Bank dress code could help deter robbers

The man who whipped out a gun and held up Chase Bank in Troy earlier this month could have come out of Central Casting. He was wearing the bank robber’s uniform: a billed cap and shades, as well as a mustache.

“If you see a guy (in a bank lobby) with a baseball cap, dark glasses and a mustache (or) beard, it’s probably a bank robber, not a customer,” said Lt. Larry Faulkner of the Dayton Police Department. Faulker said the disguise is so common, he advises tellers to call the police if they simply see a man dressed in that manner waiting in line.

The FBI and police nationwide are advising banks to adopt a policy of “no hats, no hoods, no sunglasses, no cell phones” to head off robberies. More banks are doing so, but in some cases the idea is pitting police against bankers concerned about alienating law-abiding customers.

Bank robberies have declined over the years, said Special Agent Harry Trombitas of the FBI’s Columbus office, but the numbers could be even lower if more banks had the “no hats” policy.

“I’m not aware of any bank or credit union who have gone to that who have been robbed,” he said.

But Chase Bank spokeswoman Nancy Norris said Chase doesn’t use the policy in any of its markets because “we think it is too difficult to apply fairly and without discrimination to all our customers.” Some people may wear head coverings for religious reasons, or sunglasses because of a vision problem.

“We would like to reduce bank robberies, as well,” Norris said. “I can say our people are well trained and observant in what’s going on in a branch.”

The no-hat policy strips would-be robbers of their disguises, making them more identifiable to witnesses and on security-camera footage. Robbers use cell phones to cover their faces, to take photos to case the bank layout and to communicate with accomplices.

Trombitas said 90 percent of bank robbers use the hats/hoods/sunglasses disguise. They like to blend in with other customers until they reach the teller window, where they display a robbery note or a gun.

“He knows we’re going to get a great picture of his ball cap as he’s waiting in line,” Trombitas said.

The no-hat policy “forces them to make a decision,” he said. If the robber complies, he becomes more identifiable. If he doesn’t, “he’s now the rule breaker. Everybody’s looking at him, which is exactly what he doesn’t want.”

A number of local financial institutions, including Liberty Bank and Triangle Credit Union, have used the policy for a year or more. In recent weeks, National City Bank’s area branches have adopted parent PNC’s no-hat policy.

“We believe it makes good sense for our customers and our employees,” said PNC spokesman Fred Solomon. “We recognize that not every customer who comes through the door with a hat or sunglasses on is a security threat. (But) it helps to discourage people who have intentions to rob the facility.”

Fifth Third Bank has considered the policy, but hasn’t implemented it. “The greatest challenge is how do you enforce that?” said spokeswoman Lea Ann Stevenson. “When Grandma comes in with sunglasses after her cataract surgery, do you make her take them off?” Also, bank officials worry about their employees confronting possible robbers to enforce the dress code, she said.

No hats doesn’t guarantee no robberies. But the Missouri Credit Union Association said bank robberies fell from 125 in the 12 months before the state began pushing the policy in May 2003 to 70 in the 12 months ending in May 2006.

FBI bank robbery statistics for the nation and Ohio have been bumping up and down in recent years, but generally are trending downward. In 2008, the U.S. had 6,700 bank robberies, 277 of them in Ohio. That was up slightly from 2007, but down from 2003-2006.

Robbers are overwhelmingly male and disproportionately black. Injuries occurred in only 123 of 2008’s robberies, and 17 of the 21 people killed were suspects. Guns were used in fewer than one in four cases.

Trombitas said the economy isn’t a factor in the statistics. “Our subjects are typically drug abusers who can’t hold a job in any economy. We don’t see good, honest citizens who lose their jobs turning into Bonnie and Clyde.”

In central Ohio, there are around half as many bank robberies nowadays as there were in 1993, he said. He credited better security measures by banks and credit unions and improved technology. When Trombitas joined the FBI in 1983, it would take a week or two to develop security camera film, and the images typically were of poor quality. Nowadays, a bank can send a high-quality suspect photo to his Blackberry while he’s driving to the robbery scene, and it can be immediately forwarded to news media.

Penalties for armed bank robbery are stiff, while the average robbery nets less than $3,000. Most banks are federally insured for losses.

In Westerville, north of Columbus, police are giving banks $4 window clings that display the department badge and tell customers that the police request that they not wear hats, hoods or sunglasses. “It takes the burden off of the bank — it’s not the bank, it’s the police asking you to do it,” said Carrie Ryan, a Westerville police crime prevention specialist.

She said some bankers “feel like they’re going to offend their customers” by enacting the policy, but “we’ve found it to be the total opposite,” with customers wondering why their banks aren’t using the policy.

Dayton Lt. Faulkner said he has encountered mixed results in getting banks to outlaw hats, hoods, sunglasses and cell phones, but he thinks the idea is gaining momentum.

“They’re a little bit reluctant, but I think the tide is on our side,” he said. “I think eventually all of them will go that way.”

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