Why are bank robberies on the rise on Long Island? Already
there have been more robberies this year in Nassau County than in any of the
past 40 years; one bank robbery is attempted every week, according to police.
Bank robberies have also increased across the nation; they are up 46 percent in
New York City this year, compared to 2007.
It's a crime with a special urgency, especially given the central role that
banks are playing in the current financial crisis.
Alan Feinstein, detective sergeant in charge of the Suffolk County Police
Department's robbery squad, is concerned that robbers can undermine faith in
the U.S. banking system. [CORRECTION: Jessie Klein's article yesterday about
the rise in bank robberies identified Alan Feinstein as "detective sergeant in
charge of the Suffolk County Police Department's robbery squad." The quote
attributed to him was reported in Long Island Business News in 2004. Robberies
are now handled by the Major Case Investigations Unit, whose commanding officer
is Det. Sgt. Robert Doyle. (A41 ALL 10/09/08)] He says the real crime is
that the robber steals "a sense of security." "Attacking a bank is attacking an
institution," he explains, "People put a lot of trust in a bank. When you have
a robbery, you lose customers. You lose employees. You have a general sense of
Police tend to blame decreased security when banks market themselves as
more friendly. But, according to the American Banking Association, robberies
increase when the economy declines. They went up in 1992, declined as the
economy peaked and are rising during the present economic downturn. This
suggests that something other than security is at work.
The legendary Bonnie and Clyde - notorious outlaws active during the Great
Depression - offer some insight into this phenomenon. Theirs was a time when
your average Joe could imagine doing almost anything to get out of very
difficult economic straits. That time has returned.
My college students tell me this message was pervasive in their Long Island
schools: "It only gets worse if you ask for help. No one wants to be called a
sissy or a baby." Such attitudes can magnify a sense of hopelessness when
people find themselves in challenging times. Acting boldly and rashly is one
way to counteract a lonely "loser" image and identity. When everything looks
grim, a bank robbery might just do the trick.
Men, especially, are told they must be strong, independent and powerful to
demonstrate their manhood. Most robbers are men, and many are elderly, factors
that could lead them to perform a seemingly macho stunt when they might
otherwise feel downtrodden.
It's true that many banks are emphasizing customer-friendly environments,
sometimes removing what police insist are essential: "bandit barriers" - the
partitions between tellers and customers. But virtually all branches have
advanced forms of security, such as improved communication with the police and
the presence of security guards. A greeter at "friendly" branches, some banks
maintain, contributes to security because would-be robbers are likely to think
twice after being noticed and individually engaged by a bank employee.
What the lax-security explanations miss is the intersection between the
faltering economy and social attitudes that demand your average guy demonstrate
fortitude and invulnerability when he may actually need and want help and
support. Remember, Bonnie and Clyde are often admired for the courage and
audacity they manifested in their heists. Men - Bonnie was a rare case among
women - can feel great pressure to be seen as supermen.
Recent robbers have explained they needed cash to buy a television or pay
vet bills. These expenses seem petty, but an inability to afford such basics in
a country so focused on equating success and self-esteem with making money
can wreak havoc on an individual's sense of self.
Of course, not everyone robs a bank in these circumstances, just as not
everyone bullied in school returns with a gun and starts shooting. Reactions to
both can include suicide, substance abuse, depression, anxiety and panic
Bank robbers striking today most likely mean to steal a new self-image - an
image of power, dominance, control and heroism. They generally are not
hardened or sophisticated criminals. Most are small "one-man shows," according
to the press. One poor robber even tried to make off in a taxi cab.
And they likely escape with more adrenaline and cache than cash.
Feinstein says the average robber gets no more than $2,000, as most money is
transferred by computer.
Robberies will decline when the economy recovers or, more importantly, when
self-esteem and masculinity no longer rely on economic success,
hyper-independence and invulnerability as tell-all barometers.