Posted by: Josh Hinkle | July 6, 2009

Fashion Police

From the 1946 Record-Chronicle, courtesy the City of Lewisville

1946 Record-Chronicle, courtesy the City of Lewisville

Imagine an entire high school football team swarming through a cornfield in pursuit of the biggest criminal to hit the tiny town of Lewisville, Texas. It was 1946, and Lewisville had only a few hundred residents. A 22-year-old navy veteran named S.A. Brueggemeyer had just robbed the Lewisville State Bank. One of the four bank officials he had locked in the vault phoned the town’s only operator to report the hold-up. From her home a few blocks away, the operator sounded the alarm. As Brueggemeyer fled, the Fighting Farmer football team heard the alert, took a time-out from practice, and began hunting down the robber. After the half-mile chase, an exhausted Brueggemeyer ran into an unarmed filling station attendant, one of the many locals set on recovering the stolen $1,046. This guy picked the wrong town to commit such a crime.

Mike Pope laughed at the thought of a running back dodging cornstalks in pursuit of a robber. Pope is the current manager of the downtown branch of that same bank, and he shared his version of the story after our interview. Slightly different than the historical account above, it involved a female getaway car driver spooked into an early exit by the alarm. There was also the elderly mother of that alarm-sounding operator standing out on their balcony down the street and screaming to the football coach, “That man just robbed the bank!”

Regardless, Pope’s interest in the city’s bank robbery past was apparent. Under his watch, Lewisville State Bank had remained robbery-free, and he wanted to keep it that way. However, as the nation’s economy sank and robberies in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex rose, keeping bank robbers at bay became more difficult. Learning of a relatively new program encouraged by the FBI, police in a handful of north Texas cities, including Lewisville, began taking fashion tips to reduce their robbery rate.

Watch Lewisville Police Capt. Kevin Deaver point out how inconspicuous his city’s latest robber was while committing the crime in the Flipcam video below:

Learning from Lewisville

“No Hats, No Hoods, No Sunglasses” was a simple idea. Lewisville police convinced about half of the city’s banks to take part. Soon, signs asking customers to remove those items of clothing were hanging on the doors of those financial institutions. Knowing the majority of modern bank robbers wore something to hide their faces, banks aimed to eliminate that criminal coverup.

Each city was able to reduce its robbery rate by at least half:

City 2006-2007 2007-2008* 2008-2009*
Lewisville 4 2 2
Richardson 22 14 8
Highland Village 0 0 0

*No Hats, No Hoods, Ho Sunglasses Program in place

The statistics above were evidence of the program’s seeming success (other cities like Plano and Corpus Christi apparently also take part, but police never returned my calls. There are also several individual banks in cities throughout the state that have similar signs not necessarily pushed by police). Looking at these results, I decided to pose the program as a possibility for the Austin area.

Aiming for the Austin Area

Calling every police department in Travis, Williamson, and Burnet Counties meant more than 30 inquiries regarding the number of bank robberies in each city there from January 2006 through June 2009. Several police chiefs thought this question was hilarious, as some places had no banks. “No banks, no bank robberies,” one chief told me. Of the cities which had banks though, only three experienced this crime during the same time period as above.

  • Austin – 64
  • Round Rock – 14
  • Cedar Park – 2
Tommy Fox, suspect in Austin's tenth bank robbery of 2009

Tommy Fox, suspect in Austin's tenth bank robbery of 2009

I gathered the available surveillance photos for these robberies to examine their similarities. Nearly every robber wore something to shield their identities. Seeing Austin hit its tenth robbery in 2009 during my research, I decided to find out what police there thought about “No Hats, No Hoods, No Sunglasses.” It appeared to be a perfect candidate.

Sgt. Brian Miller, the leader of the robbery unit with Austin Police, reviewed the findings from north Texas. Intrigued by what he saw, he planned to discuss the program with his robbery task force for the Austin-San Antonio region. Some individual banks in central Texas already had such signs, but cities stopped short of backing a massive effort to include the majority of their banks. Realizing something similar but temporary helped catch one of Austin’s most notorious bank robbers a few years before, Miller seemed excited at the thought of implementing it permanently.

Austin's 'Cowboy Bandit,' Ernest Rodriguez, Jr.

Austin's 'Cowboy Bandit,' Ernest Rodriguez, Jr.

The Cowboy Bandit

In 2004, a man known as the “Cowboy Bandit” pleaded guilty to charges relating to five different Austin bank robberies (also two others in Dallas and another in Corpus Christi). Miller said it was hard to miss a man wearing a cowboy hat, but that disguise actually helped Ernest Rodriguez, Jr., continue his criminal path for so long. As the serial bank robber’s spree wore on, police posted signs similar to those Lewisville would later use in as many banks as would cooperate.

Miller believed those signs most likely stopped Rodriguez from robbing additional banks, making tellers more aware and scaring Rodriguez into hitting other places without the signs instead. Austin police detectives eventually arrested Rodriguez at the Travis County Credit Union, which did not have a sign posted. Miller guessed Rodriguez might have continued his reign if the program to alert banks was not in place.

A Statewide Effort

That “what if?” question popped up, as I researched the history of this program several months before. While Texas and at least five other states had certain cities and individual banks taking part, there were at least nine entire states with bankers and credit union associations backing the program. Missouri was one of the first. Before implementing its program in 2003, there were 125 robberies. Check out the how the robbery rate dropped in the years that followed:

  • 2003 – 125 Missouri robberies
  • 2004 – 83 Missouri robberies
  • 2005 – 92 Missouri robberies
  • 2006 – 70 Missouri robberies

I reported and blogged about this trend extensively in past stories at my previous station. Despite the success, banks also detailed plenty of problems.

Living Off The Air 2/3/09 – 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.

The program was voluntary, so banks began to tailor the specifics to meet their needs. Instead of banishing those customers who wore hats, hoods, or sunglasses, they became more aware of the people walking through their doors, a careful eye on those failing to follow the dress code. There’s no way to track the amount of robberies their altered system stopped, but most no longer ask “what if?”.

Testing Texas

The FBI is encouraging police departments nationwide to adopt this program. Its ultimate goal is to see signs in all FDIC institutions, but that is definitely years away.  When I asked the Texas Bankers Association and the Texas Credit Union League about the possibility of implementing it statewide, they both brushed the idea away. They told me too many people wear hats in this state. Bringing it to all financial institutions seemed almost impossible. There are 693 banks and 568 credit unions in Texas.

Miller said there would be challenges in Austin, something that could take up to a year to speak with and convince all of the city’s banks. The easy implementation in a place like Lewisville came quickly with only about 40 banks and a population now just under 100,000. That city’s massive effort came because of cooperation throughout the entire community, something Lewisville had been doing for quite a while.

It took the town’s only operator, her mother, four bank officials locked in a vault, an unarmed filling station attendant, and the entire high school football team to track down that bank robber in 1946. Still, they saved the day by working together. Coincidentally, the Fighting Farmers won the district title that year with a 10-2 record. Miller said he would be happy just bringing down Austin’s bank robbery rate.

Watch the full KXAN report on this program, plus track the time and day you’re most likely to walk into a bank robbery. Also, view the YouTube video below to experience a trip to a bank participating in this program.

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Responses

  1. Good blog! Hope the program helps out. I can just see all those people back in 1946, sounds like a scene from a movie! 🙂

  2. They should make a movie out of it! Or a play!


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