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Narcotics Use a Major Factor : L.A. Again Bank Robbery Capital of U.S.

From United Press International

Career criminals, narcotics and a large number of branch banks make a potent combination, one that has turned the Los Angeles area into the bank robbery capital of the nation.

Although the number of bank robberies has declined by 40% over the last two years and many of the bandits are behind bars, Southern California still leads the nation in stickups.

The FBI estimates an average of five bank robberies will take place each bank workday in 1985.

Two years ago, area banks accounted for 1,857 holdups, or nearly one out of three such crimes nationwide. In 1984, the number declined to 1,453, or about one in four. This year is expected to end at about 1,100, or one in five.

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Three Times More Than N.Y.

The figure for 1985 is still nearly three times the number of such crimes committed in the state of New York, which ranks second behind California.

“Our main problem here in Los Angeles is the repeat, or serial type bandit, the one who does it over and over,” said William J. Rehder, the FBI special agent in charge of bank robbery investigations in the Los Angeles division.

Combine that with drug addiction and “you’ve got a major problem,” Rehder said, adding that 70% to 80% of those arrested were narcotics addicts of one type or another.

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Rehder said the typical bank robber has been convicted of a felony at least once. “They are career criminals and will generally continue robbing banks until caught,” he said, noting that most bandits commit five to six holdups before they are arrested.

Drugs, Money, Drugs

“It’s a vicious cycle. The money they get from robbing banks goes to feed their habit, which gives them a bigger habit, which means they need more money.”

Rehder said the area’s decline in robberies was the result of a series of arrests made just before the 1984 Olympic Games.

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“We had very few bandits left at the end of the games,” Rehder said. “It really hasn’t gotten back on track yet from the period when we made those arrests.”

That, however, may change in the future, Rehder said. “When they come out of prison, I suspect the figures will begin to bulge again,” he said.

‘Note Passers’

Most of those who rob banks are “note passers,” said Ronald Lovitt, vice president of security for Security Pacific National Bank.

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Lovitt said Security Pacific branches were robbed 240 times last year, but no injuries were reported. Note passers, he said, usually present the teller with a piece of paper saying they have a gun, but they rarely brandish a weapon.

Rehder said films from bank surveillance cameras show that robbers usually carry a gun but prefer to keep it out of sight.

“They usually don’t show it because they will have an additional five years added to their sentences for committing a robbery with a weapon,” he said.

Wealth of Opportunity

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Rehder said the large number of bank branches in the seven-county FBI district--3,000 in all--gives a robber a wealth of opportunity.

The modern bank robber, especially in a place like Los Angeles with its sprawling freeway network, tends to jump around a lot, Rehder said. They may pull a heist in Santa Monica and then move out to the San Fernando Valley.

Rehder said the ease of travel, drugs and the mushrooming of branch banks have all contributed to the dramatic increase of bank robberies nationwide. The number of robberies have grown from about 2,500 a year in the early 1970s, to an average of about 6,000 today.

He said the increased use of bulletproof plexiglass shields separating tellers and customers, more armed security guards, the trend toward using automated tellers, and the consolidation of smaller branches into larger area branches have all contributed to the decline of robberies in the area under his jurisdiction.

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Cameras Prove Helpful

Surveillance cameras, mandatory in all banks since 1968, and the new FBI computerized crime network have also helped law enforcement to combat bank robbers, Rehder said.

Considering that the take from bank robberies is so small, about $2,300 on the average, and the risk of getting caught is so high, the FBI says they solve 80% to 85% of all such crimes, it’s hard to understand why anyone would even think of robbing a bank.

Rehder, however, sees no mystery.

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It’s kind of like the story of the legendary bank robber, Willy Sutton, Rehder said. “Willy said: ‘If you want groceries, you go to the supermarket, and if you want money, you go to the bank.’ ”


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