It's a frigid weekday evening on Long Island, and Detective Sgt. John Giambrone is investigating his third bank robbery in as many hours.
There are some pretty solid leads for this one, a Roslyn Savings Bank in Merrick: clear photos of the bandit as he passed a note to the teller, and a trail from an exploded dye pack in the parking lot marking the perpetrator’s escape route.
But amid a recent rash of robberies, the Nassau Police Robbery Squad commander said police are not usually so lucky.
Many banks today are using poor quality cameras, leaving police squinting at blurry images when they try to track down a thief. Often, banks have no cameras at all in their parking lots, and some have no dedicated staff waiting in lobbies to greet customers and flag suspicious visitors.
"In this day and age there's no reason for me to have a photo from a bank where -- if a guy is not wearing a mask or completely covering his face -- that I can't tell who this individual is," said Giambrone.
Just an hour before the Merrick robbery, Giambrone was on the scene of a Chase bank in Plainview that had just been hit. He said there were no exterior cameras, so no images of the bandit’s vehicle or license plate. The I-Team reached out to Chase, asking about the apparent lack of exterior cameras, but the bank has not responded.
Experts say it's not surprising that security is lagging at some brick and mortar branches these days. Cyber theft and the stealing of customers’ identities are viewed as the top criminal threat to most financial institutions.
"If you're losing $2 billion a year as an industry -- $2 billion -- your attention is going to focus on that significantly," said Anthony Roman, a corporate security expert. “If a million of your customers are adversely affected, your attention is going to be taken by that cyber threat."
Roman said the policy of most banks is to give robbers the cash they ask for to avoid a violent confrontation. But that makes devices like cameras even more important -- since getting caught is the primary remaining deterrent.
Nassau's chief of detectives, Kevin Smith, said he fears for customer and employee safety most of all. That's why he wants the tools he needs to catch crooks after their first strike.
"With every opportunity they are given to commit a bank robbery, that's another opportunity to have something go wrong and maybe have civilians hurt," Smith said.
Giambrone and his team have begun working with banks, encouraging them to invest in better and more cameras, to train greeters to flag suspicious characters, and to ask anyone entering a branch with his face covered to remove a hood, hat or glasses. County Executive Ed Mangano said some banks have been responsive and it has led to results.
"The fact of the matter is clearly our detectives are seeing that the banks that have improved technology and improved camera angles are leading to quicker arrests," Mangano said.
Doug Johnson, vice president for Risk Management at the American Bankers Association, a trade group representing financial institutions of all sizes, said today’s bank branches are trying to find security solutions that deter criminals but also create an atmosphere that will attract retail customers.
“We’re looking for a balance,” Johnson said. “We want our branches to be welcoming. We don’t want them to look like fortresses.”
Back on the trail of those bandits that hit the branches in Merrick and Plainview, Giambrone and his crew overcame any shortcomings there may have been in the evidence.
Within two weeks, they arrested two men they say are responsible, not only for those bank jobs, but also for seven others.