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By Richard Salit May 6, 2011

Rep. Ucci says requiring banks to have outside security cameras would deter robberies

On the morning of Sept. 20, 2010,  a 49-year-old service station manager brought a deposit bag with $12,542 to a Citizen Bank branch in Woonsocket. A man in a ski mask confronted him outside the bank and demanded the money.

When David Main tried to run away, the robber fatally shot him outside the bank entrance and ran off. Three accomplices have since been indicted for the crime.

Now state Rep. Stephen Ucci is sponsoring legislation that would require all banks to "maintain security video cameras covering all customer doors, automatic teller machines, and night deposit repositories."

"If that bank had been required to install security cameras outside of its building years ago, the victim may still be alive today," Ucci said in a statement. "A robber’s primary goal is to get in and out of the bank or ATM as quickly as possible without being recognized. A surveillance camera capturing a criminal’s face and other identifiable traits would certainly discourage robbery attempts and serve as a deterrent to robbers."

The killing of Main, a father and husband, provoked outrage and calls for the death penalty.

Ucci told us he submitted his legislation after talking to Main’s employer, who told him about the killing. He said the police did not ask him to pursue the bill and that he did not research the subject.

While we understand his motivation, we wondered: does video surveillance deter robberies at banks?

We often see surveillance images of robbers -- some disguised, some not -- who clearly were not deterred by cameras prominently placed in banks.

So we searched for some evidence.

For starters, we learned that nationwide, 5,628 bank robberies (including a very small number of larcenies and burglaries) were reported in 2010 to the FBI. Loot was taken more than 90 percent of the time. The crimes resulted in 106 injuries and 16 deaths.

Of the banks that were targeted in these cases, 5,543, or 98 percent, had some form of video surveillance.

That’s quite a few robbers unfazed by video surveillance. Did plenty of others refrain from robbing banks because of video cameras? No study shows that, as far as we know.

We did find one enlightening report, written by Deborah Lamm Weisel, director of police research in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at North Carolina State University. Her 2007 text on bank robbery was created for the non-profit Center for Problem-Oriented Policing and appears on the U.S. Department of Justice’s web site.

Weisel notes that the number of incidences has increased dramatically since the 1960s, as banks expanded hours and branches.

"Bank robberies are usually fast, low-risk crimes, because employees are trained to comply with a robber’s demands," she writes.

When listing measures that heighten a robber’s "perception of risk," she mentions hiring security guards, assigning employees to greet customers and enforcing policies prohibiting caps and sunglasses inside the bank. She did not include electronic surveillance.

"Cameras do not appear to reduce robberies. Many bank robbers are not deterred because they simply do not believe they will be caught. Others believe that cameras can be thwarted with a disguise or by covert behavior or that cameras can be disabled such as with spray paint; or they simply do not think about cameras at all," Weisel writes.

Surveillance, she said, helps  "in identifying and apprehending suspects and can aid in prosecution as well. "

Douglas Johnson, vice president of risk management policy at the American Bankers Association, agreed.

"I’ve always heard and believed that cameras are not a deterrent measure. Cameras and video are there specifically for apprehension purposes," he said.

Cameras are already at all ATMs, he noted, and do not prevent ATM crime.  

William Farrell, legislative council to the Rhode Island Bankers Association, testified against  Ucci’s bill at the State House because of civil liberty concerns and other issues. When interviewed, he said that industry experts don’t view surveillance as an "effective tool in terms of deterrence."

We did find a 2009 article, in which representatives of The Security Executive Council, a risk mitigation research and services organization, wrote that "parking lot cameras … could help identify perpetrators before they put their masks on. They could also act as a deterrent." But the authors emphasize apprehension, adding only that such video surveillance "could also" serve as a deterrent.

When we told Ucci our findings, he said his intent was not just to prevent robberies of banks, but of customers, too. Exterior surveillance could deter robbers from attacking customers outside, he said, as well as provide information about a robber’s identity and getaway.

Ucci, no doubt, sincerely wants to prevent another tragic death like David Main’s. And police officials in Providence and Woonsocket told us that video surveillance certainly helps catch and send robbers to prison, preventing repeat offenders from robbing again.

But we couldn’t find any evidence that outdoor surveillance deters robberies of customers.
And the experts we consulted doubt its deterrence value.

We rate Ucci’s claim False.

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Update: The initial version of this item incorrectly reported the amount of money stolen in the 2010 robbery outside a bank. It was $12,542.

Our Sources

General Assembly press releases, "Ucci calls for heightened security at banks," March 30, 2011.

U.S. Department of Justice, "Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Problem-Specific Guide Series, No. 48, Bank Robbery,"  by Deborah Lamm Weisel, 2007., "Is it Time for a Fresh Look at the Bank Protection Act," by Chris Swecker and Marleah Blades, published Nov. 17, 2009, accessed May 4, 2011.

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bank Crimes Statistics, Federal Insured Financial Institutions, Jan. 1, 2010 to Dec. 31, 2010, accessed on May 3.

Interview, Douglas Johnson, vice president of risk management policy, at the American Bankers Association, on April 29, 2011

Interview, William A. Farrell, legislative council to the Rhode Island Bankers Association, on May 3, 2011

Interview, Det. Lt. Eugene Gillette, Woonsocket Police Department, April 2011.

Interview, Maj. Thomas F. Oates III, Providence Police Department, April 2011.

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