Robbery Response: Training Is the Key
By Pamela M. Green
Hey, you’re the man with the gun – you get what you want. How many people do you know have had an occasion to think these words as someone pointed a gun at them? Marilyn Hopkins has – not once but twice. Now an officer at Sanford Institution for Savings, she managed the Buxton office of Casco Bank in 1987 when that branch was robbed three times in 22 months. She was present for two of the three robberies. Eighteen years later, she can talk freely about the two robberies and even finds humor in some of the details, but she admits that eight bank robberies in Maine over the last couple of months is tremendously unsettling for her.
In fact, eight bank robberies is unsettling for everyone in a state that prides itself on being several steps removed from the crime of the metropolitan areas. The string of robberies has prompted both law enforcement agencies and banks to institute major cooperative efforts to share information and solve these crimes.
Sign of the Times
Kelley Madore of Kennebec Savings Bank, who chairs the MACB Security Committee, notes that these robberies in Southern Maine make everyone nervous because they may be the work of “outsiders,” possibly working together, and possibly desperate. She notes that robberies she sees in other parts of the state are often committed by local people, sometimes younger people, without weapons. Given the escalation of drug use and corresponding crime, she worries that the recent string of robberies is a sign of changing times.
Jere Armstrong, Bank of America’s senior investigator and chair of the MBA Security Committee, echoes Madore’s concerns in wondering how desperate these robbers might be. He believes the robberies are the work of three or four perpetrators who may have hit more than one bank, but doesn’t see them as a crime wave. “Drugs are the motivation in 70-75 percent of robberies,” he says. “People committing robberies for drug money have a short-term goal – their next high.”
Drugs seem to be a common denominator in many robberies. “Given the fact that you’re facing four to six years of federal time – 10 years if a firearm is involved – a person has to be pretty motivated to rob a bank,” observes Lt. Brian McDonough of the Criminal Division of the Maine State Police, who views robbers of banks and pharmacies as brazen people often motivated by drugs. McDonough is pleased that so far there have been no physical injuries of bank employees or customers. “This means banks are doing the right thing in their training. They should continue what they’re doing.”
Banks and law enforcement agencies agree that proper training is the best insurance against tragic consequences in bank robberies. The more training banks do, the more likely tellers will be able to follow the correct procedures to ensure safety and minimize losses.
Kate Carney, Gorham Savings’ security officer, can attest to the benefits of training after two of her branches were robbed in a week’s time. The bank had gone a long time without a robbery and she feared employees might have a “can’t happen to us” attitude. But the security training kicked in when it had to. “The employees responded pretty darn well,” she said. “But after the first robbery we realized we’re not immune and decided to take a look at our procedures.”
The Emotional Aftermath
Training and retraining of robbery procedures has long been a standard practice for banks. It focuses largely on the physical aspects of the crime: bait money, securing the premises, presenting eyewitness accounts and preserving the crime scene. To be really effective, however, robbery training must incorporate still another less tangible aspect: an understanding of the emotional aftermath of a robbery.
“If people understand these emotions are normal beforehand, they’ll do better afterward,” says Armstrong. Dealing with the emotional trauma of a robbery has become a standard part of banks’ post-robbery procedures, and effective professional counseling is key to helping employees and customers deal with the roller coaster of emotions that follow a robbery. Marilyn Hopkins credits Casco Bank’s post-robbery assistance to a 95 percent recovery from the trauma of two robberies – and to her ability to remain in banking.
Heather Putnam, Victim Witness Coordinator for the U.S. Attorney's Office, has observed the psychological effects of trauma. “A robbery is such an abnormal event that it feels surreal while it’s happening. You can’t believe it. Your mind goes into flight-or-fight mode to take you through the event. But afterward, you need to understand that it’s the event that was abnormal, not your reaction to it.” The normal reaction to an abnormal event is often an inability to sleep, to stop thinking about it, or to feel safe, even at home. Some victims can be doing well until a smell, a movement or a sound will trigger the memory of the whole traumatic event. Marilyn Hopkins knows about triggers. Nearly 20 years after she was robbed, she cannot remain in the same room where a television is showing a robbery scene, so strongly does it conjure up traumatic memories for her.
Robbery training should emphasize that it is normal for victims of trauma to be unable to get the incident off their minds. “When the traumatic moment involves a gun pointed at your head or the head of a coworker, it’s the last thing you want to think about – but it’s all you can think about,” says Putnam. “Because it’s an abnormal occurrence, the brain doesn’t know exactly where to store this event. It bounces around until eventually the brain finds a place for it. But while it’s bouncing around with nowhere to go, you can’t stop thinking about it.”
Bank employees not directly involved in a robbery can also suffer. Coworkers who may have stepped away from the lobby or were scheduled to come in later will often feel traumatized by the event. Even employees whose bank has never been hit can feel like sitting ducks and need reassurance that the training they’ve received will come to their aid if a robbery occurs.
Friends, coworkers and loved ones are also affected by a robbery, needing to make sure the victim is safe and sometimes asking the victim to tell and retell the story. They may say things that lack sensitivity or make the robbery victim feel discounted or disbelieved. According to BankersOnline.com, questions such as “Was it scary,” “I see you made it,” and “You should work somewhere else” are examples of “secondary wounding” and should be avoided. While it is important to inquire about the victim’s safety and well-being, specific questions about the incident should be avoided unless the victim brings it up.
Humor Is the Best Medicine
Cumberland County Jail Chaplain Jeff McIlwain was called in to talk with victims after a recent bank robbery, and the security officer at the bank was delighted to hear peals of laughter coming out of the room as they talked. “When I talk with trauma victims, I tell them things I’ve been through,” he said. “It helps them relate, gets the ball rolling. Once they start talking and feeling comfortable, they can share things. Laughter is the best healer.”
Marilyn Hopkins agrees on the therapeutic effect of humor, pointing out that in times of emotional trauma, laughter and tears are often not far apart. After the first robbery in which she was involved, the branch staff were able to laugh together over a rather humorous turn of events. The robber, a young male displaying a weapon, demanded money from the cash drawers. The tellers complied. He placed everything in a trash bag. Then he spotted some deposit bags that held proceeds from a school lunch program. These were large, round, full bags that, unfortunately for the robber, contained mostly coin. He demanded those as well, stuffing them into his trash bag. He told everyone to lie flat on the floor on their stomachs. Hopkins, who was seven-and-a-half-months pregnant, complied, arms and legs splayed, trying to look as flat as possible. The robber turned to go and, as he reached the vestibule between the inner and outer doors, the bottom fell out of his by now overtaxed trash bag, spilling bills and coins all over the floor and out the door. He scooped up what he could manage and dashed off to his getaway car. During group sessions later, the staff laughed and cried simultaneously as they joked about trash bags and pregnant ladies on the floor, joking that the robber should have used Hefty Trash Bags, citing a television commercial that year that featured actor Dom DeLuise.
Jere Armstrong, in his many years as a security officer, has seen robbers “do lots of stupid things that make you laugh about it afterward.” He recalled a robbery in one small town where the tellers were all acquainted with the robber. After he left the lobby, they called and told the police who had just robbed the bank. The police, who also knew the individual, arrested him shortly after as he walked along the road carrying his packet of stolen money.
The recent rash of robberies seems to have revived a major tenet of security training: the importance of being vigilant. Kate Carney says that the second robbery at Gorham Savings put people on edge, but gave everyone a heightened awareness that was good. “They’re now questioning things on their own. Asking what-ifs. Putting thought into the training, rather than simply signing off on it.” Banks report that branch staff are looking at issues that could be fixed instead of making the “always been this way” or “never been a problem before” assumption.
Vigilance played a large role in the second robbery in which Marilyn Hopkins was involved. A female bank customer had been in the manager’s office a couple of times, ostensibly applying for a home equity loan. Her real purpose had been to survey the layout of the branch. (Robbers are observant, too.) The manager’s office had a view of a short hallway toward the vault where the tellers went to get cash. There was a drawer in that area that looked like a safe deposit box, but it held overflow cash that the tellers accessed periodically during the day. On the day of the robbery, a man and woman in snowmobile suits and ski masks demanded cash from the teller line and then the man insisted on going into the vault. When Hopkins told him the vault was on a timer, he pointed to the overflow cash drawer and said he wanted the money in there. Since the drawer looked like the other safe deposit boxes, she was surprised that he knew what it contained. Later when the robbers’ identity became known, she remembered the female robber’s visits to the manager’s office. In the end, it was the vigilance of a bank customer that helped solve the robbery. As the customer approached the bank, she could see the robbery taking place through the window. She walked around the corner of the building, wrote down the license number of the getaway vehicle and got back in her car. After the police arrived, she returned and gave them the information. The perpetrators were picked up an hour-and-a-half later near Bridgton.
At a robbery round table for bank security officers sponsored by MACB in January, banks reported that branch staff are more aware of what’s going on in the lobbies, making sure to greet customers and taking closer notice of people walking through the door. They notice people in parking lots and customers who come in and leave without doing anything. No one takes these things lightly.
The “meet and greet” style is a simple and effective deterrent to crime. Bank of America posts an employee in the lobby to greet every customer who enters, directing them to open tellers, new accounts, and sometimes even taking simple deposits. “Some may consider it in-your-face,” says Jere Armstrong, “but the worst thing a bank can do is be indifferent to people coming through the door.”
Law Enforcement At a forum for law enforcement held recently, police were generally happy with the way banks handle robberies. They cite good training as the key to minimizing losses and violence. Fine-tuning of training never stops. Robert Schwartz of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association says that, until that bank has tested its policies and procedures in a real robbery, it will never know how well they will work. He recommends that banks that have been robbed sit down and adjust their policies afterward.
The criminal justice system can seem overwhelming and confusing to victims, but there are resources to help victims navigate. The federal Justice for All Act passed in October 2004 requires the U.S. Attorney to provide timely and accurate notification of all public proceedings in the prosecution of a case. In the event of a bank robbery, the U.S. Attorney makes sure all customers and involved bank employees get information on what is happening at each step of the criminal justice ladder. Victim impact statements also allow victims to tell the court how the crime affected their life. (See page 19 for more infomation.)
Lt. McDonough feels better knowing seven people have been arrested for the recent robberies, but not all are solved yet. Banks remain anxious to find out if the robberies are connected, and employees always want to know when criminals have been apprehended. Robert Schwartz points out that it’s just a matter of time before someone recognizes someone. “Robbers get away with it once and think it’s easy, so they do it again. And maybe again. But eventually they think it’s routine and they slip up.” The Most Wanted in Maine Web site (www.mainemostwanted.com) features a section showing photos of bank robbers, the nature of the crime and which have been apprehended.
Kate Carney is philosophical about the robberies at Gorham. “Short of locking our doors, we can’t guarantee it won’t happen again,” she says. Kelly Madore of Kennebec Savings has a similar view. “You can’t stop it. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. We just have to be as prepared as we can be so nobody panics. That’s why you keep doing the training – over and over again.”