Why Vancouver Leads the Country in Bank Robberies

July 2, 2011

Standing near the door of the Scotiabank at 650 West Georgia Street, Rolf Enzler could usually tell when the branch was being robbed. He’d see a teller skipping the paperwork as she handed money over to her “client,” a guy who’d been fidgeting and acting odd in the lineup. Or she’d glance over at Enzler and their eyes would meet. And he’d know. In the three years Enzler worked at Scotiabank as a security guard, the branch was robbed 13 times—three in one particularly unfortunate month.

In his 60s, Enzler is still tall and barrel-chested. (He trained in his youth with the Swiss army as part of mandatory military service. He learned sharpshooting, how to place an explosive underwater, knife fighting, how to pin a man to the ground.) It killed him to see people walk away with the money. He knew he could take these guys. But the managers at the banks where he worked—two downtown branches over five years before he retired—didn’t want him tackling anyone. Watch them, they’d say. See where they go. But don’t do anything dangerous—security guards aren’t hired to fight. And that particular Scotiabank where he worked is a difficult space to safeguard: it has three entrances, two on the main floor, one on a lower floor that connects with the mall; it’s in the middle of a busy downtown that makes escape easier.

In spite of the physical restrictions and the rules of no engagement, Enzler is sure he still prevented robberies, sometimes several a week. He’d spot someone in the lineup looking around, swivel-necked and jittery; he’d move closer to the tellers’ windows, and the would-be robber would step out of line and leave.

Vancouver is the bank robbery capital of Canada. One year, 2007, we had almost 400 robberies in the Greater Vancouver area—an astonishing 35 robberies per 100,000 people (compared to three or four per 100,000 in Toronto and half that in Montreal, where robbers of the day specialized more in gas stations and convenience stores). “Vancouver was kind of the perfect storm,” says Bill Crate, director of security for the Canadian Bankers Association: lots of addicts, little prevention, sentences that on average were 24 months compared to 36 in Toronto and 54 in Calgary. In recent years, coordinated efforts between banks, police, and security groups working together through the Greater Vancouver Robbery Association have lowered the number of incidents, but the region still leads in robberies, especially since numbers have also dropped across the rest of Canada. With 217 robberies in 2010, Metro Vancouver accounted for more than a third of all the bank robberies in the country. It’s why Vancouverites still routinely come across the telltale tracks: a note taped to the door of their branch in the middle of the day. Or signs asking people to remove hats, sunglasses, and hoods. Or greeters and security guards posted prominently at entrances.

If you think of bank robbers as glamorous Bonnie and Clyde types—crazy kids hitting up small-town banks to finance sprees through a landscape of waving wheat—think again. Bank robbers now find themselves at the bottom of the crime hierarchy. More creative types have graduated to more promising activities, say police: jewellery heists, credit-card fraud, real-estate scams. Gangs, which used to rely on drug dealing, are now switching their focus to identity theft, far more lucrative and much harder to catch.

Most bank robbers in B.C. couldn’t plan something that would involve, at a minimum, a car and a road map. Instead, they tend to be a part of the urban fabric, like experimental theatre and espresso bars. Most are drug users looking for cash for another fix or to cover a drug debt. They stay relatively close to home. Their traplines are longer than they used to be, thanks to transit, and the more ambitious robbers will hit up banks in other suburbs or municipalities. But they don’t typically move from town to town. Only 30 percent of Canada’s bank branches are in the seven largest cities, yet those branches experience two-thirds of all robberies.

Robbing banks is a mug’s game, and the robber’s odds keep getting worse. The solve rate in the Vancouver region, already at about 75 percent five years ago, is now between 80 and 90 percent, thanks to a number of shifted policies. Gone are the days of $20,000 cash drawers; now tellers can withdraw only $500 at a time from a central dispensing machine. Cash machines are sometimes behind walls, allowing the teller to get out of view of the robber. Revolving doors and other obstacles make the space seem more difficult to navigate. Surveillance video has reached HD quality. The stolen money itself tells a story: dye packs, bait money with marked serial numbers, even transponders in money packs.

The way the criminal justice system handles bank robberies has also changed. Until five years ago, robberies went into random piles of cases waiting to be handled. Prosecutors in different jurisdictions took care of their own cities, without trying to connect up with any of the other 15 police jurisdictions between Vancouver and Chilliwack. That changed after the Canadian Bankers Association’s Bill Crate spoke with B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal, who got prosecutors specially assigned to follow the robbery cases.

In recent years, Peter Stabler has been one of two prosecutors dedicated to moving robbery cases through the system. This gives police officers someone consistent to call with new evidence, and it gives the system a central connecting point. The idea is to connect multiple crimes in order to get longer sentences. Those who rob banks tend not to commit other kinds of crime; they often rob multiple banks, using the same method, sometimes within days. He once convicted someone who had robbed 20 different banks.

“The Crown prosecutor system got set up in the pre-computer era,” says Stabler, a spry, compact fellow with thinning silver hair, whose file-stacked office sits just one window away from the Main Street provincial court. “They started out when things were more geographically confined. Now we have this absolutely enormous speed and reach of crime.”

For Stabler and investigating officers, the problem is rarely evidence. With today’s documentary-quality video, robbers are often easy to find. Photos are passed around among corrections officers, private security firms, officers who patrol certain parts of town. “They’re usually not far away,” says Stabler. And because the evidence is so overwhelming, most of them plead guilty. Stabler tries valiantly not to be dismissive of the people he goes after, but ends up admitting, “They’re not very bright.”

In fact, the relatively small pool of people—local authorities say 100 to 200 at most—who still rob banks tend to be disenfranchised types whose beyond-Dickensian lives provoke appalled sympathy even from the judges, prosecutors, and police who send them to jail.

“There is only one word for his early years, and that word is horrific,” wrote Judge Nancy Morrison in sentencing Paul Olsen for his part in the inept robbery he and a woman he’d met that day carried out at a TD Bank in February 2009. The two made off with $345, which they had to throw away after a dye pack exploded. “His father is unknown,” continued Judge Morrison, “he was physically abused by his mother as a young infant; he was locked in a room for days on end; he was tied up and submerged repeatedly in water; his hands were held to burn on stove elements; abuse by his mother and her boyfriends. Mr. Olsen has virtually been on probation since the age of 12 and he has been in jail for much of his adult life. He had a major substance abuse problem from ages 19 to 26 according to his counsel and he has done drugs up until the time of his latest incarceration, including the drug alcohol, a bottle a day.” With 16 previous robberies on his record, Olsen got a four-and-a-half-year sentence.

Pigeon Park Credit Union might seem like an ideal target for a bank job. The small credit union, run by staff from the Portland Hotel housing association, is in the heart of the Downtown Eastside and the city’s addiction problem. Its aim is to serve the poorest of local residents. On a weekday, the one-room credit union looks as casual as a convenience store. But it has a strength that bigger banks don’t have: a set of familiar clients more willing than most to enforce the rules.

“If a fight breaks out here, before we intervene other members would intervene,” says Nathan Allen, a 34-year-old activist from the Downtown Eastside who supervises the bank’s operations. “And if someone tried to rob our bank, our members would not want that.” Besides the self-enforcement, Pigeon Park’s staff, mostly young guys with tattooed arms, are an intimidating-looking lot, unlike most tellers.

All banks—Pigeon Park Credit Union included—discourage any resistance whatsoever. So do police. In the past, staff who tackled robbers got awards and public recognition; now, they typically get a scolding mixed in with praise for their efforts. They’re also barred from talking to reporters, who might glorify their actions. When Bank of Montreal manager Stan Yee ran out of his Esplanade Avenue branch in North Vancouver in January, and chased Gabriel Williams down to Lonsdale Quay (see “The Making of a Bank Robber,” facing), he got a firm reminder from police that that kind of thing is dangerous and shouldn’t be done.

That helps to explain why, given the dismal success rate, bank robberies remain such a common occurrence. A 2007 American policing report on the factors behind bank robberies, along with ways to prevent them, acknowledged that one reason is that “bank employees are unarmed and consistently compliant. Even robbery transactions are handled quickly and efficiently.” That’s reduced the level of violence over the years—because robbers know there won’t be resistance, the use of weapons has decreased. (Though the impact on tellers is another matter; in B.C., 49 have sought stress leave after a robbery in the last five years.)

Even when robbers get caught and convicted, the bank doesn’t get its money back. That especially bothered Rolf Enzler when he worked as a security guard. He got tired of the robberies, the way they happened so casually. “It just bugged me to see them run off.” One woman threatened him, said she had a gun, and warned, “You better back off, or you’re a dead man.” One man robbed the branch four different times. It drove Enzler nuts. So when he thought he had a chance to safely take someone down, he went for it.

The first time it happened, Enzler was 62. The robber was maybe 35, “a druggie, like all of them,” who passed a note to the teller. The guy had a bicycle outside. Enzler went at him as he was leaving and the man ran past the bicycle, down Seymour, and into the Bay heading for the SkyTrain. Enzler ran after him and tackled him. The man squirmed free and brought out a gun, but Enzler could see it was fake. “So I just charged him and put my arms around him.”

A month later, it happened again. This guy had a knife. Enzler followed him out, watched him stick the knife in a planter, and pursued him down the street. Again, he did a full-body tackle, bringing the guy down on the sidewalk near the public library. Using his military training, Enzler kept him pinned to the ground by forcing him to lie with his legs bent and crossed.

Enzler’s retired now, with heart trouble and a bad hip; still, he says, he wouldn’t hesitate to jump anyone he saw trying to rob a bank in the quiet area of Port Coquitlam where he lives. On the wall of his modest apartment, next to ornately framed photos of his children, there’s an award from former Police Chief Jamie Graham. But police today rely on the Peter Stablers to patiently put together the videotape and the handwritten notes and the previous crimes to send the bad guys away. They won’t be rehabilitated when they come out, but perhaps they’ll turn to a different kind of crime. And Stabler will have a crop of newcomers to deal with, those who still haven’t figured out the odds. VM

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