With Security Up, Bank Robberies Down to 10-Year Low in Arkansas

The two men who robbed a branch of Centennial Bank in Little Rock on Oct. 27 weren’t dealing with the same bank security they would have in 2006. That’s just one of the changes to the banking landscape in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of a teller five years ago:

  • The Arkansas Bankers Association now offers a reward of up to $5,000 for tips leading to the arrest of those involved in any Arkansas bank robbery.
  • Since 2006, banks across Arkansas have posted signs requesting bank customers not to wear hats, hoods or sunglasses inside bank buildings.

In addition, if the Oct. 27 robbers had researched the topic, they would know that about 85 percent of all bank robbers in Little Rock are caught.

The two men who robbed Centennial are part of a waning trend. According to data from the FBI, there were only 28 bank robberies in Arkansas in both 2010 and 2011, the lowest level in a decade. That number is down from a high of 58 in 2007. Data for 2012 is not yet available.

It was the shooting death of Metropolitan National Bank teller Jim Garison, 25, on Dec. 23, 2006, in Little Rock that spurred the reward program, as well as some added security measures that are now more common in the state.

The reward program is Arkansas’ first statewide bank robber reward program since the 1930s or ‘40s, said Bill Holmes, president and CEO of the Arkansas Bankers Association.

Further, the no hats or sunglasses requirement “keeps our people more aware,” Holmes said.

Bank representatives were reluctant to give specifics on security improvements and where they’ve been implemented, as a safety precaution.

However, Jeff Walker, a former federal agent with the Department of Defense, said banks now much more often hire armed, off-duty police officers as security guards than they did 10 years ago. Walker is the chairman of the department of criminal justice at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Walker didn’t cite the growing use of off-duty police officers in banks as a direct result of Garison’s shooting. But he said he’s seen the practice more widely in recent years as Arkansas banks have had time to see officers’ success as a better crime deterrent than private armed or unarmed security guards. Both research and his own observations show that off-duty officers are better deterrents, Walker said.

In addition, security technology like alarm systems and surveillance cameras has improved over time.

“Everything that has a camera on it is starting to improve,” Walker said. Recent innovations in camera phones exemplify the trend, he said. That “technology spreads out” into other sectors, he said.

“Technology in just about every field has been upgraded and improved almost progressively,” said Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas. “There’s new software being generated. … Systems are constantly upgraded. … Specifically how businesses apply those, that’s unique to the individual business model. But the technology is much better than it was five years ago.”

Last month, the robbers’ bare faces, captured clearly on surveillance video at the Centennial branch at 520 S. Bowman Road, were easily shared digitally among law enforcement agencies, banks, robber tracking websites and the media.

Clear pictures taken from surveillance videos that can be disseminated quickly by email result in more rapid identification and arrests of robbers, Thomas said.

The Centennial Bank robbers of last month hadn’t been caught as of Thursday, but the quick sharing of surveillance photos has resulted at times in almost immediate arrests, he said.

“One particular situation I can recall, we were almost at the suspect’s house almost as fast as he was, after the robbery,” Thomas said. “We were there just almost as he was closing the door.”

Last summer, a branch of Citizens Bank in Imboden (Lawrence County) was robbed, but “a suspect was apprehended within minutes of fleeing the bank,” President and CEO John Dews said in an email.

Bank robbery is a federal crime, and local law enforcement works with the FBI to apprehend bank robbers.

The Whys

The reasons that robbers still target banks, despite their low success rates, vary.

“There is always going to be someone who’s desperate for what they think is fast, easy access to cash,” said Holmes, with the ABA. “Unemployment’s high; the economy’s tough.”

Lisa Nesbitt, president of the state’s Bankers Security Council, said types of bank robbers and their motivations differ.

“There’s more bank robberies when the economy’s bad. It’s still that way. For awhile there, we were seeing a different kind of bank robber [nationally],” Nesbitt said.

“Some of them just were family men who were just desperate to get enough cash to make their mortgage payment. ... It’s more of a nonviolent crime, normally. Usually someone trying to buy drugs.”

Banks tend to be easily accessible from major roads and look like they can be entered and exited fast enough for a successful escape, Thomas said, but the reality is that banks are extremely secure, with cameras outside that catch footage of escape vehicles and more.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of things in the world that happen because people didn’t think through the consequences,” Thomas said. “We’ve seen people who’ve barely scratched out a note to more sophisticated operations. ‘I want the money’ is the motivation. … You just never know what’s going to impact an individual to walk in with a note or otherwise and demand money.”

‘In the Hands of God’

Garison’s shooting at Metropolitan was the “first one in memory” of a teller during an Arkansas bank robbery, Holmes said. Garison’s killer, Grover Evans, was convicted of capital murder and is serving a life sentence.

“It was a tragic incident that we all will never forget. It left a tremendous sadness throughout our bank family, both with our employees and our customers,” said Susie Smith, senior executive vice president with Metropolitan National Bank.

Metropolitan trains its staff in how to respond to threats, and “any new technologies that are developed are embraced and implemented. We’re always vigilant,” Smith said.

Banks can’t necessarily prevent robberies, but they can always improve how well they respond to them and can work to protect customers and employees, Holmes said.

“We’ve gone a long way to educate bank employees, what steps to take,” Holmes said.

“Technology has improved security measures in every bank.”

The trouble, Chief Thomas said, is that banks must find a balance between employee safety and public accessibility.

“When you have someone who is intent on harming people, you can prepare as best as ever, but sometimes bad things do happen,” Smith said. “You’re literally in the hands of God.”