11/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

An Antidote for Bank Robbery

Have you gone into a bank lately and noticed anything different?

During my recent travels I noticed a bank in Albuquerque invited me, via a sign on the door, to "Please remove your sunglasses so we can smile at you!" At a bank in Los Angeles I was greeted by not one but three employees who looked me directly in the eye and chanted a hearty, "Good afternoon!" Maybe you have noticed how suddenly friendly and accommodating your bank staff has become.

Why is that? Have banks suddenly realized that to engage the unfamiliar customer might be a good way of thwarting robberies?

Willie Sutton once famously and matter-of-factly said he robbed banks because "that's where the money is!" He might have been the first to realize that tellers and their stashes of cash were sitting ducks.

In these times of economic hardship, as the nation's unemployment rate hovers at a 26 year high, I wondered what the rate of bank robberies is these days.

Actually, despite our dire economic situation, the latest FBI figures show a slight decline in bank holdups nationwide. But there are still regions of the country experiencing a boom in bank robberies.

In Colorado, for example, the feds just rounded up Michael Alan Kincade and Christopher Lee Richardson who are suspected of robbing as many as 17 banks in four states. They're now in custody and facing up to 20 years in prison. The FBI gave Kincade the nickname "Shaggy Bandit" after surveillance tape from the scene of the crimes showed he looked like the character Shaggy from the Scooby-Doo cartoons. Now that Shaggy and his cohort are behind bars, officials believe the spike in Rocky Mountain area bank robberies will go way down.

Bank robbers are often repeat offenders. And why wouldn't they be? All banks have a policy (based on advice from the FBI) for employees not to resist a robbery attempt, rather, to simply hand over cash and not make a fuss while the crime is being committed. To do otherwise, security experts have long preached, could provoke violence and leave innocent customers, employees and bystanders injured or dead.

A victimized teller's only weapon has been the silent alarm (after activation the criminal is usually long gone before help arrives) or a well placed exploding dye pack in amongst the cash. Neither is designed to stop a robbery - only to make the getaway more difficult. Banks have long been sitting ducks for anyone with enough guts to walk in and demand money via a passed note or at gunpoint.

Imagine the surprise, then, of the bank robber who entered a branch of Seattle's Key Bank back in July. He probably thought it was going to be an easy score. But when he demanded his bag be filled with money ("This is a ransom," he inexpertly declared), the teller sensed a neophyte. Bank employee Jim Nicholson tossed the bag on the floor, jumped the counter and chased the man out the door and down the street. Nicholson and a bystander held the suspect, who had a record of convictions for theft and robbery, until police arrived to take him into custody. What a hero that Nicholson was - right? Nope, not in the eyes of Key Bank. Nicholson was fired for acting on his instincts. His response was definitely not typical.

It's strange to me that banks would have clung to their do-nothing policy for so many years. That attitude almost certainly insured a robber would escape to rob again. As Larry Carr, Special Agent with the Seattle Office of the FBI put it, "Every bank robbery is every bank's problem."

With that in mind Agent Carr joined with Washington state law enforcement a couple years ago to design a new way of dealing with potential bank robbers. It's called SafeCatch and it's been described as "customer service on steroids." The idea is spreading nationwide.

Ahhh. So that's what I've been experiencing. Tellers have suddenly become pro-active!

Instead of standing behind the counter hoping the strange looking customer who just walked in the door isn't there to rob the place, bank tellers trained in SafeCatch techniques approach and engage. They introduce themselves, ask the person's name, offer to help with any transaction they might need and continue the face to face contact throughout the person's stay. This disarming attention has been cited for the 50% reduction in the number of bank robberies in Washington state.

If you're a regular customer this one-on-one consideration is a welcome development. If you're teetering on the brink of committing a bank robbery the personal attention may make you simply slink away. You wouldn't shoplift an apple if the store clerk was watching would you?

Gee, customer service as a crime fighting tool. Who would'a thunk it?

Diane Dimond can be reached via her web site at