank employees to permit access. Another method of limiting access is the use of a revolving door that is timed to restrict the number of customers who can enter the bank.
  3. Installing access control vestibules. Access control vestibules—also known as man-catcher vestibules or man-traps—are a specialized form of access control device. These devices can be used to scan potential customers for weapons before they access the bank interior; others are designed to be manually activated by tellers. All contain bullet-resistant glass and range in price from $10,000 to $20,000.117Although these devices may prevent armed robbers from gaining entrance, they do not guarantee that a robbery will not occur.
  4. Hardening targets. Studies show that physical and perceptual objects that seem as if they might slow a robber’s escape tend to reduce a bank’s attractiveness as a target.118 Thus, banks have employed a wide variety of target-hardening strategies that are designed to make the bank interior appear inhospitable to would-be robbers. These include revolving doors, increased distances between entrances and teller stations, higher teller counters, queuing and other physical barriers, and single door entrances and exits.119 Other strategies include increasing the visibility within and into the bank by avoiding physical features such as columns that block sight lines. Although such environmental strategies seem promising, they have not been carefully evaluated.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

  1. Increasing criminal sanctions. Convicted robbers, especially habitual offenders, already face stiff penalties. Once convicted, about 80 percent of robbers are incarcerated; the average prison sentence is 137 months.120 Use of a firearm during the commission of a robbery further increases the punishment. Although some robbers assess the severity of punishment in committing a crime, research suggests that criminals give more weight to potential rewards than to increases in punishment. Consequently, further penalty increases are unlikely to have an added deterrent effect.
  2. Limiting media coverage Some jurisdictions limit media coverage of bank robberies to reduce the likelihood of copycat crimes. Although such measures are inexpensive and have little downside, there is no evidence that copycat bank robberies actually occur.121
  3. Training employees to spot suspicious behavior. To deter robbers, police often advise bank employees to watch for suspicious behavior. Branches, however, have such predictable designs and consistent operations that less than 20 percent of robbers even case their targets. In fact, many robbers do not even go inside the bank prior to robbing it,122 [bb] making it unlikely that suspicious behavior will be detected. This is true regardless of the type of offender: amateur robbers can be difficult to detect because they strive to blend in with other customers, whereas takeover robbers act too quickly for their behavior to become noticeable. Although a bank employee in hindsight may describe a robber’s behavior as suspicious, robbery is such a rare event that most employees will be unable to do so prospectively.

    Federal law requires that all U.S. bank employees receive training about bank security, including what to do in the event of a robbery; how to deal with hostage situations; how to activate alarms and cameras; how to use dye packs and other tracking devices; and how to be a good witness and preserve evidence. Employee training can help assuage the emotional effects of victimization, may help reduce robbery violence, and can assist in investigations. Such training can include videos or simulated scenarios that are intended to provide employees with something of a realistic robbery experience. In settings with high employee turnover, frequent training may be needed.

    Employees do not always closely follow policies or comply with training and some police have developed additional training to reinforce the importance of employee behaviors during and after a robbery. For example, police in New York developed special training after noting that many bank employees failed to notify police or to activate surveillance systems in a timely fashion, failed to safeguard crime scenes, and were unable to provide useful suspect descriptions.123

  4. Increasing police efforts to deter and apprehend bank robbers. There is little evidence that extra police presence is an effective or efficient use of resources, although arresting a prolific robber can halt a short-term robbery pattern. Although some robbers assess the environment and are deterred by frequent patrols or by the close proximity of banks to police stations,124 this deterrent effect is likely slight. Police stakeouts and other undercover operations are very expensive and have not been found effective in reducing bank robberies. The primary purpose of stakeouts is to observe a robbery in progress, but the specific timing of a bank robbery is hard to predict; there were no robberies or attempts in 20 high risk banks during a seven week police undercover operation that required the effort of 40 officers.125

    Historically, much police effort to reduce bank robbery has focused on improving security practices that result in investigative evidence. These practices include improving the quality of surveillance images and employing tracking devices. Although these techniques can aid police after a robbery has occurred, they are unlikely to reduce the incidence of bank robberies.

    Bank robbery arrests appear to arise from a variety of factors: surveillance photographs, rapid response to alarms,126 tips from citizens or informants, or a patrol officer spotting a license tag.127 Police blockades are sometimes employed to catch robbers; these involve securing the geographic area around a robbed branch to prevent the robber from fleeing the scene. Because police may have descriptions of offenders or escape vehicles, such practices can be effective when transportation corridors are limited. In dense urban areas with many avenues for escape, however, blockades are not effective.128 Physical evidence can also play a role in the arrest and conviction of robbery suspects. Not only can physical evidence obtained from demand notes and other robbery tools be used to convict individual robbery suspects, but separate robberies may be linked through forensic evidence,  handwriting analysis, the repetition of specific wording in notes or verbal commands, or similarities in modus operandi.