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Originally published April 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 11, 2007 at 4:38 PM

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Do bank robbers think twice if hit with nice?

A "customer-service-on-steroids" approach may be helping reduce Seattle-area robberies.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Scott Taffera sensed something was wrong when a man walked into the Ballard bank branch he manages wearing garden gloves, a hat and sunglasses.

But instead of following the nonconfrontational strategy used by most banks with suspicious people, Taffera approached the man with a hearty greeting and an offer to help. He invited him to remove his hat and sunglasses, and guided him to an equally bubbly teller.

In the end, the oddly dressed man requested a roll of quarters before slinking out the door.

This new approach toward suspected bank robbers — dubbed by one FBI agent as "customer service on steroids" — may be one reason for a significant drop in bank robberies in the Seattle area.

Before, employees had little recourse when someone suspicious walked into a bank. In fact, they were trained to not approach such people and to accept the possibility they could be robbed.

About the only things a teller could do were activate an alarm or drop an exploding dye pack into a robber's haul of cash. Those measures are designed not to stop robberies, but to make the getaway more difficult. Special Agent Larry Carr of Seattle's FBI office said bank robbers are keenly aware of banks' nonconfrontational strategy. "I've interviewed bank robbers who believe it's state law for tellers to comply with them," he said.

But in "Safecatch," Carr has created a program designed to give potential crooks second thoughts about carrying out a bank robbery.

By focusing attention in the guise of good customer service on all who enter a bank, Carr says, bank employees can unnerve robbers, who generally try to remain as anonymous as possible when approaching a teller.

The ploy specifically targets so-called "note jobs," in which a robber passes a note demanding cash to a teller, Carr said. He estimates 90 percent of bank robberies in the Seattle area are note jobs.

Carr believes Safecatch is responsible for a significant drop in bank robberies this year.

In the first three months of 2006, the Seattle area had 80 bank robberies, compared with just 44 during the same period this year.

The drop is significant considering Washington state was the fourth-highest bank-robbery hot spot in the nation in 2006. With 272 robberies, Washington followed only the Los Angeles area (357), Boston (343) and Philadelphia (292), according to the FBI.

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Taffera and Drew Ness, his boss at First Mutual Bank, say the Safecatch method is different from any other training they've received.

During a Safecatch training session Tuesday morning, Carr told Taffera, Ness and their co-workers how important it is for them to adopt "neutral confrontation" with suspicious-looking people — for instance, a customer who comes in during the hottest days of summer in a parka and gloves. Under the program, a customer is greeted, escorted to a teller for personal assistance and then asked for identification.

But Carr reminded employees at the Ballard branch that they should never put themselves in danger, and they should comply with any demands made by an armed robber.

"You have to come at it with the perspective that you're going to be robbed," Carr told them. "You're given these tools, given the empowerment, and it makes it a more safe environment to be in."

Carr said the oddly dressed man encountered by Taffera last year might have been the so-called "Garden Glove Bandit." The gloved man, who robbed Seattle banks between March 2004 and November 2006, remains at large.

Carr said Taffera's approach may have unnerved the man and prompted him to decide against robbing the Ballard bank.

Other FBI offices and police officers across the nation have requested information on Safecatch, Carr said.

Ness, vice president of retail operations and security officer for Bellevue-based First Mutual, said he has explained elements of Safecatch to peers at other banks. He said some have started incorporating the entire program or parts of it.

Carr said he's taught the program to 16 banks across the state. But, he adds, each bank determines what security methods to use.

"It's not that they're uninterested in Safecatch, but they just have their own security program," Carr said. "Some banks see the need for Safecatch, and that's fine with us. The FBI is offering this program, and it's there for anyone who is there to take it."

Ness said he's been using a cheerful greeting to thwart would-be robbers for years. He said that when Carr approached him in 2005 with the concept of Safecatch, he jumped at the chance to make the practice more widespread.

"Retail has been doing it for years," Ness said, referring to stores that employ customer greeters. "If you're a legitimate customer, you think, 'This is the friendliest person I've met in my life.'

If you're a bad guy, it scares the lights out of you."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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