It was one of those eyebrow-arching moments. I don’t know what made bank robbers think Iowa was a rich old lady ready for the swindling, but apparently Cedar Falls was wearing the “#1 Sugar Mama” T-shirt last season. There were four financial institution robberies in November alone. After first glancing at the surveillance photos police released, I thought, “So?”
They were the Glamour Shots we always see. The robbers all looked like they shopped at the same Gap outlet. Still, that last stereotypical thought stuck with me. Of course the robbers all looked the same. If I didn’t want to get caught robbing a bank, I’d naturally use something to cover my face or head. These guys all chose hoods. Fashionable…no. Effective…yes.
This sparked a discussion in my newsroom. Like several of my colleagues, I came to Iowa directly from the state to our south. While working at another station in Columbia, Missouri, and earning my masters at Mizzou, bank and credit union robberies were apparently the “in” thing among the criminal clique there. During my first year in Missouri, robbers hit 125 such places in the state. So the FBI pitched a program to the state’s bankers and credit union associations that, at the time, made many in our newsroom laugh.
Slowly, bank after bank started asking their customers to refrain from wearing hats, hoods, or sunglasses inside their buildings. One reporter working on this story at my former station actually demonstrated the removal of such apparel on air. A criminal strip show. This only made the idea of the program even more farfetched. How could urging customers to “take it off” actually scare robbers away? Even though the FBI says 40% of all bank robberies involve some kind of facial disguise, this seemed ridiculous to me.
Flash forward five years, and Iowa was experiencing its own rash of robberies. I decided to contact every police department in each of eastern Iowa’s metro areas, asking for the number of bank or credit union robberies in the last year and the surveillance photo for each:
2008 Eastern Iowa Robberies
Cedar Falls – 4
Cedar Rapids – 3
Coralville – 1
Dubuque – 1
Hiawatha – 0
Iowa City – 0
Marion – 0
North Liberty – 3
Waterloo – 1
TOTAL – 13
13 banks robberies. That’s nothing compared to the number in Missouri before its “No Hats, No Hoods, No Sunglasses” program went into effect. However, when I looked carefully at the photos, I found 11 of the 13 robbers wore something to cover their faces or heads. (NOTE: A two-time robber in North Liberty wore no disguise.) (NOTE: There was actually no surveillance photo available for the Dubuque robbery, because the bank’s camera system was down that day. But the police report gave a description of the robber that indicated he wore a hood.) Map those robberies and view each surveillance photo here.
This gave me an idea. I called Iowa’s bankers and credit union associations to ask if a similar program existed here. Surprise, surprise. It didn’t. But what if it could?
How successful was Missouri’s knee-slapper of a program? I next called its bankers and credit union associations. Remember, there were 125 robberies before its program. The results in the years after:
Missouri Robbery Results
2003 – 125 robberies
2004 – 83 robberies
2005 – 92 robberies
2006 – 70 robberies
Okay, so maybe the FBI was right. Maybe telling people to check their “disguises” at the door actually worked. Or maybe I just wanted to head south out of the 30-below-zero temperature. A photographer and I were in Columbia, Missouri, faster than you can say “Show Me.”
It wasn’t easy convincing a bank or credit union to speak to me about the program. After all, it was a security issue. That’s not information they usually want to give away. I ended up on several voicemails and chatting about the seasonally mild weather with the secretaries of many bank marketing departments before I got my first call back.
Betty Clark, the chairperson of the Missouri Credit Union Association, met me to explain the workings of the program. Basically, it’s voluntary. Of the 494 financial institutions in Missouri, fewer than half, or 240, actually hang the “No Hats, No Hoods, No Sunglasses” signs on their doors. The signs spell it all out for would-be violators. That’s right, ladies. The big Nicole Richie specks have to go. And guys, you just have to deal with hat hair.
When financial institutions finally started returning my calls, I met a lot of resistance. Many had experienced problems with the programs. Cancer patients didn’t want to show the world that they were bald. People of certain religious faiths couldn’t believe a bank’s rules trumped their devotion to a higher being. Regular customers who normally wear hats, like farmers, truckers, and baseball players… okay, maybe not baseball players… disliked the idea of changing their habits.
Columbia’s First National Bank told me that the problems became so great that tellers there stopped enforcing the rule, even though the sign remained on the bank’s door. While at First National, I noticed a few people walk in wearing hoods. Granted, one of those was a regular – a homeless man who always came in for coffee.
Relaxing the rule meant some of those people who came into First National wearing hats or hoods were actually robbers. Since the bank implemented the program, it experienced five robberies. In four of those, robbers wore disguises. One was quite elaborate, even incorporating a wig.
What the tellers learned from the program was interesting though. They believe it makes them more aware. If they don’t know someone coming through the door or that person looks suspicious, they take action. As long as they don’t get alarm-button-happy and push it out of pure fear of every sombrero, it might make a difference. There’s no way to track the amount of robberies their altered system stops, but they think it does some good.
Shortly before my Missouri trip, eastern Iowa’s last robbery of the year broke at Waterloo’s Veridian Credit Union. It barely made the cut… on New Year’s Eve. Watch the surveillance video:
One robbery-free community in 2008 was Iowa City. I knew the police chief there, Sam Hargadine, moved into his post after serving as a captain with the Columbia, Missouri, police department. We happened to meet up with him on the coldest day ever on record in Iowa. Seriously. 29 degrees below zero. It’s never been that frigid here. Hargadine told us the weather is a reason this program might not work in Iowa. People have to wear their hats and hoods everywhere, or they’ll freeze to death. Taking everything off for a two-minute stop in a bank isn’t fun.
We told him about Missouri’s success. He agreed that the numbers were impressive. And just because his city was lucky enough to sidestep robberies last year, chances are it could be the next target. Planning to implement new community policing efforts in the spring, he said this program might help prevent that possibility, if he can work out the kinks.
Both the Iowa Bankers and Credit Union Associations tell me they don’t back such a program here at this time. I’ve since learned that a few individual banks in Iowa do take similar measures. There are nine states where bankers and credit union associations follow Missouri’s lead, and five others where a majority of individual financial institutions take similar steps. See the map below:
One FBI agent I spoke with who helped implement the program in Missouri said there’s a push to bring it to all FDIC institutions in the nation, but that reality is still years away. He was impressed though that the program caught on so quickly with such success at cutting crime. If Hargadine’s enthusiasm with the program’s possibility is any indication, perhaps Iowa will become the next state to mimick your parents as you approached puberty: “You’re NOT wearing that!”