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Bank robberies triple in Salt Lake City in two years

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By Michael McFall

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 25 2014 08:38AM
Updated Feb 25, 2014 10:35PM

Salt Lake City police met with bankers to fight back against the recent surge in robberies.

Robbers hit Salt Lake Valley banks and credit unions 70 times last year, a jump from the 26 in2012, according to a Salt Lake City police news release. Utah law enforcement have not seen bank robbery numbers that strong since a decade ago, when robbers hit 76 banks statewide, according to federal statistics.

"The numbers alone don’t tell us why bank robberies are on the rise across the valley," Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said in a statement. On Tuesday, his department invited bankers, the FBI and police detectives to spend several hours at headquarters sharing confidential information, discuss the source of the spike and to come up with some preventive solutions — for the first time in a long while.

The meeting, referred to as the Bank Safety Summit, has been called amid a seemingly persistent high tide. Salt Lake City alone has had 10 bank heists so far this year; this past weekend, robbers hit five in 48 hours. Registration for the summit boomed over the weekend, with about 60 bank representatives signed up by Tuesday morning — outnumbering the investigators in attendance about 3-to-1.

Bank robberies do not necessarily correlate with the economy, Burbank said. The figures seem to back him up. While there was a marked spike in the immediate wake of the Great Recession, the numbers soon died down again from 2009 to at least 2011, according to FBI statistics.

Instead, the majority of bank robbers are trying to finance a drug habit, which adds an underlying social problem to the equation, the chief said. He remarked on incarceration’s ineffectiveness to curb criminals’ drug addictions, but added that the point of the summit is not to address the substance abuse problem — it’s to reduce banks’ vulnerability.

Banks are abundant and easy targets, according to Adam Quirk, special agent to the FBI — which he pointed out has been chasing bank robbers since the heyday of John Dillinger. But the robberies are rarely as dramatic as the movies, including the abundance of Dillinger types, make them look. Often times, a bank robber simply walks in, hands a teller a note demanding money, then leaves with the cash.

Generally speaking, the thrill of that easy success is a possible driving force as well. Police say that if a robber isn’t captured, he or she likely robs again.

"If they get away with it, it’s a rush for them," then-Salt Lake City police Sgt. Jon Richey told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2006. "And it’s lucrative, potentially, and we typically see them repeat their crimes."

Just this weekend, Salt Lake City and Unified police worked together to arrest a man suspected of robbing a US Bank one week, then another location the next.

Chasing down such bank robbers, though, is a "tremendous" drain on the department’s resources, Burbank said — hence the summit’s focus on prevention. But whatever those new strategies look like, Burbank said he would never advise bank tellers to fight back and "risk their lives for money."

The popularity of bank robberies consistently ebbs and flows. There were 130 in 2003 — as far back as online FBI records go — then dipped down to 40 just two years later.

"Typically, when things are going wrong in our local banks, it’s because of something is going wrong in our local communities," said Howard Headlee, president of the Utah Bankers Association. The robberies come in cycles, a trend that Headlee figures is due at least in part to the time it takes for younger criminals to learn from the seasoned ones.

From 2003 to 2011, the state averaged about 53 a year. The FBI has not released figures for 2012 or 2013 yet.

The Bank Safety Summit marks the second time in four months that the Salt Lake City Police Department has hosted a meet-up between experts and law enforcement to curb a troubling trend. In November, the department convened agencies from across the state to discuss the relatively new problem of metal theft.

mmcfall@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mikeypanda

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