The scariest bank robber I ever came across wore a mask and carried a gun. I never met him personally, but I saw the pictures. He wore a Halloween mask (not unlike the one in the picture above, which was worn by an actual bank robber in Pennsylvania a few years back) and he entered the bank aggressively, brandishing his weapon.
The man in this particular robbery hit at least two banks in Salt Lake City, a few years ago. He walked into both banks arrogantly, careful not to touch anything, and he pointed the gun at the helpless tellers, demanding money. He knew what he was doing. He asked for cash from secondary drawers, knew to demand no trackers, and brought in his own bags. He climbed behind the counter and pointed his gun at people’s heads, even into their mouths, promising to come back and hurt them if he was caught. He was gone in less than a few minutes and fled.
Of course, the police caught him, but it took them a little bit of time. The aggression of his actions, with a weapon and threats, escalated the crime to the highest levels with nearly maximum sentences. Bank-robbing is federal crime automatically, but using a weapon and delivering threats escalate the crime, though taking hostages, or hurting or killing someone, would obviously result in a more severe sentencing.
As a clinical social worker, I’ve worked the last 15 years doing crisis response work, on the side from my professional business. Though I’m self-employed, I make myself available to businesses who have been impacted by crises. Tragic employee deaths, suicides, corporate downsizings, industrial accidents, and, yes, bank robberies. Bank robberies, over the years, have been the most frequent crisis I get called out to. At this point, I’ve been to the sites of dozens of them (they happen more often than what people think), and I usually arrive just after the FBI has left). All of them are traumatic in their own way, and it is impossible to walk out of one of them emotionally unscathed.
But this man, this selfish, scary, arrogant man in a mask, he spent two minutes trying to get some quick cash, and then he lost everything, facing decades in jail. But for those he hurt, those half dozen people that he threatened and frightened, for them, this experience lasts forever. He never saw them, he only aimed the gun and then ran. He didn’t see them as humans. He didn’t realize that one of tellers would later break off her relationship with her fiancee because she couldn’t handle the nightmares, that one of the men would turn to alcohol to avoid the flashbacks he was having from the war, that an older single mother would quit her job because it was too scary to return, or the young man who suddenly couldn’t get the image out of his head about how his father used to beat him. The robber didn’t realize that some of them would be forever altered by this.
Most bank robberies aren’t this abrupt or violent. Often the robber is quiet, quick, or even apologetic. They are sometimes under the influence of drugs, or mentally ill, or just plain desperate. They might stand in line like a regular customer, walk up to the counter, calmly, and pass a note. They may or may not imply that they have a weapon in their pockets, a gun up their sleeve, or even, as one robber pretended, a bomb strapped to his chest under his shirt. They might simply rush out of the store as quickly as possible. One robber I’m aware of hung out in the bank branch for nearly thirty minutes, stating he was waiting for someone, before he finally handed his note over.
Bank robbery notes themselves are fascinating. Some are short and direct. “THIS IS A ROBBERY! PUT ALL THE MONEY IN A BAG AND DON’T SAY ANYTHING TO ANYONE!” Some are apologetic. “I’m so sorry to have to do this, but my family is starving. Please give me $2000 in twenties and tens as fast as possible. And don’t call the police!” And some fill an entire page with detailed instructions. “This is a robbery. Do not call the police. Do not signal anyone for help. There is a gun in my left pocket. Before you read any further, raise your left hand in the air to indicate understanding, but do not look up at me. After raising your hand, I want you to take the bag I am placing on the counter and then…” The notes might be legible in lined blue ink, monstrous scrawls in black marker, or even pre-typed on carbon paper.
Bank employees go through a rigorous training in order to work in banking institutions. They learn protocols for how to handle it. They are taught to remember as much as possible, to comply with all possible requests, to focus on safety first, and to get the robber out of there as fast as possible. They are told not to argue, to keep their voices calm, and to call the police in a calm manner afterward, giving them all the details possible. But no amount of training can prepare you for the moment a man (they are almost always men) comes in with a note, an implied weapon, and a threat. Adrenaline kicks in, trauma is triggered, and the heart rises in the throat, and sticking to the training is not always easy.
Immediately after the robbery takes place, the bank tellers have to notify the police and authorities, check on the customers who have been impacted, shut down the branch, and then write down everything they remember. They have to be interviewed by the FBI agents who arrive, provide descriptions and details, make camera footage available. This can take hours, and generally they don’t have a chance to even call their families before that is over. Regardless of whether they are angry, scared, anxious, panicked, numb, or triggered, they have to follow these protocols. And then they have to deal with the trauma for the following days.
Imagine going home to your car after a robbery and having to drive home. Imagine getting home and facing your family. Imagine closing your eyes for sleep that night, images flashing in your brain as you wonder if you locked the door or not. Imagine having to walk back into the bank branch the next morning to start the new shift, all over again. Imagine checking the news repeatedly to see if the police have caught the guy yet. Imagine worrying every time that you leave your branch that your coworkers might get robbed while you are gone.
I enter banks differently now. I view the tellers, young and old, with new respect. They aren’t paid well, and often don’t have a lot of support, yet the put themselves into these dangerous situations generally because they love customer service and they are dedicated employees. Sitting with them in the roughest moments, after their traumas, is difficult, but it is my supreme honor.