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July 11, 2004
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Scott Buhrmaster Topics & Tactics for Law Enforcement
with Scott Buhrmaster

Anyone can be dangerous; never let your guard down

Introduction by Scott Buhrmaster, Contributing Editor

In May of last year, PoliceOne produced a report related to the arrest and handcuffing of a 97-year-old Dallas-area woman after officers discovered that a warrant had been issued for her arrest. ["To Cuff or Not To Cuff: Should That Even Be A Question?]. Within days, national outcry against the officer's decision to cuff her reached a fevered pitch.

The majority of feedback from PoliceOne members, however, stood in clear support of the officer who most felt demonstrated an admirable dedication to officer safety practices. The main theme of PoliceOne members' feedback was that at the point of arrest, ALL subjects should be cuffed, regardless of age, size or any other variable.

The New York Times article (below) serves as a clear illustration of the fact that looks can be deceiving . . . and potentially deadly.

As you read the following piece, take a cold, hard look at your own level of tactical awareness when you're dealing with people who, on the surface, may seem harmless. Would you consider the 91-year-old man in the accompanying photo a potential threat? Would you let your guard down in light of his age and stature? Would you cuff him with his hands in front -- as he was in this picture, which time and again has proven to be just the opportunity criminals need to launch an attack on an arresting officer?

(Incidentally, take a look at the location of the arresting officer's holstered gun and the suspect's hands.)

Use the following article as a reminder that anyone ... ANYONE ... can be a threat.


Today's Bank Robber Might Look Like a Neighbor

By Warren St. John, The New York Times

Law enforcement officials and experts say bank robbery is no longer just a crime for hardened criminals. Last August, J.L. Rountree, 91, was arrested after a robbery in Abilene, Tex. He is serving 12 years in prison. (Associated Press Photo)

The case of J. L. Rountree seemed at first an aberration, something from "News of the Weird." Last August, Mr. Rountree, 91 years old, walked into the First American Bank in Abilene, Tex., and handed the teller a note reading "Robbery."

"You're kidding," the teller said.

"Hurry up," snapped Mr. Rountree, who was unarmed. "Or you'll get hurt."

Mr. Rountree - no sprinter - left with $1,999 and was soon arrested by the local police, who gave him the perfect headline-grabbing nickname: the Grandpa Bandit. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Then in December, Sally Ann Smith, 56 and described by a neighbor as "a wonderful, caring and loving person, and a devoted grandmother," was arrested at her home in Peoria, Ariz., on charges of robbing two banks at gunpoint. Ms. Smith, too, got a nickname: the Grandma Bandit.

Then there were Robert Day, an armed 68-year-old bank robber in Texas, and Brenda Bishop, the Granny Bandit of Macomb County, Mich., who was unarmed; both are now in prison. And on Thursday, the police said, an unarmed 70-year-old man named Gordon Bryant tried to rob the Farmers State Bank in Versailles, Ill. The police said they had found Mr. Bryant outside the bank with a stocking over his head.

While it may be tempting to view these bank-robbing grandparents as evidence of a moral collapse among older Americans, more likely they say something about the changing nature of bank robbery. Once the pursuit of hardened, shoot-'em-up bandits like Bonnie and Clyde, and later of violent street gangs packing 9-millimeter guns, bank robbery has become a kind of everyman's felony.

While about half of bank robberies in the United States are still committed by drug addicts desperate for money and a third by veteran bank thieves, law enforcement officials and criminologists say an increasing number are being pulled off by thieves who have a lot more in common with Willy Loman than Willie Sutton. They are teenagers and senior citizens, stay-at-home parents and established career types - in short, anyone with an acute need for cash.

"The word of mouth is that it's easy, it's safe and it's gratifying," said Robert McCrie, a professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who has studied bank robbery for 30 years. "So it's not surprising that the octogenarian, or a mother with children at home, or people with all sorts of uncharacteristic backgrounds would be attracted to trying to give it a go. It can be just about anybody."

The number of bank robberies nationwide has fluctuated for 15 years, spiking during tough economic times and falling during good years. Although violent bank robberies are still a problem - banks in Washington D.C., for example, have recently been terrorized by a gang of masked, heavily armed robbers - the majority of the 7,412 robberies last year were so-called "note jobs," heists committed by pen and paper rather than a weapon. Twenty-five years ago, according to the F.B.I., only about a third of robberies were note jobs - the preferred method of the Average Joe and Jane bank robber with no criminal past, experts say.

"Most of these are people who have no record at all. They start off as virgins to crime and they jump into this as a first option," said William J. Rehder, a former bank robbery expert for the F.B.I.

New York City experienced a kind of note-passing epidemic last year. Bank robberies surged 64 percent, and though 84 percent of the robberies involved no weapons, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly admonished bank executives for not paying enough attention to the problem. Last year, 16 of Commerce Bank's 17 branches in New York were robbed. In 2003, North Fork Bank, which has 78 branches in New York City, experienced 36 robbery attempts.

The people pulling off some of those heists hardly fit the profile of seasoned crooks. Last September, the police said, a 12-year-old boy made away with $30,000 from an East Village branch of Citibank after passing the teller a note that read, "Give me the money or I'll shoot you" (He was later arrested and his mother charged for putting him up to it.)

In January, Pamela Kaichen, 44, a riding instructor known as the "soccer mom bandit," pleaded guilty to the unarmed robbery of six banks in Connecticut and Westchester County and received a four-year sentence. (Ms. Kaichen, who wore a blond wig during the holdups, blamed her crimes on stress from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She had volunteered at Ground Zero.)

Outside New York, the story is much the same. Last June, for example, Tighue Shields, 53, the greenskeeper of the Weston Hills Country Club in South Florida and well-known in the golf world for his greens work on the P.G.A. Tour, was arrested in connection with three armed bank robberies in Scottsdale, Ariz. The authorities said Mr. Shields flew to Scottsdale to rob banks on his days off.

And just eight days ago, a 15-year-old Michigan girl pleaded no contest to bank robbery; though she was unarmed, the girl passed the teller a note saying there was an AK-47 pointed at his head.

Security and law enforcement officials say a number of factors are to blame for the democratizing of bank robbery, chief among them the knowledge, widespread among the public, that bank tellers are often instructed to comply with thieves in order to get them out of the bank as quickly as possible.

Michael MacLean, the bank robbery program manager at the F.B.I.'s headquarters in Washington, said that robbing a bank once required specialized knowledge, usually passed among veteran thieves. Now, he said, debriefings of bank robbery suspects have revealed "a more general knowledge about how to commit a bank robbery."

"It used to always be 'I was in prison with a guy who did bank robberies and he told me how to do it,' " Mr. MacLean said. "You're seeing now people who know how to do it without being in custody. They know the drill: you write the note, you get the money."

John Hall, the spokesman for the American Bankers Association in Washington, the industry's largest trade group, said banks were in a complicated position.

"Bankers do walk this line between convenience and security," he said. "Customers shouldn't be treated like they're bank robbers."

Mr. Hall said that banks' first responsibility during a robbery was safety. "It might appear they are being compliant," he said. "But they're making sure that no violence takes place."

Security experts say that combating bank robberies has been made more difficult by banks' emphasis on building consumer-friendly branches.

Jim Moore, who spent 23 years in corporate security at Citibank and now is a consultant at Kroll, a risk-management company based in New York, said that while banks once were fortresslike structures with columns and bars on the windows, today they are designed more like retail outlets. They are less likely to have armed guards than in the past. They tend to have multiple exits for customers' convenience and to be located along busy thoroughfares - touches that also favor fleeing bandits.

"There's been this tension between marketing and security," Mr. Moore said. "You're trying to be customer-friendly, and you want to draw people into your establishment. You don't want them to think they're coming into some enclosed-vault atmosphere."

If there seems a lack of urgency among banks in dealing with the problem, it is perhaps due to the low incidence of violence in bank robberies. Only about one in every 1,000 results in a death. Also, the money lost in bank heists annually is a relative pittance to the banking industry - around $70 million. Mr. McCrie, the criminology professor, said the banking industry considers these "acceptable losses."

Check fraud, by comparison, cost banks nearly $700 million in 2002, the last year for which data is available.

New York banks, though, have taken a number of steps recently to improve security. Michael P. Smith, the president of the New York Bankers Association, said that local banks had formed a task force in response to the surge in note passers, and that they have improved surveillance cameras, installed plexiglass "bandit barriers" and increased the number of undercover guards. Banks are more aggressive in the use of dye packs, exploding ink bags that stain stolen money and the thief, he said, and they now maintain a direct computer link to the police department, so the authorities can be informed immediately. The measures may be working: bank robberies in New York City are down 35 percent this year compared with the first half of 2003.

As it is, about 57 percent of all bank robberies are solved, according to the F.B.I. Mr. Rehder, the former F.B.I. investigator, said the average take in a "note job" is usually between $2,000 and $3,000, far less, he said, than most amateur bank robbers need to get them out of trouble. Many try again, he said, and are eventually caught.

A steady stream of amateur thieves, though, continue to try their luck. Last July, a San Francisco personal trainer named Ricky Beale hired a stretch limousine to go to his girlfriend's house. He asked the limousine driver to stop, then ran into a Bank of America, which he robbed of $5,000. Mr. Beale was arrested a few blocks away. In March, he pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to a year in the county jail and five years' probation.


About the author

If you have tactical information, compelling incidents, general comments or topics you would like to share, please contact Scott Buhrmaster, Managing Editor for PoliceOne.com and the Director of Training for the PoliceOne Training Network, at: buhrmastergroup@comcast.net





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