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Lock Up The Bankers

Most of us have a warm spot in our hearts for bankers. It's the same cozy place we reserve for politicians, lawyers and ex-spouses—meaning anybody who goes there ought to pack a sweater.

This summer's movie Public Enemies shows just how Americans feel about their friendly neighborhood bankers. Johnny Depp, as the Depression-era gangster John Dillinger, gets his just rewards, one of which is a beautiful girl. A hapless banker gets a girl, too—but only when they both get tied to a tree.

We blamed bankers for the housing crisis and the credit market meltdown because those mean guys and gals in suits forced their mortgages on an unsuspecting public. None of it was the public's fault.

Now the New York City Police Department wants the City Council to put all bankers in a clear polycarbonate box. This is allegedly to keep bank robbers out, but I suspect the real reason is to keep bankers in. As reported in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Canada-based TD Bank, which wants to stay close to its customers, has its doubts too.

TD Bank says the bill, which would require all banks in the city to install bulletproof barriers, would crimp its style. The bank, which refers to its branches as stores, wants to create a friendly, inviting atmosphere.

The New York City Police Department would like TD Bank to be a little bit more particular about whom it welcomes. TD’s 73 New York City branches were robbed 46 times last year, and the police, unlike the bank robbers, don’t appreciate spending their time in TD’s well-decorated branches.

However, it’s unlikely that the bill, if passed, will do anything to keep robbers and policemen away from TD and other banks. Police note that about half of the 444 bank robberies in New York City last year occurred in banks without barriers, even though these make up significantly less than half of the city’s banks. But, as statisticians often remind us (and we often forget), correlation does not prove causation. Robbers may prefer to target banks without barriers, but there are enough robberies in barrier-equipped banks to demonstrate that the barriers are not much of an obstacle. If all banks have barriers, will robbers simply give up and open checking accounts instead?

TD argues that a barrier-free environment may be not only more welcoming to customers, but actually safer for them as well. Bulletproof panels might stop robbers from pointing guns at tellers, but they do nothing to protect customers outside the transparent barriers. Neil Parmenter, a spokesman for TD Bank, said that barriers “greatly enhance the risk of violence and potential harm to customers or employees” by increasing the likelihood that a robber would use a person outside the wall as a hostage.

According to Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist who is a consultant for TD Bank, “Not one customer or employee has been injured in the course of a robbery” at any TD/Commerce branch in the city since they began operating in 2001.

The bank argues that a relatively small number of serial robbers — perhaps seeing themselves as modern-day Dillingers — commit most bank robberies. If the police would do a better job catching them and the justice system would keep them off the streets longer, there would be fewer robberies.

In other words, TD suggests we lock up the robbers rather than the bankers. Interesting idea. But it wouldn’t make much of a movie.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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