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Banks, Police Try to Keep One Step Ahead of Robbers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The robbers burst into the Thousand Oaks’ Wells Fargo, guns drawn. After fleeing on a rain-slicked freeway, three suspects were eventually caught and will soon stand trial.

From a bank’s perspective, last Thursday’s robbery went as it should--except for a teller who was pistol-whipped and slightly injured by one of the robbers. Otherwise, tellers cooperated with the thieves. No shots were fired. Bank employees were able to describe the robbers. The police gave chase, and the suspects were nabbed.

So, despite five high-profile bank robberies since the beginning of the year--three of those in Thousand Oaks within a two-week period--banks say they have a lot less reason to worry than ever before about what many consider to be an eventuality in the banking business.

Banks are safer than ever, officials say, in part because of forward-thinking trends in security and an extra focus on training tellers on what to look out for.

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“When we get this many [robberies] in a bunch, we’re looking at it more than usual,” said Jerry Lukiewski, president of American Commercial Bank in Camarillo. “But, not a day goes by that we’re not thinking about it.”

Bullet-resistant shields, rewards and new security devices not often seen outside Southern California have helped push area bank robbery rates down in recent years, despite such incidents as last Wednesday’s robbery.

“It’s just an anomaly right now,” said David Nesbitt, an agent in charge of the FBI’s Ventura office. “Last year, we had 12 total for the year, and that came down steadily from the previous years when we had 50 or 60 [each year].”

Bank officials will be the first to acknowledge that robberies are a given--if terrible--part of doing business.

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“It’s one of our costs. We’re self-insured,” said Kathleen Shilkret, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo. “We’re prepared to have some number of bank robberies.”

Nonetheless, even smaller banks said they have become increasingly sophisticated about warding off bank robbers since the mid-1990s, when suburbia was considered easy pickings by Los Angeles robbers.

Many banks hire full-time security specialists, who are constantly deciding which branches need security upgrades. They decide whether branches need plainclothes security, more cameras or bandit barriers--the bulletproof glass that stands between a teller and a customer.

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The Wells Fargo branch robbed last week, for instance, now has a security guard on duty, bank officials said, though there are no immediate plans for other security upgrades. Officials are often tight-lipped about specific security measures, but Wells Fargo said it has several county branches with bulletproof shields.

“If a bank has a history, there’s an escalating group of things we do,” said Mike Devitt, manager of corporate security at Wells Fargo. “It would have to be at a bank that’s been targeted before, where groups like to come back.”

Some local banks have been experimenting with a system of bullet-resistant double doors, complete with metal detectors, called “mantraps.” If the detectors catch more than one person carrying metal devices, the doors automatically lock, an alarm sounds and the would-be robber is trapped between the two doors.

Banks surveyed would not comment on which branches have such a system, but at least one in Simi Valley and one in Camarillo have them, according to Senior Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Aguirre of the Camarillo substation. Bank of America has experimented with the equipment in Los Angeles, considered the nation’s bank robbery capital.

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While many larger banks have training of their own--sessions are given quarterly at Wells Fargo and Bank of America, officials say--many smaller banks have begun using a relatively new program offered by local police agencies.

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Officers burst into a bank and carry out a takeover robbery complete with unloaded guns, to teach tellers how to identify suspects.

“I knew it was going to happen and it was still a surprise,” said Lukiewski, whose Camarillo bank went through one such mock robbery. “They grill the attendees. ‘What did you see? What was he wearing? What did he look like?’ They teach you to be observant. Be aware. Keep your eyes on the customers.”

Recent robberies have increased demand for such programs, said Senior Deputy Larry Logan, who is setting up one such program at the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department in Thousand Oaks. His office has received several calls from banks concerned about robberies in the last week.

Logan stresses that safety is paramount. Tellers are instructed to give up money without a fuss. If it’s not a takeover robbery and the robber merely passes along a note, “nobody should even know it occurred,” Logan said.

But banks don’t always take such advice.

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“I would say many banks have to do more to increase security than what they’ve done so far,” Logan said.

The bank’s concerns are simple. The security issue is at war with the public image banks want to project. They want customers to feel welcome walking in--not like they’ve stepped into the middle of a demilitarized zone.

“You want to create a warm fuzzy for customers,” said Tony Korounis, president of California Oaks State Bank in Thousand Oaks. “You want them to feel like this is where they want to bank.”

It’s more that just good customer service, the bank president said, it’s paying attention to every person who comes through the door.

“Here, everybody looks up and says hi to you when you walk in,” he said. “Nobody who’s casing a joint wants a couple of people to come up to them and say hello.”

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