Bank robbers run riot in LA

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The Independent Online
IF YOU stand high up in the Hollywood Hills and survey the smog- hazed grid of humanity that stretches for miles around, you might conclude that order finally prevails in Los Angeles.

The Crips and the Bloods, the city's two largest black gangs, have declared a truce. As the desert sun hammers down, the cityscape has an air of exhausted calm, like a smoking cannon that has run out of ammunition.

But three months after being devastated by the worst riots in the United States this century, Los Angeles is experiencing an epidemic of bank robberies that is out of control.

One recent lunchtime, three men burst into the Bank of America in downtown Los Angeles and ordered the cashiers to empty their tills into a sports bag. They escaped in a stolen car. Fifteen minutes later, another Bank of America branch was raided in east Hollywood. Another was hit nearby, in Westwood. Then another. And another.

Within an hour, five of the bank's branches had been raided. Later in the day, there was a sixth. Yet all the robberies were unrelated. The story was reported in the following day's newspapers, but only briefly. As one FBI agent wearily observed, it was 'just another day in LA'.

Last year the FBI's office in Los Angeles recorded 2,355 bank robberies (more than six a day) within its jurisdiction, which covers seven counties in southern California. It was an all-time record, more than a quarter of the annual total throughout the US. This year the number so far stands at 1,598 - a rise of 28 per cent on the count registered by last August.

Battle-seasoned Angeleno detectives are tired of the cliche, but it has never been more accurate: their city is the bank robbery capital of the world. 'If you want to be in a bank robbery, just spend a day in a bank here,' one FBI special agent said.

Dozens of banks a week are being robbed. Almost always, the raiders are in search of cash to pay for drugs, especially crack cocaine.

For thieves, the attraction of the banks is considerable, because their chances of success are high, at least in the short-term, and the chances of getting shot while in the act are on the low side for Los Angeles.

In a city bristling with arms, the odds of being shot attempting to raid a shop are high. One Los Angeles jeweller recently gave up his business after it became known that he had, over time, shot dead five burglars. (It is a reflection of the authorities' panic-stricken attitude to the present crime wave that they never prosecuted him.)

The banks, on the other hand, instruct their employees to hand over cash without resisting. This is partly out of concern for their welfare, but it has as much to do with the banks' fear of being sued for a huge sum by an injured victim or his relatives. As the average robber's haul is estimated by Los Angeles police at dollars 2,500 ( pounds 1,300) a time (but is often far lower) it is cheaper to pay out.

Now the banks, which last year handed over around dollars 3m to robbers in the city of Los Angeles alone, are finally showing signs of resistance. In the recession-battered, overcrowded world of Californian finance houses - southern California has more than 3,500 bank branches - the competition for custom is fierce. Anxious to put clients at ease, they have opted for sofas, open-plan suites and potted plants rather than security screens. In many, there is nothing between the customer and the cashier.

'Out here you walk into the bank and it's like your living- room,' said John Hoos, a spokesman for the FBI.

Recently, however, the Wells Fargo Bank, one of the largest in California, drafted in a team of armed guards and announced it was installing bullet-proof floor- to-ceiling 'bandit barriers' in at least 30 of its branches. It has good reason to act. This year alone, one of its branches has been hit four times. Employees of a bank robbed at the beginning of July were still receiving counselling three weeks later.

'Some youngsters, girls in particular, can be very traumatised by these incidents,' said Kathleen Shilkret, Wells Fargo's spokeswoman. 'Some staff leave as a result.' Then Ms Shilkret was compelled to cut short her explanation. 'Sorry, I have got to go . . . I have just heard that there's been another robbery at one of our branches.'

She later telephoned to say that heavily armed robbers had successfully raided a bank in downtown Los Angeles, after putting a gun to the manager's head. Wells Fargo was offering a dollars 50,000 reward - an increasingly common practice and a throwback to the days when the mere mention of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow would send a sheriff into a heavy sweat.

An array of security equipment has also been introduced. For instance, exploding capsules containing red dye or tear gas are hidden inside bundles of bank- notes. The success of these is limited, as the more sophisticated criminals know how to remove them. More recently, the banks have turned to tiny electronic tracking devices, which are planted among the banknotes.

Then there are the security cameras. These are installed in almost every bank, but, according to the FBI, Los Angeles's army of bank robbers usually do not bother to hide their faces. This may explain why the law enforcement agencies claim an astonishingly high clear-up rate: 85 per cent.

Yet the robberies go on. 'I think it's drugs and a chance to make a name for themselves,' said Lt Kenneth Lady, of the Los Angeles Police Department. 'They can brag that they have done a bank robbery. That's still seen as a fairly glamorous crime.'

(Photograph omitted)