With Nifty Tricks Like These, Police Don't Need Batman

Exploding dye packs, bait money, and beepers help police make sure that, for three-quarters of Florida's robbers, crime doesn't pay

IF today is like any other weekday, someone will walk into a South Florida bank and leave with about $2,000 of someone else's money. Bank robbers in the Southern District of Florida, the federal jurisdiction that stretches from Key West to Vero Beach, are among the busiest in the country. Every year, they hit about 250 banks - one for every business day in the calender.

According to FBI statistics, Florida ranks right behind California in bank robberies. But what makes the heists in South Florida unique, FBI agents say, is that chances of getting caught are "very good."

"We solve about 75 percent of the bank robberies here," says Steve Warner, the Bank Robbery Unit coordinator for the Miami FBI office. "It may appear to be an easy kind of big-money robbery, but it definitely is not."

Despite this high probability of getting caught, the message apparently hasn't gotten through. Bank robberies are up this year, creating longer days for FBI agents and federal prosecutors.

"The thinking of bank robbers hasn't changed much over the years," says Metro-Dade detective Juan Del Castillo. "The bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he robs banks, and his well-known reply was 'That's where the money is.'"

But those money tanks are assisting law enforcement officials to solve this problem. Although it remains a bank's choice, most have sophisticated surveillance cameras in place - often catching the offender's face on tape.

"It's hard to deny that's you holding a gun to the teller's head," says US Attorney Kendall Coffey. "That way an arrest for bank robbery invariably leads to a conviction."

Banks take some other approaches too. A teller may package the cash in "dye packs," bags timed to spill bright dye all over the robber.

"Bait money" is often slipped in among the wads of cash turned over to bank robbers. This money has all of its serial numbers registered with the FBI and makes tracking the stolen money to the robber considerably easier.

Foiling bank robberies often plays a part in the design of a bank. Teller counters are situated with visibility in mind. Bullet-proof glass is a common sight at many inner-city banks.

Perhaps the most sophisticated method now employed by banks and police departments in Las Vegas, Shreveport, Louisiana, Orange County, California, and San Juan, Puerto Rico involves "beeper packs." Tellers slip these credit-card transmitters into a money bag. Police then simply track the high-frequency signal to the source. But because this technology can be extremely expensive, many banks don't use them.

Despite the "Bonnie and Clyde" image bank robbers often conjure up, the majority of bank heists in South Florida are committed by robbers acting alone and with little foresight. That fact has contributed greatly to the high FBI solution rate.

"This is not the province of sophisticated criminals," says Mr. Coffey. "The typical bank robber is not a master criminal."

The most useful weapon against bank robbers in South Florida has been the general public. The Crimestoppers programs in Dade and Broward Counties are among the best in the nation. Crimestoppers and the FBI are often deluged with calls when a suspect's picture appears in the newspaper or on television. FBI agents say that's a "major reason" why the Miami office does better than the national average of 50 percent on clearing cases.

The prison sentences handed down for this federal crime vary according to federal guidelines. Twenty years is the prescribed sentence, but a judge has latitude in sentencing a robber to more or less time depending on a number of factors. An armed robbery, about 60 percent of all robberies, mandates that five additional years be tacked on to the sentence. Repeat offenders receive additional time, as does anyone with a criminal record.

But no matter how fast the FBI in South Florida catches bank robbers and how the stiff sentences, more keep popping up. As a result of this year's higher than average bank robbery rate, organizers of the 1995 show - set for next week in Fort Lauderdale - expect record attendance levels.

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