Spate of robberies push banks toward controlled access

It was a call no manager wants to get. Two men armed with semi-automatic weapons had taken over the bank, then made their escape in a small black car. It was a Saturday morning and Russ Henning, vice president and manager of Cornerstone Bank’s branch in Murray, Neb., had just returned from vacation. “It was pretty traumatic for the ones who were involved,” Henning said. Bank employees who weren’t working on Saturday were shaken too. They knew it could have been them. “It was pretty frightening.”

With four decades in banking, this was Henning’s first bank robbery. The bank brought in counselors for the staff and gave those who felt they needed time off to recover the opportunity to do so. Employee turnover after a bank robbery can be high; however, not a single person on Henning’s team resigned. The bank did tweak some internal policies as a result. Most notably, perhaps, was a change to how customers access the building. The bank in Murray now keeps its lobby doors locked during business hours. They aren’t alone.

In the last several years, there has been a significant increase in bank robberies in the larger metropolitan areas in Nebraska. In Lincoln, a city of 258,000, there were just 13 robberies between 2011 and 2015. But in 2016 there were seven and in 2017 there were 11.

“In 2016 and 2017, we had a group of people active in the Lincoln area” responsible for most of the robberies, according to a spokesperson for the Lincoln Police Department. Those in that group have all been caught. So far in 2018 in Lincoln, there have only been four bank robberies, including one attempt thwarted by controlled access.

Omaha has gotten hit harder. The Associated Press reported in May 2017 that law enforcement was “particularly concerned about the violent nature of recent bank robberies around Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa.” Robbers come in waving guns and shouting; they jump the counter and head for the vault. Between January 2016 and May 2017, there were 11 unarmed bank robberies and 42 armed bank robberies in the area. Of those armed robberies, investigators said there are enough similarities to believe that 33 were related and had connections to street gangs.

Increasingly, banks in areas affected by these crimes have started to lock their lobby doors during business hours; robbers have responded by moving their nefarious activities to surrounding communities.

Mike Burke

“Banks are pretty soft targets” when it comes to things like robbery, said Mike Burke, a robbery crisis management consultant at SHAZAM in Johnston, Iowa. You’ve “got to harden that target,” he said. “I’ve recommended lobbies being locked down because of criminal activity near them.

“Banks’ initial knee-jerk reaction is ‘we’re not doing that, we’re not putting our customers through that,’” Burke said, but “it’s not crazy. People get used to it. It’s not really an inconvenience. It’s absolutely a deterrent if someone has to buzz in.”

Utilizing controlled access to bank lobbies has stopped at least one robbery in Lincoln when two suspects, one wearing a poncho and surgical mask, left after encountering a locked lobby.

News of at least one bank robbery a week became common, and then the robberies started spreading into smaller towns. Adams State Bank in Adams, Neb., is about 30 miles south of Lincoln yet close to highways. It also cashes a lot of out-of-town checks, resulting in significant foot traffic. The century-old bank preemptively decided to begin locking its lobby doors.

The one-office, $49.6 million bank installed controlled access to its lobby in August 2017 at a cost of about $11,000. “Last summer, there really was a high number of bank robberies in Nebraska,” said Jenny Lempka, director of marketing. “A lot of those burglaries were taking place during regular business hours. It became scary for those of us who feel we’re in the middle of nowhere,” Lempka said.

Another consideration, Lempka explained, is that seven of its 10 employees are related. “If someone was to come in here, and an unfortunate situation [unfolded], that would be a pretty big hit to our family tree,” she said.

So the safety discussions began. The local school had already implemented controlled access so the bank took the plunge. “[We] gave our community a ton of notice, and we haven’t looked back,” Lempka said.

Implementing the new policy required a learning curve but the feedback has been positive, Lempka said. “Everybody feels a bit more secure. I think even the customers feel more secure.” Foot traffic has decreased as more customers opt to use the drive through or bank online.

Jenny Lempka

After the robbery in Murray, Cornerstone Bank evaluated each of its 40 locations and implemented controlled access in four of them. The decision came down to the branches’ proximity to law enforcement and the interstate. The FBI had been explicit in its inability to reach some banks because of distance.

Signage explained the new system. When customers want to gain access to the bank during business hours, they approach a camera by the front entrance. If the staff knows them, they can immediately unlock or “buzz” the customer in. If the person requesting entry is “someone we don’t know, we’ll ask them what their business is and ask to see ID,” Henning said. The bank won’t give access to someone wearing a hoodie.

“No system is foolproof, but I think it’s a pretty good deterrent. If it’s a bad person, they know a picture is being taken of them,” Henning said.

The overall customer reaction has been positive. Customers and staff alike have adopted the attitude that anything that protects people is an improvement. Even when customers are inside the bank, they don’t open the lobby door for approaching customers but instead let bank staff take care of it, Henning explained.

When offering threat assessment services to banks, Burke said he looks at criminal activity in the area, such as drug arrests occurring within two miles of the bank. In addition to locking lobbies during business hours, Burke suggested other ways to improve a bank’s security:

The “biggest asset in any bank is the employees. If you properly train them to spot something suspicious before anything happens, that’s invaluable,” Burke said.

Strategically place security cameras so they can get a full facial photo instead of placing them in the ceiling where they only record the robber’s head and sunglasses.

Prepare staff for what emotions they’ll go through if a robbery occurs. Explain “what they’ll go through — what they’re going to feel like…just prepare them mentally for that kind of thing,” Burke said.

If a bank robbery does occur, Burke said the FBI has a special victims specialist in every state.

As for Adams State Bank, they’re hoping to avoid anything having to do with a robbery with their vigilance and preparation. “You never want to believe that in a community of 600 people you need to take measures like [controlled access],” Lempka said. “It really was a great decision. I would highly recommend that to any bank considering it.”