Is it easier to rob a bank than a convenience store?

Sunday, February 21, 2010 at 11:45pm

Recent commercial robbery location No. 1: Kangaroo Express at 198 Haywood Lane.

Kangaroo Express — presumably named so because fast-moving kangaroos are in too much of a hurry to make separate stops for gas, lottery tickets, beer, weird ammonia smell, a clerk who passes out her acquired wisdom in short bursts of well-intentioned yelling, and fried chicken — looks like a paranoid kind of place.

Take a quick visual sweep of the inside and you’ll note at least two cameras, a closed circuit TV facing the cash register and a half-sphere security mirror right above the easy-to-steal candy. Outside: cameras affixed to the red-yellow-gold roof structures connecting the pumps, one affixed to the building facing the parking lot, one at the Dumpster. None of this is atypical or new, of course. By some standards, the paranoia here is lax. Kangaroo doesn’t even employ bulletproof glass, now nearly ubiquitous in urban gas stations. Obviously, the idea here is not simply surveillance, nor even omniscient surveillance, but totally conspicuous surveillance. It also gives the distinct impression of constantly lurking crime.

Recent commercial robbery location No. 2: U.S. Bank branch inside Publix, Nippers Corner Shopping Complex

Four miles and tens of thousands of dollars in average property value from Kangaroo is a surprisingly well-appointed Publix grocery store. The shaded-fluorescent lighting scheme is so flattering that it must have been engineered rather than just placed.

A U.S. Bank branch occupies a little nook in the front of the store. Like most banks, it’s a civilized space. The tellers — young and perfectly coiffed — stand behind a faux-wood counter, speaking to customers at a low volume. There are cameras here, but they’re small and hidden behind black plastic globes. It’s designed to feel comfortable, as if there is no need for security.

Certainly, it seems that a place like location No. 1 — a 24-hour roadside gas station — would be a more typical, easier target for robbers than a place like location No. 2, a bank inside a witness-filled grocery store in a semi-upscale shopping complex.

But recent history suggests otherwise.

Bank robberies more than double

Over the past 15 months, this U.S. Bank branch has been the victim of multiple robbery attempts — in December 2008, January 2009 and March 2009. Across the parking lot, a Regions branch was robbed twice in the second half of 2008, and another U.S. Bank inside a Publix was robbed twice in early 2009. All were successful robberies, and none included the use of a weapon. Each robbery was charged to the same guy, Richard Wayne Wilson of Spring Hill, whom police caught in March. Police say he confessed to all seven.

But according to federal court records, Wilson — who had been out of work for two years following an on-the-job injury and had a clean record — took a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, avoiding the maximum sentence of 140 years in federal custody (20 per robbery). He pleaded guilty to three counts of bank robbery and is serving 44 months in federal prison, one year in a halfway house, three years of supervised release, and is paying $12,478.98 in restitution. He must also give an apology note to each of the banks.

The most recent major incident at Kangaroo, on the other hand, was on Feb. 1, when a man with a knife failed to rob the store after the clerk simply refused to comply. The robber, who as of this writing is still at large, made off with a lighter and a Dr. Pepper.

As of the second week of February, still very early in the year, there had already been four bank robberies committed within the jurisdiction of the Metro Nashville Police Department, according to police reports and the FBI. This follows seven in December, including the infamous Dec. 22 job at SunTrust Bank’s 4809 Old Hickory Blvd. branch, committed by a man in a Santa suit. And, of course, Dec. 17, when two suspects allegedly robbed a Wilson Bank & Trust on Donelson Pike at 9:25 a.m., 10 minutes after an exploding dye pack foiled an attempt at U.S. Bank on Murfreesboro Pike. (One of the suspects being charged in federal court, Ronald Edmondson, just a month earlier had been acquitted of two 2008 bank robberies, despite being identified to investigators by his girlfriend.)

Last year saw 33 bank robberies in Metro Nashville, up from 14 the year before, according to data from the FBI.

Which is more successful?

These anecdotes and statistics — more than twice as many bank robberies in 2009 than the year before; criminals perhaps fearing a dye pack less than the potentially shotgun-wielding clerk at a convenience store — do begin to make one wonder about just how difficult it is to pull off a heist. Is a bank robbery — a federal crime investigated by both local police and the FBI, prosecuted in federal court, and subject to federal penalties — in fact, easier than a run-of-the-mill robbing of a store?

It likely depends on whom you work for, as well as what you believe the motivating factor is in committing a robbery.

Isaiah Gant, who works for the Federal Public Defender’s Office and has defended four alleged bank robbers in the past year, including Wilson, said he doesn’t think the comparison is relevant, since most bank robbers aren’t considering those ramifications.

“This is a crime typically committed by very desperate people, people who need money. If they go to a liquor store or a gas station, you’re not sure if they’ll have any money,” Gant said. “You go to a bank, you know they will.”

Or, Metro police spokeswoman Kristin Mumford: “Not speaking as an expert, but just from my personal point of view, it would seem to be about the same. Someone walks in, demands the money, and walks out.”

Finally, there’s Detective Keith Sutherland, a 17-year veteran who works on the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force in Nashville, the unit primarily responsible for investigating bank robberies in the region. He said it’s a tough comparison to make as a result of the disparity in the numbers.

In 2008, the most recent year for which the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s departmental crime data is available, there were 14 bank robberies reported by Metro police out of 483 total commercial robberies. Bigger categories included convenience stores (68), gas stations (68), restaurants (75), and hotels/motels (73). In previous years, there are similar disparities. In 2005, Nashville experienced its highest number of bank holdups in recent memory with 48. That same year, there were 726 total commercial robberies.

A more telling statistic may be the success rate of bank robbers, at least in the initial commission of the crime. According to the TBI and FBI, all of 2008’s 14 bank robberies in Nashville were completed. In 2007, it was 27 out of 30. In contrast, Metro police reported 68 convenience store robberies in 2008, 10 of which were attempted but not completed, 15 out of 89 in 2007. While that may not seem like a huge distinction, police reports tend to indicate that while employee resistance often stops store robberies, it is almost always circumstance that stops bank robberies.

“Obviously, you have to have compliance to have a bank robbery as opposed to an attempted bank robbery, which is a separate charge,” Sutherland said. “I can’t think of any situation off the top of my head where [bank employees] haven’t complied, beyond just not having enough time to comply before a robber became nervous and left.”

That may be due to a common, if rarely uttered, industry practice of training bank clerks not to resist a robbery attempt so as to ensure the safety of the customers and staff. This publication’s inquiries confirming this common-knowledge policy — it made national news last summer when a clerk at a Seattle Key Bank branch was fired for stopping a robbery — were almost universally stonewalled, with bank employees citing the sensitivity of security information. A spokesman for the Bank of Nashville, however, was able to acknowledge that his employer does indeed train its staff to comply. He could not speak for any other bank.

And while the vast majority of convenience store and gas station robbers use weapons (usually guns), the yearly average for weapons use in a bank robbery is usually less than 50 percent. That may be out of fear that some store proprietors — more apt to be employed by local owners or be owners themselves, and thus less subject to corporate policy than bank employees — will defend their property with a gun. But Sutherland said he thinks it’s because these robbers know the law.

“If it’s proven that a weapon was used in a federal crime, it’s an additional charge on top of the robbery. It’s two separate charges,” he said.

Gant doesn’t buy that characterization. Bank robbery, he said, is not typically a crime that involves careful premeditation.

“This is a crime of opportunity,” he said. “Most of the people I’ve defended, it was something that happened over a lunch hour, when they needed money at that specific moment. They don’t know the law. Most of these people are not career bank robbers. They are not people who ever said, ‘I want to grow up to be a bank robber.’ ”

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1 Comment on this post:

By: dargent7 on 2/23/10 at 4:11

Thank God for those "dye packs". Who ever invented those should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and make more off royalities than the Velcro inventor. The Tang guy, too.