Thursday, December 26, 2002

North Carolina banks take new steps for protection

By Emery P. Dalesio
The Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. - The old strategy most North Carolina banks employed to deal with heists was simple: Hand over the cash and let law enforcement take it from there.

But now more banks in the state are taking active measures to stop robberies before they happen, from armed guards that scare away crooks to bullet-resistant glass that protects tellers.

The steps appear to be working. Bank robberies have dropped from 380 in 2001 - the highest in a decade - to just 226 through November of this year.

In the past few years, the FBI has placed more emphasis on drug and violent-crime investigations - and, since September 2001, preventing acts of terrorism.

In North Carolina - the country's second-largest banking center - the agency cut the number of agents assigned to finding bank robbers from as many as 15 several years ago to just eight today, agent Victor O'Korn said.

That put more pressure on banks to protect themselves.

Many are adopting visible and costly approaches, such as armed guards and metal-detecting entryways that law enforcement agencies say can scare away criminals.

Fidelity Bank is installing security vestibules, which scans customers as they enter a bank to detect whether they are carrying enough metal to indicate a weapon. If they are, an inner door locks them out of the bank lobby.

The measures are costly - the vestibules cost about $70,000 each, and Fidelity is installing them in about 20 of its 65 branches statewide where more than one robbery has occurred.

About $4,400 is stolen in an average bank robbery, FBI figures show. Executives say the protection is worth a high price - as much for keeping customers happy as for keeping cash in the vault.

"It's very important to the banks because the turnover is very high at banks that are getting robbed," Fidelity chairman Billy T. Woodard told The News & Observer. "A bank is made up of people that are serving customers. If you have a high turnover, the customers don't feel that the bank is their own."

The two-branch North State Bank is considering spending an extra $40,000 to $60,000 to install bullet-resistant glass to protect tellers at an expanded branch in Garner.

"The prevention of one robbery would be worth it," president and chief executive Larry Barbour said.

It's a significant shift for many North Carolina banks, which have generally trained employees to cooperate with robbers by handing over money, then relying on law officers and surveillance images to catch crooks.

"You comply - you get them out of the bank," said Edmund Aycock, senior vice president for the North Carolina Bankers Association.

The FBI and Chicago police interviewed a handful of bank robbers in 1994 to find out what would have deterred them. All said they would have been put off by a uniformed security guard.

But self-protection can pose a difficult challenge for banks. Fortress-like banking centers and armed guards in the lobby can make customers apprehensive.

"We're in a public business. We have to touch those customers up close and personal," Barbour said. "It's hard to do that between glass, being enclosed all the time. And yet we put the safety of our customers and employees ahead of that."


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