When my dad was younger, he was a bank branch manager when a robbery went down. The robber put a gun in my dad’s face and said, “This is it!” My dad replied, “Take what you want. Don’t hurt anybody.” More recently, my friend Joe’s sister, who holds a similar bank position, had a guy come in wearing a mask and give a teller a note demanding cash.
In other words, people are still robbing banks. And still pretty old school, with written notes. “A lot of bank robberies are committed by drug addicts,” explained Jeromy Hasenkamp, a full-time law-enforcement officer in the Pacific Northwest, and owner of firearms training company Pacific Tactical, and adjunct law enforcement trainer for Phoenix RBT Solutions. “They wake up and don’t have money for drugs, so they think, ‘I’ve gotta get a fix, I need money.’ They’re not thinking straight so they decide to rob a bank to get quick money.” Of course, there are also robberies that are more planned out by your smarter criminals, such as a takeover robbery, or incidents with serial bank robbers. Here’s how to survive whatever faces you—especially if it’s the face of a plastic Nixon.
• It’s called a robbery once theft is involved. Burglary? That’s when there’s a break-in. Typically, a bank is burglarized if the crime happens after hours or the bad guy goes into the vault. Larceny? That’s stealing or embezzling from the bank. A takeover robbery? That’s usually an orchestrated event committed by more than one person. Serial robbers? There’s generally a pattern to their madness—and often they’re wearing a mask.
• How exactly are people typically robbing a bank? “Traditionally, we see the note most,” explained Jeromy. He told the story of one brainiac who wrote his demands on the back of his own deposit slip.
• The note is done so that they don’t draw attention to themselves, because they don’t want to be remembered by witnesses. Take the case of my dad: Everyone got a good look at that guy because he was loud and boisterous and brandished a gun. Not to mention, his “unusual duck walk” made him easy to describe to law enforcement. Coincidentally, that guy was an escaped bank robber and cops knew exactly who it was based on the description provided by bank employees and customers.
• “Most of them get in and get out,” Jeromy said about today’s robbers. “But the ones that do a takeover will probably have the most potential for violence. You don’t want to do anything to exacerbate the situation. Tons of robberies happen each year, but few actually start shooting. Often when that happens, it’s a round to the ceiling or a negligent discharge in haste.”
• So, you’re in the bank, a duck-walker comes in and you see a robbery in progress. Should you hold up your iPhone and film? Throw your iPhone at him? Call 911 from your iPhone and run screaming? “The best thing you can do is distance yourself,” Jeromy explained. “Don’t do anything sudden, and try not to direct the attention to you. People have to understand that in movies, hostages die right away, but that really doesn’t happen.” However, you should grow concerned if the situation turns into one in which victims begin to be taken away, because the robber may be thinking he doesn’t want any witnesses.
• In that case, have “situational awareness” for your personal safety, such as scanning the room for a way out. Formulate a plan for escaping. But keep in mind things like, do I have to run past him in order to exit? Can I hide behind something or somewhere that bullets can’t go through? But really, this form of thinking should only be done if there are no other options. Remember, there’s probably already a SWAT team outside when you’re to the point of having these thoughts.
• You also want to think through whether tackling the robber is smart, especially if it’s early on and he simply wants the money and to leave. Banks are insured; your life is not (technically it probably is, but you know what we mean). Taking him down and also trying to escape really should be considered last-resort measures, because reality is the robber’s goal is to just get money and not injure anyone in the process. “They’re trying to come in as generally normal as possible unless it’s a takeover-style robbery,” Jeromy added. “Typically with most of these, their job is to get money and get out as quickly as possible with as little interaction as possible.” Stats are actually pretty low when it comes to them using their weapon on someone in the process.
• What makes a perfect witness to a robbery? “First off, clothing is good to remember, but the main features are facial, what you hear, anything spoken, and character traits.” The sequence of events isn’t as much of a priority—security cameras will capture that. “You should focus on ID traits, but catch those in a subtle way, like side glances, not straight on. You don’t want him to think, ‘Oh, crap, that person knows me now.’”
• Also watch for things happening when you arrive at the bank—say, a guy sitting in his car who is then still in there when you leave the bank, or someone loitering outside the bank, or, say, there’s a person putting on a mask and it’s not Halloween. You shouldn’t necessarily call 911 for suspicious activity, but you can call the nonemergency police number and tell them something might be up. Most of the bad guys try to come in looking “normal” and you may not even be aware a robbery is taking place until you notice a change in the teller’s body language.
• Another reason not to try to be a hero: There’s a low likelihood someone will get away with a robbery, Jeromy told us. There’s too much technology to track them down. “Also, if they truly wanted to score, the big money won’t be in the bank at any one time.” Then he joked about the best way to catch the bad guys: “Tell them they should start trying to rob police departments because they’ve got lots of cash.”