Bank robberies surge in 2011

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A spree of bank robberies this year in Colorado Springs has terrorized local bank tellers as gun-wielding bandits have pulled old-fashioned stickups and demanded cash.

In the first half of the year, 16 Colorado Springs banks have been robbed — that’s double the number of bank robberies in all of 2010.

More alarming than the numbers is the increase in violent robberies.

“What we’ve seen is the robberies that have taken place are a lot more aggressive than what we have seen in the past,” said Bill Berenz, regional president at American National Bank, which had four of its Colorado Springs branches robbed this year. “Most have been armed.”

The robberies have some bankers on edge, but they say they are fighting back with prevention training, surveillance and close relationships with police and federal investigators.

Colorado has the second highest rate of bank robberies, per capita in the country, second to Arizona. But, Colorado also has one of the highest arrest rates, with 75 to 85 percent of all bank robbers caught each year, FBI and Colorado Springs police officials said.

Colorado Springs police have made arrests in 14 of the 16 bank robberies this year.

A bankers’ role is to be a good witness after the fact.

“We are working on increasing relationships between bankers and law enforcement,” said Jenifer Waller, Colorado Bankers Association senior vice president. “We talk about what prevention techniques are most effective and which tools are most effective after the fact, including surveillance and dye packs.”

Across the country, bank robbers stole $43 million in 5,545 bank heists in 2010. In 3,142 of those robberies, the perpetrator passed a note to the teller demanding money and in 1,445 of the robberies the robber pointed a gun when ordering the teller to hand over the cash.

“In the last three years there has been an uptick in the more violent armed take-over robberies in both Colorado Springs and in Denver,” said Mark Woodward, a Denver detective assigned to the FBI’s Rocky Mountain Safe Street Task Force, which investigates bank robberies.

Take-over robbery means more than one suspect is involved in the heist — maybe one suspect enters the bank brandishing a gun while a partner waits in a nearby getaway car. In Colorado Springs, one pair of robbers followed that pattern at eight banks, robbing banks of cash over a 10-week period. In March, Colorado Springs police arrested the duo.

“The effects of the bandits activities carried over to nearly everyone in the local banking community (including customers), putting everyone on high alert,” police wrote in a March 11 statement about the arrests.

Federal and local law enforcement officers said they cannot explain why robbers have become more aggressive. However, they all agree that the robbers are not motivated by the poor economy.

“Good people don’t turn to crime because of the economy — its criminals,” said Dave Joly, FBI, Denver office spokesman.

In Colorado, robbers stole $948,439 in 172 bank heists in 2010. About $62,545 of that stolen loot has been recovered.

And while banks are insured to cover their losses, robberies cost more than the money robbers steal. Banks pay for increased security, victim counseling and time off by employees who are too traumatized to work after the violent crime occurs. No one has quantified these costs, Waller said. But, she knows they exist.

“Banks do various things for employees including debriefing,” she said. “I’ve known banks that have victim counselors come in based on the employees needs.”

It’s all very stressful, she said. Years ago Waller was robbed when she was a bank teller. She is passionate about crime prevention, she said. Last year, the CBA hosted two crime prevention seminars for bankers, bringing in federal and local law enforcement officers to discuss the most effective techniques in prevention.

“Banks train tellers how to prepare through in-house training and fraud and robbery seminars,” Waller said. “In all honesty, there is no way to gauge reaction until you’ve been through it.”

Bankers are trained on how they can help investigators catch the robber, said Woodward, who also is the president of the Colorado Association of Robbery Investigators which hosts seminars and workshops for security personnel and for bankers.

“Without getting into specifics we talk to bank tellers about what to do after a robbery, which is very important,” Woodward said. “It is important for bankers to keep themselves safe but to do things that enhance our chance of catching (the robber) quicker.”

Most bank robbers, he said, are serial bank robbers. So, when police nab such a thief, they are preventing future robberies, he said.

Bankers don’t like to reveal their security measures so as not to tip off the criminals, said Jack Sparks, spokesman for Key Bank, which had two Colorado Springs banks robbed this year.

“We do have extensive security and policies regarding robberies designed with the No. 1 priority on safety for employees and the public,” Sparks said.