Bonnie and Clyde take an early retirement in L.A.

'Bank-robbery capital of America' no more, Los Angeles - like rest of US - has seen a huge decline in stickups.

Back in the days of the early 1990s, Los Angeles banks were dangerous places to work.

Expanded operating hours and the proliferation of branches on almost every street corner had made banks increasingly vulnerable to armed men in rubber masks.

At one point, a southern California bank was being held up every 42 minutes of every banking business day - earning Los Angeles the unenviable nickname "bank-robbery capital of America."

These days, however, the city is well on its way to shedding the title.

Thanks to sophisticated new technology, vigilant law enforcement, and stiffer sentencing, bank robberies here and across the country have taken one of the biggest drops in decades.

While everyone has focused on the decline in murders and other violent crimes, the reduction in the number of stickups has been no less dramatic.

Nationwide, bank heists have declined from 8,046 in 1996 to 7,584 in 1998. Preliminary FBI statistics show they dropped even further last year, to 6,076 - the fewest since 1986.

In southern California, the decrease has been even more precipitous: from a high of 2,641 in 1992 to just 639 in 1999 - the lowest number in 32 years.

One result: Bank employees feel a greater sense of security behind their Plexiglass windows.

"The employees definitely feel safer," says Linda Carter, a Wells Fargo division service specialist.

In part, the drop can be attributed to some of the same factors driving down other crime rates. The current economic boom, analysts have observed, roughly parallels the nationwide reduction in all forms of crime - including bank robbery.

More specifically, however, experts cite banks' increased sharing of information regarding security. And above all, they credit immense improvements in surveillance and tracking technology for foiling the bad guys.

Bank robbery, of course, has been around almost as long as banks because, as the infamous Willie Sutton allegedly remarked, "that's where the money is."

But getting at the money is more difficult than ever, thanks to such innovations as "mantraps" - doorways controlled by metal detectors which can hold a robber until the cops arrive - and bullet-resistant "bandit barriers" of Plexiglass and steel which protect tellers.

Even if robbers manage to get away with some cash (most banks keep only a relatively small amount on hand), they're often quickly tracked down by police. Exploding dye packs, "bait packs" of bills with recorded serial numbers, and even currency packs with built-in electronic transmitters allow police to follow the money trail as easily as a stolen car.

In fact, 3 of 4 bank robbers today are apprehended - and once caught, stiff federal sentencing guidelines (especially if a number of firearm counts are involved) put many of them away for what can amount to virtual life sentences, says George Cardona, chief of the US Attorney's Los Angeles criminal division.

Faced with these deterrents, many would-be Jesse Jameses may be deciding it's not worth the risk.

Of course, bank robbery hasn't gone away entirely - nor is it likely to, say experts. For one thing, the crime isn't always just about the money. Violent takeover bank robberies - "indoor muggings" as opposed to "note robberies" - are as much about intimidating victims as getting cash, says William Rehder, the FBI's former bank robbery coordinator in Los Angeles.

As one imprisoned bank robber told Harvard University psychiatrist James Gilligan, author of a book on violent crime: "I never got so much respect as when I had a gun pointed at some dude's face."

But Dr. Gilligan also believes that the current strong economy, with its plethora of jobs and the corresponding sense of self-worth they provide, has been "a major factor" in the reduction of all forms of violent crime among inner-city populations.

Indeed, in poorer neighborhoods, bank robbery seems to have lost whatever cachet it may once have had. Banks are seen as vital members of the community rather than the cruel, mortgage-foreclosing institutions of the Depression era.

And bank robbers are no longer lionized as folk heroes or latter-day Robin Hoods.

"Bank robbery is a stupid crime," says Roger Pida, a retired L.A. police robbery investigator and vice president of security for Wells Fargo bank. "These guys get caught and go to jail for a long, long time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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