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By Peter Reuell/Daily News staff
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Posted Aug 09, 2008 @ 11:14 PM


Marlborough police investigate a bank robbery outside the Commerce Bank last year.

The report of the robbery came in at about 1:30 Tuesday afternoon: A man had walked into the TD Banknorth branch on Temple Street, handed a teller a note saying he had a gun, and made off with just over $700.

Within minutes, police were on the scene, interviewing witnesses, reviewing the bank's security camera footage and broadcasting a description of the robber and his getaway car.

What they didn't do at least not initially was call the FBI.

Although once viewed as one of the central missions of the FBI, investigating bank robberies in recent years has taken a back seat to larger, wider-ranging investigations such as the international identity theft ring, which targeted TJX customers, and investigating suspected terrorists.

"Right now, homeland security, that is one of their biggest focuses," Westborough Police Chief Alan Gordon said last week, of the FBI.

The FBI still responds to requests for help from local departments, and agents serve as key members of a state-wide bank robbery taskforce. The feds get reports of virtually all robberies state-wide, but the bureau is no longer the font of technical expertise it once was.

"Years ago, you got the FBI out there, because they did a lot of the forensic stuff," Milford Police Chief Thomas O'Loughlin said. "Now, you place a call to the State Police Crime Lab and they come out."

In most cases, he added, local departments have the skills to do the same type of fingerprint work themselves, and even have the ability to feed prints found at a robbery into computer databases.

"The expertise has filtered down," Gordon said. "Local departments, they have people that can do the same things the experts do."

So why call in the FBI at all?

"As it related to bank robbery, (they) target those that are violent and target the repeaters," O'Loughlin said. "That's where they put those resources."

As they rack up robberies, O'Loughlin said, bank robbers often fall into familiar patterns wearing similar disguises or passing notes to tellers with similar wording, for example making it easy to spot robbers who have targeted more than one bank.

"You basically run the particulars by them," he said. "You say 'he said this or did that'...they say 'jeez, it sounds like a guy we have that hit here, here and here."'

Most cases, though, don't demand the FBI's attention, O'Loughlin said.

In many cases, he said, bank robbers are drug users who are simply looking for a quick way to get their hands on cash, not the professional criminals some people imagine.

In one recent case, O'Loughlin said, a bank employee called police before the robbery took place. The two robbers fled, and later successfully robbed a bank in Upton, only to be caught hours later.

"We knew who they were, really, that afternoon," he said. "Do you need the taskforce to come out for that one? No, you know who you're looking for."

While they may be the first to respond to a robbery, most local officers, such as Waltham Police Detective Brian Smith, are more than happy to work with federal agents.

"We're always the first ones to respond, but many times within the hour, the FBI is there," he said. "Anytime we've had a bank robbery in the past, they typically respond."

"Thankfully, we haven't been plagued by (bank robberies)," Hopkinton Police Chief Tom Irvin said last week.

The last robbery, he said, came in 1994, when he was still a sergeant in the department, and the FBI caught the robber, who had hit nearly a dozen other banks in the state.

"Really, I can't weigh in as far as there being a time when we sought assistance and were told, 'Sorry, we don't do that anymore,"' Irvin said. "I think it's clear, in the post-9/11 world, a lot more has been put on the FBI's plate, and the state police's plate and local law enforcement's plate.

"I think the allocation of resources is something every agency, federal, state or local has to evaluate, but from our personal experience...when you've needed the FBI you pick up the phone."

"We welcome all cooperation from the federal authorities and other departments," said Framingham Police Lt. Paul Shastany. "We do not want to put blinders on to information other agencies may possess when trying to solve the case.

"Our philosophy is if we have information to share to help someone else solve their bank robbery, or if they have information for us, we will work together."

http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/news/x1507909556/FBI-not-always-needed-at-bank-robberies
 
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