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06:59 AM
Paul Doocey
Paul Doocey
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Safety First

A recent spate of bank robberies in the New York City area has made branch safety making the news.

In case it might have slipped your attention, consumers seem awfully concerned about personal safety of late. Trips to China and the Far East (and Toronto for that matter) have been cancelled due to the one in a million chance of contracting SARS. People refuse to visit New York City during periods of high alert for fear of becoming a victim of a terrorist attack.

For better or worse, we have become a fretful nation in a fearful world.

So now is probably not the best time for branch safety to be making the news. Unfortunately, a recent spate of bank robberies in the New York City area has done just that, with both the Daily News and the New York Times writing reports on the trend.

Looking at the stats released by the New York Police Department, I can't blame the papers for devoting a lot of ink to the issue. According to the NYPD, there were 184 bank heists recorded during the first four months of 2003, up from just 65 reported during the same time last year.

The NYPD was even kind enough to provide the number of robberies suffered by each bank, essentially creating a "most likely to be robbed" list. Topping the list were Commerce Bank, Banco Popular, North Fork Bank, Washington Mutual and JP Morgan Chase.

Both New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly were quick to blame the banks for this increase in crime, citing lax security, and hinting that too many banks condone robbery as a cost of maintaining branches in New York City. The NYPD also introduced a 14-point plan for improving bank security, pushing for the installation of closed-circuit cameras and bullet-resistant barriers. Commissioner Kelly added that he would have no problem reporting non-compliant banks to the media.

Oh, where to begin citing the shortcoming with this so-called "plan?" Granted, some of the robberies were likely perpetrated by criminals who noticed lax security, but, as pointed out by the New York Bankers Association (NYBA), most area banks already have the security measures mandated by the plan in place. The NYBA was also quick to denounce any suggestions that banks condoned robbery as part of doing business in the city.

The main problem I have with the city's rhetoric is that is does little to attack the root cause of this increase in crime. I don't think it's a coincidence that the spike in bank robbery coincides with a seven-year high in the unemployment rate. Desperate people do desperate things. Until the economy improves, the number of bank robberies is likely to increase.

To me, blaming the banks seems to be a public relations solution to the robbery problem, an easy out compared to fixing the local economy or, God forbid, blaming the criminals themselves. Unfortunately, given the current environment of fear, this strategy will work. Any entity not perceived as fully supporting public safety will likely suffer economic consequences. So New York banks will have to re-invest in physical security, even if the systems already in place are adequate.

It's not fair. But try telling that to hoteliers in Hong Kong or workers at American Airlines.

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