BANK ROBERRY used to be an art -- or at least more of an art than it is now. Willie (The Actor) Sutton made a fortune at it (and spent a good many years in jail). The James Brothers, Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were all felons of the first order. But the prestige of this crime, as well as the bravado required to commit it, isn't what it used to be.Almost anyone can try to rob a bank now, it seems, almost anytime, anywhere .
The FBI says that 2,713 banks were robbed in the first six months of the year -- about 18 a day. And the rate is going up. New York City reported 13 bank robberies on July 27, and Los Angeles countered with 15 on one day two weeks later. The old pros would know in a minute that nobody is getting rich when so much business is being done.
The average robber these days, who, according to police, is in his 20s, unemployed and acting alone, and often without a visible weapon, gets away with less than $1,000. And (fortunately) he most likely gets arrested within a fews days. Willie Sutton would be appalled. He planned his robberies in intricate detail, won his nickname through the elaborate disguises he created, and once said he netted about $2 million in fewer than 100 attempts.
Why the differences? For one thing, banks are easier to rob than they once were. Small branch banks have been designed with an open atmosphere to help attract customers. The same atmosphere attracts robbers. These banks, located for their customers' convenience near subway stops or superhighway entrances, have become as attractive targets as liquor stores or mom-and-pop operations. They may even be safer targets: Few bank employees shoot it out with robbers, but there is always a chance a small entrepreneur will.
The standard devices banks have used to discourage robberies haven't been effective. Hidden warning systems and cameras that seem to catch the image of almost every robber do not seem to keep the criminals away. Nor does the fact that most tellers no longer have large sums of money at their disposal.
Thus, it is not surprising that the Chase Manhattan Bank, which has been a victim repeatedly this year, has just signed a contract for what is supposed to be the "most sophisticated electronic security system" yet devised. Maybe the new wave of electronic experts will find a way to combat the new wave of bank-robbing amateurs. Otherwise, it means back to the cages for tellers and the installation of bulletproof glass in those otherwise airy offices -- until the computers do away with real money transactions altogether.