Bank robberies in Baltimore and Baltimore County were down 72 percent in the first four months of this year, compared with the same period last year -- a drop that bank and law enforcement officials credit to new deterrence devices and increased visibility of guards.
The number of bank robberies dropped from 83 in the first four months of 1997 to 23 this year in Baltimore and Baltimore County, where most of Maryland's bank robberies occurred, according to figures released yesterday by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.
During the same four-month period, 137 bank robberies took place in Maryland last year, compared with 68 this year -- a decline of about 50 percent.
A continued decrease could move Maryland -- the No. 3 state for bank robberies, with 378 in 1996 -- to "somewhere in the upper teens to the low 20s" by the end of this year, said Lt. Larry Leeson, chairman of the Bank Robbery Task Force, a partnership that law enforcement officers statewide and the Maryland Bankers Association launched in January 1997.
The 26-member task force studied bank robbery statistics and deterrence methods across the nation and issued recommendations in June to banks in Maryland on ways to deter robberies, said Paul R. Farragut, executive director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which coordinated the effort.
Farragut said that the task force alerted area bank officials to various security measures available to reduce robberies.
Those measures included increasing the number of security guards, installing better security cameras that show clearer pictures of suspects and sharing information on a central site on the World Wide Web, he said.
"Banks these days are using more guards than they used to because they see the advantages to them," Farragut said.
Bank officials also realized they were getting poor quality pictures of suspects on their security cameras and a number of )) banks invested in better surveillance equipment, he said.
"Some banks have more than one camera aimed at a counter, so that banks can get different angles of the same suspect when a robbery occurs," Farragut said.
One of the most effective devices is an entryway contraption made of steel and bulletproof glass, Leeson said.
He said the "body trap" is a two-door system with a metal detector that customers walk through when they enter the building.
If the metal detector alarm sounds, a second door locks and customers are asked to place metal objects aside and walk through again. The devices are popular on the West Coast and in Philadelphia, Leeson said, where customers approved of the new security measures.
Two downtown Baltimore branches of Signet Bank -- now First Union -- that were robbed six times each in 1996 installed the detectors, Leeson said, and "haven't been robbed since."
The detectors cost about $60,000 each.
But Farragut said they reduced Baltimore's bank robberies by 10 percent.
Some remedies have been simpler and less expensive, Leeson said. Banks were encouraged to thwart a would-be robber's escape by limiting the number of exits. They also trimmed overgrown hedges and trees to cut down on places for robbers to hide, he said.
John B. Bowers, executive vice president of the Maryland Bankers Association, said the cost of deterrence was worth the result.
"Anytime you recognize a potential loss in productivity, and the impact it has on customers and employees," he said, "the cost becomes insignificant.
"Anything to deter bank robbery is a dollar well-spent."
Since August, the association has maintained a Web site at www.mdbankers.com with a link to surveillance-video photos and descriptions of bank robbery suspects in the region and nation.
Five arrests have been made with the help of the Web site, Leeson said.
Pub Date: 5/27/98