Bank bandits move in as busy FBI retreats

Bank heists were on the rise even before Sept. 11. Now the FBI is focusing its resources on terror front.

Bonnie and Clyde, it seems, are back.

The classic American crime of bank robbery is on the rise across the nation, especially the more-violent versions of it. Yet the vaunted Federal Bureau of Investigation – which foiled that famous bank-robbing duo in 1934 – is distracted by a bigger battle: the war on terrorism.

Since Sept. 11, many FBI agents have worked full time on terror-related issues, letting other areas lag. And a major reorganization of the agency, to be announced within a month, is expected to include a significant downsizing of bank-robber tracking efforts.

This leaves local and state police to tackle a steep and steady rise in bank heists nationwide. Some observers say that could be a positive shift – laying law enforcement responsibility clearly at the doors of local police and banks themselves. Financial institutions, for example, are scrambling to add security measures, such as cameras and bullet-proof "bandit barriers."

Nationwide, the number of bank robberies rose from 6,599 in 1999 to 7,127 in 2000 to 8,259 in 2001, the FBI says.

One area of concern is south Florida. It's on pace to hit 250 bank robberies this fiscal year, according to the local FBI office. By contrast, there were 183 bank heists in 2001 and 165 in 2000.

Furthermore, "Since Sept. 11, the trend has been toward more-violent robberies," says Miami FBI Agent Erik Miller, who reports that about 40 percent of bank stick-ups now include weapons, a big uptick.

In the Los Angeles area, "master planners" are increasingly orchestrating robberies carried out by gang members. This method led to 205 "violent takeover robberies" in 2001, a 31 percent jump over 2000. Roughly 30 percent of robberies in the LA area are now violent, up from 17 percent in 1993. Overall, however, the number of LA-area hold-ups has fallen dramatically in recent years – from 2,641 in 1993 to just 677 last year.

Bank robberies in America's hinterlands are on the rise. In fact, on a per capita basis, towns of 10,000 to 25,000 are the most likely of any places to be hit, according to FBI statistics.

The rise in hold-ups, including violent ones, may stem from several factors, including criminals knowing that police are overwhelmed in the wake of Sept. 11. Also, repeat offenders from the late 1980s and early 1990s are now being released – and are striking again. Some areas, like Los Angeles, are seeing an increase in gangs willing to attempt the crime. Even the wobbling economy may be contributing, by creating more desperation.

At the same time, FBI Director Robert Muller has asked field offices to report to him on the feasibility of downsizing or eliminating FBI bank-robbery investigations. Some argue that FBI responsibility for carjackings and drug-enforcement should revert to local cops, too.

Observers say one likely course is to have the FBI simply support local and state agencies with crime analysis – rather than sending its agents to pound the pavement.

ANY pullback, however, would mark a major change in the mythology of American crime-busting – in which the FBI has played a leading role. In the 1930s and '40s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover helped create a mystique for his fledgling agency as it nabbed famous bank-robbing crooks like John Dillinger and George "Machine Gun" Kelly. FBI talents include creating profiles of bank robbers and tracking the highly mobile criminals across counties and states.

Yet some observers say there has long been a gap between myth and reality, with state and local police doing much of the bank-robbery gumshoe work. "Most agencies I've talked to say they don't get all that much help out of the FBI – and yet the FBI comes in and gets most of the credit," says criminologist John Eck at the University of Cincinnati.

Recent improvements – better databases, faster communication among agencies, and sharper profiling skills – have made local and state agencies better equipped to handle bank robberies. If anything, Dr. Eck says, the impact of an FBI pullback would mostly be felt in small towns.

But some FBI agents are determined to stay in the game. "We're fighting tooth and nail" to do so, says Agent Steve Warner, who's in charge of bank robbery probes in Miami. "And the police down here want us to be in the business," he says. "We're the catalyst" for getting 50 local agencies to work together.

Lately, his office has been swamped with terrorism work. In addition to bank robberies, he's also now in charge of tracking fugitives. Hence, he's focused more on violent bank robberies, leaving "note jobs" – thieves slipping notes to tellers demanding cash – to local police.

In the end, that may be the compromise: FBI involvement in the highest-profile, most-violent heists – and local responsibility for everything else.

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