Bank robberies hold a special place in America mythology. So much so that the bank robbery page of the FBI’s website dedicates an entire section to “Famous Cases & Criminals,” with detailed biographies and case narratives of bandits like John Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson, and “Pretty Boy” Floyd.
These were outlaws stealing not from fellow citizens but a great big bank insured by the great big government. They had the charisma to own a room and the cool head to work fast and clean.
But the image of the Great American Bank Robber is an antiquated one. Times change and so have bank robbers.
See also this week’s feature story: Who Were Those Masked Men, Anyway?
Take guns, the symbol of the Dillinger-era heist, for instance. In 1980, around half of all bank robbers flashed a gun, according to Department of Justice statistics. By 2000, that dropped to around a third. These days, less than a quarter of bank robberies involve a gun.
Because why use a gun when bank tellers are trained to hand over the money without fuss?
“Bank employees are unarmed and consistently compliant,” the justice department states in its bank robbery guide for local police departments. “Even robbery transactions are handled quickly and efficiently.”
Translation: a note will suffice. Guns only add unnecessary risk, as well as an extra charge for prosecutors to tack on. The subjects of this week’s feature story–Akeem Monsalvatge, Edward Byam, and Derrick Dunkley–can attest to that. Last year they were convicted of robbing two check-cashing outlets in Queens. The robbery convictions carried a minimum sentence of 16 years in prison for each of them. That minimum doubled to 32 years, however, because they carried guns when they committed the crimes.
In 2003, 54 percent of bank robbers used a note and 26 percent showed a firearm. In 2011, 58 percent of bank robbers used a note with just 24 percent showing a gun.
The fluctuations in the number of bank robberies over the years is roughly consistent with the overall crime trends in America. In 1965, there were 847 bank robberies across the country. Ten years later: 3,517. By the mid-1990s there were around 9,000 a year.
Then came the drop. In 2003, there were 7,644 bank robberies. Then 6,957 two years later, and 5,014 in 2011, the last year for which the FBI provides data.
Out of those 5,014 heists, 13 people died: three civilians and ten robbers.
“There’s a risk certain people are willing to take to rob a bank,” Special Agent Brad Bryant, who heads the Violent Crimes Unit, states on the FBI’s website. “They know there’s a camera.”
And the competence of security cameras has increased with time. In 2003, security cameras captured 93 percent of bank robberies. In 2011, the cameras caught 98 percent of heists.
One thing about bank robberies has not changed, of course: the lure of the cash.
While the number of robberies has dipped over last decade or so, the proportion of loot that authorities recover has remained relatively consistent. Of the $72 million stolen in 2003, 19 percent was recovered; of the $38 million stolen in 2011, 21 percent was recovered.