October 26, 2006

Keeping the bad guys out of banks

  • Crime deterrent measures include increasing the time a robber spends in the bank and arranging the interior so that someone is always behind the robber.
    The Driftmier Architects


    The M.O. is always the same. The robbers take the money and run, the doors are locked, the police and then the FBI arrive. Fingerprints, statements and video media are taken and the bank branch tries to recover.

    The FBI robbery investigation team and the local police are good at their jobs and eventually the thieves will get caught. However, it may take a few robberies. While there is no way to absolutely prevent robberies from taking place, there are design methods that can be used to deter thieves from attempting to rob the branch.

    The money that is taken in most robberies is usually less than $700 and is seldom recovered. However, the real damage comes from having the branch closed for the rest of the day or longer, staff turnover, difficulty in trusting the next thousand people that come through the door, and the cost of efforts to increase security.

    Photo courtesy of The Driftmier Architects
    A low-mounted camera and an entry monitor, such as at Credit Union Northwest’s Seattle branch, deters potential thieves by showing that the bank already has a photo of them.

    With the small amount of money most robbers get away with, it is a huge risk for a limited payoff. Most bank robbers are not professionals, and they are not necessarily rational. Usually they are desperate, often on drugs, and always scared. Because of this, they make mistakes, and that is where innocent people get hurt.

    Don’t build a fortress

    Often the staff and sometimes the management of the bank or credit union want to respond by building a fortress with bulletproof glass at the teller line and an entry security process similar to the one at the airport. However, the realities of the current market for financial services make that very unlikely to succeed against more open and accessible competition. Most of us don’t want to do business in a prison. Some security can be created by building a fortress, but at the expense of an open and friendly business environment.

    There is a direct conflict between the need for security and the need to address the market.

    When financial institutions decide to make branches more secure, the focus is often on cameras, dye packs and other ways to catch the bad guys the next time. While we support and often recommend these improvements, our Robbery Deterrent Design Program looks at this problem differently. When we are asked to redesign recently robbed facilities, our goal is to deter criminals so there isn’t a next time.

    With the help of current and retired FBI agents, local police and members of the security industry, we are developing a method of designing branch facilities that makes them more difficult to rob, while still leaving them attractive to those who do business there.

    What works

    Because of the nature of this subject, many of the secrets of robbery deterrent design need to remain unpublished and secret. However, there are some general guidelines that have proven successful for many banks and credit unions.

    For deterrent purposes, it is important to increase the time the robber has to spend in the branch, increase surveillance, make some of the surveillance obvious, and arrange the interior so that there is always someone behind the robber.

    Design consideration needs to start outside at the approach to the branch. Not all cameras should be hidden so that anyone entering the branch knows that there is already a picture of their face and probably their car. The teller line needs to be as far from the entry as possible and the arrangement of the space needs to make it impossible to enter or exit without making eye contact with several employees. Additional consideration needs to be given to site planning to create a parking arrangement that slows the getaway.

    One of the unfortunate things about robbery deterrence is it is site specific. It would be nice to deter thieves from robbing anyone. However, that is a societal issue and not a design issue. In this business, the object is to make your branch harder to rob than the branch down the street. If this is obvious to the bad guys, you have decreased your chance of a robbery.

    Stating that you are a bad place to rob actually works. Starbucks credits a dramatic reduction in robberies to a small red stop sign shaped sticker on the entry door of each store. Next time you go to Starbucks read the sticker.

    Learning from observation

    In observing general human behavior, there are several lessons that have aided in the development of our Theft Deterrent Design Program. For one, people usually don’t want to be caught when they are doing something wrong. This is especially true when there is the possibility of spending time in jail. Anyone who is about to do something that they know to be wrong is looking for an easy entry and a quick, clean exit, as well as an environment where they won’t be recognized. They don’t want other people watching them, and they want to spend as little time as possible doing this activity.

    Several years ago, we had a client who operated a branch that had not been robbed in many years. Then they were robbed violently three times in two weeks by different robbers. The average take was about $400 per time and no one was seriously injured. From the films, we learned that the total time the robbers spent in the branch was 78 seconds or an average of 26 seconds per robbery.

    This shows us that, in this case, it was too easy for the thieves to get in, get the money, and get out. In addition, the getaway car was parked on the other side of a fence, so there were no photographs of the car and no one from the branch could see the car before or after the robbery.

    Another client had a standard procedure in place that when a suspicious person entered the branch, four staff members were to position themselves one each at the center of the four lobby walls and watch the person. One time a suspicious subject noticed the extra attention, got visibly nervous, and quickly left the branch. The manager called several nearby banks and credit unions and suggested that they watch out for a person of a certain description. About two hours later, the FBI called the manager and wanted to know how he had known that the branch down the street was going to be robbed.

    A branch that is designed using a theft deterrent model can make a substantial difference in the number of robberies that take place. It is important to remember that design measures can deter, but not eliminate robberies. However, a reduction in the risk of robbery can be significant in the operation, staff turnover and profitability of any business.

    Working with design professionals with a background in robbery deterrent design for commercial, retail and financial facilities can be a serious benefit to the long-term viability of your business.

    Rick Driftmier, AIA, is principal architect of The Driftmier Architects, a regional architectural firm located in Redmond. He has designed more than 350 bank and credit union facilities, in addition to hundreds of office, commercial and government facilities.

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