Commerce Bank, as of May 18, had been robbed 22 times in New York City this year. Some have questioned if the bank’s “open atmosphere” policy has contributed to its number of robberies.

As Bank of America spreads across the Northeast, friendliness in bank branches has taken on new importance to other institutions trying to compete with the banking behemoth. The bank is known for a culture of customer-friendly branches, which include greeters to point customers in the right direction.

But for many banks, achieving the kind of welcoming atmosphere that Bank of America strives for involves a delicate balance between openness and security. One New Jersey bank that is set to expand into Connecticut later this year recently came under fire for its security practices after a slew of robberies in New York City. As of May 18, Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Commerce Bank had 22 robberies, a quarter of all bank robberies in the city, although it owns fewer than 3 percent of the city’s bank branches, according to the Associated Press.

New York City police Commissioner Raymond Kelly recently sent a letter to Commerce criticizing it for refusing to adopt security measures, including “bandit barriers,” or glass partitions between tellers and customers. Another city police officer told The New York Times that the decision against partitions is part of Commerce’s “open atmosphere” policy, according to the AP.

A suspect in nine robberies of Commerce Bank, 40-year-old John Dougherty, told police, “I hit them because they are the friendliest bank.”

But Commerce Bank executives say the rankings are unfair because its branches stay open seven days a week and have longer hours than other banks.

“In the last year, our transaction volume nearly doubled,” bank spokesman David Flaherty told the Times. “The rate of robberies per 100,000 transactions hasn’t changed any.”

A Real Worry

The number of bank robberies in Connecticut rose in 2003, which is the last year with full statistics. According to the Connecticut Bankers Association, there were 69 robberies in 2001, 72 in 2002 and 112 in 2003.

Physical layouts, like bandit barriers, do help keep robberies from occurring, but keeping an open atmosphere for branch customers is a real worry for executives.

“The banks’ concerns of [keeping] a friendly environment – that’s real,” said Randy Benore, director of product management for physical security for Ohio-based Diebold Inc.

Bank of America uses measures like bandit barriers in many of its locations, said Diane Wagner, a spokeswoman for the bank. In the Northeast, most of the branches have the barriers. But Wagner doesn’t see them as having a negative impact on customer relations, since they still allow tellers and customers to enjoy face-to-face interaction.

“I think it enhances our safety measures,” she said. “I think you can still have that open atmosphere [with security measures].”

Bandit barriers, along with several other measures, can be used to deter criminals, Benore said.

“Certainly there is an element of physical layout [that can deter crime],” he noted.

For most institutions, the primary goal during a robbery is to keep everyone in the bank from getting hurt. The secondary goal is to minimize loss, according to Benore.

Some bank branches are more subject to robbery because of their location. Branches near an expressway or a subway entrance have a higher chance of being robbed because of the easy escape.

So bank executives often try to “harden” those branches against robbers. Bandit barriers work because they make the teller feel more protected, Benore said.

“The teller feels protected and therefore less likely to give in and pass money,” he said.

In certain markets, their use is a given. Washington, D.C., historically has a high rate of bank robberies; today almost all the banks there use the barriers as a matter of course.

But some banks have concerns that the barriers could make customers feel pushed away and like the bank is protecting their employees, but not their customers, Benore said.

Many security measures have some drawbacks, and deciding which are worth it can be difficult for banks.

“It’s a very delicate balance between being consumer-friendly and being practical,” said Lindsay Pinkham, vice president of the Connecticut Bankers Association.

Other deterrents to crime include putting a security guard in the lobby, Benore said. Guards are often not expected to stop a robbery once it begins, but many bank executives hope he or she will keep one from happening. But security guards can run into problems if a violent criminal decides to rob a bank. The robber will sometimes decide to take out the guard before proceeding, Benore said.

Another measure some banks use to help prevent robberies is a bulletproof vestibule with a metal detector. The system is automatic, and a door into the bank will open if the metal detector doesn’t find anything metal on the customer. But if it finds something metal, the customer can talk to a teller and display the item before the teller lets them into the bank.

“It keeps the inside of the lobby open and friendly,” Benore said. “That’s being used more and more.”

The system is quite successful in keeping guns out of bank branches, but can slow down customers’ entrance to the bank, Benore said.

Bank of America uses another kind of security system for its safety deposit boxes. Instead of giving customers keys and requiring a teller to go into a vault and help unlock a safety deposit box, the bank uses a system that scans the bone structure in the hand of the customers. When that matches, the customer also must enter a code and use a key to get his or her safety deposit box, Wagner said.

The Connecticut Association of Bankers is introducing a new fraud-alert system that bankers hope will also help cut down on robberies. The system, called Fincrime, will allow banks to communicate within their companies, with each other and with law enforcement, Pinkham said.

Although some security measures can be slightly inconveniencing for customers, they are becoming more accepted, Benore said.

“I would say the acceptance of security has gone up since 9/11,” he said.

The number of bank robberies across the country has gone down, but the violence associated with them has gone up, added Benore, who compared security measures to insurance.

“Nobody likes to pay the insurance bill, but you’re sure glad you did [when something bad happens],” he said.