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Thread: Small-Time Crooks

  1. #1

    Default Small-Time Crooks

    March 9, 2003

    Small-Time Crooks


    THE Vintage Weapons and Notorious Criminals Room at the New York City Police Museum near Hanover Square is a crowd-pleaser. Behind the plexiglass in a central case hang an array of captured revolvers, knives, clubs, hand grenades, the Thompson submachine gun used by a member of Al Capone's gang to bump off Frankie Yale and a collection of lock picks found in Willie Sutton's jail cell.

    Tiny plaques line the brick walls. Each one offers a capsule biography and a mug shot of one or another 20th-century bad fella, a motley lineup that includes the Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno R. Hauptmann and the murderer Ruth Snyder, the first woman to die in the electric chair.

    To document the city's biggest crime wave of the moment, however, museum curators won't have many sexy artifacts to work with. A piece of paper is the weapon of choice for the newest holdup men, none of whom is likely ever to decorate the walls of the Police Museum. Freedom from capture in these cases depends, in many ways, on the crimes' and their perpetrators' remaining as unnotorious as possible.

    The strategy so far has been a success. Many local residents are not yet aware that in the last 18 months people have robbed banks in New York at an astonishing clip - more than 50 since January, according to police records. Multiple robberies in a single day are not uncommon. On New Year's Eve, three banks in Manhattan and another in Brooklyn were hit. Two weeks later, three more Manhattan banks were knocked over. Hardly a weekly day goes by when the "NYPD Daily Blotter" in The New York Post doesn't take note of a thief's having fled from a financial institution somewhere in the five boroughs with "an undisclosed amount of cash."

    The robberies are usually over so quickly, and the amounts of money taken at each bank so relatively small - whatever the teller has in the drawer, on average about $1,700 but sometimes only a tenth of that - that public outcry has been muted. The banks don't want to advertise the problem by talking to the news media; and the police seem chagrined.

    On Jan. 24, 10 days after the three Manhattan robberies, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly held a news conference and announced two measures to address the issue.Undercover detectives will be stationed at banks likely to be targets; and, each week, precinct commanders must pool information to look for any patterns to the crimes.

    One pattern is lack of flamboyance. The robbers' method emphasizes anonymity. Pistols are rarely waved. Drawing attention to yourself isn't cool. Instead, the preferred style this year in New York bank robberies is the "note job." A slip of paper is passed to the teller that threatens violence - by gun or explosive. Because the cash is usually handed over at this point, the theat's sincerity cannot be assessed. But the popularity of the method speaks for itself. From Jan. 1 to Jan. 24, the police reported 36 unarmed bank robberies, up from 13 the same period last year. So far, no one has been hurt.

    New York isn't the only city where banks are under assault. Crime in general, and bank robberies in particular, are rising nationwide after a 10-year decline. The F.B.I.'s national crime statistics for 2001 reported a 3.7 percent jump in bank robberies, the first increase since 1991. The average take was $4,587, another indication that the current rash of bank jobs is the work of small-time crooks.

    It wasn't always so. The nation's first recorded bank job took place in 1831 when Edward Smith burgled the City Bank of Wall Street after hours and walked away with $245,000. According to Herbert Asbury's colorful but not always accurate "Gangs of New York," the sole "genius" of 19th-century bank robbers was George Leslie, who operated here between 1869 and his murder in 1884. During that time he and his gang stole $7 million to $12 million.

    It has been decades since a New York bank robbery has merited national attention. In 1981, an unidentified 9-year-old held up the New York Bank for Savings with a toy pistol and got away with $118 before surrendering to the F.B.I. Before that, on Aug. 22, 1972, was the infamous stickup and hostage crisis initiated by John Wojtowicz, the gay Vietnam veteran who seized a Chase Manhattan branch in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to pay for his boyfriend's sex-change operation. Carried live on television, the robbery formed the backbone for the 1975 Sidney Lumet film "Dog Day Afternoon." The movie showed robbers and hostages quickly becoming subsumed by a news media frenzy.

    Realism and context are often the first victims in today's cinematic treatments of the bank job. Masterminds in search of a big score before retirement typically drive these plots, aided by computer hackers who must outwit diabolical security systems, and by psychopaths with shoulder cannons. The safecracker with the silky touch is gone.

    The thieves preying on New York banks these days don't need intimidating firepower; and the security cameras they must defeat are often antiques. Banks are required by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to protect themselves with video surveillance. But the images produced by these cameras and given to the police after a robbery are often so fuzzy they're almost worthless as evidence.

    In his news conference, Commissioner Kelley chastised the banks for their outmoded equipment and for choosing customer friendliness over tougher precautions. That may be so, but another pattern to the robberies has been that even banks that have bulletproof Lexan plastic sheeting between the tellers and customers offer no resistance when a note-wielder claims to have a gun or a bomb.

    Mark Lerner, president of Epic Security, a major provider of security guards to banks in the New York region, says he believes the service his company provides is the best deterrent. "I'm in the guard business, so I'm prejudiced, but from the evidence I've seen, cameras help to solve robberies," said Mr. Lerner, who has a Ph.D. in criminology. "They don't prevent them."

    Until the 1980's, uniformed armed guards could be found in most financial institutions of any consequence. But trying to improve the bottom line, many have done away with them. With the pay scale for security guards running $20 to $30 an hour, banks, in Mr. Lerner's opinion, have decided to live with the risk of losing small amounts of cash, provided the public continues to feel safe. "Bankers have done the math, and figured it's not cost-effective," Mr. Lerner said. "You'd have to be robbed every month for it to equal what it would cost you to hire a full-time security guard."

    With bank executives more worried about losses from embezzlement and credit card fraud, and with law enforcement preoccupied with terrorism, small-time crooks have seized an opportunity. The city offers so many avenues of escape that a thief who is not too greedy or trigger-happy has a good chance of melting into the crowd. The police are currently searching for a white male who favors sunglasses and a baseball cap. A suspect in 32 note jobs since August 2001, he has grossed about $44,000 in that period without firing a shot.

    And if New York's recession deepens, some bank managers expect the note jobs to continue. One veteran, who has seen more than 20 robberies in his 41 years of banking, and whose branch has been hit more than once in the recent wave, said: "It's been my experience that when the economy goes down, bank robberies go up."

    Richard B. Woodward is a writer and documentary maker in New York.

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

  2. #2
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    Nov 2002
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    Default Small-Time Crooks


    Is there any site or something where they tally New York's current crime statistics (i.e.: the number of murders, rapes, etc. to date this year)? *I'm just kind of concerned with crime in the city; dunno why.

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    Default Small-Time Crooks

    Thanks, Christian.

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