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Queens plagued by series of ‘unarmed’ bank heists

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Over the course of just two weeks this spring, a Ridgewood Savings Bank in Laurelton lost more than $15,000 in three separate robberies.

The southeast Queens bank robberies were part of at least 36 such incidents in the borough so far this year, according to a spot check compiled by the TimesLedger from Police Department records.

Nearly all the robberies were committed by note-passers who did not display a weapon. It was not clear how many of the robbery suspects had been arrested.

The robberies occurred in nearly every Queens neighborhood, from Laurelton to Bayside, Rego Park to Ozone Park, Queens Village to Astoria.

Police calculated there were 170 robberies in the five boroughs from Jan. 1 to April 20, up from a total of 57 during the same period last year. But they did not provide a breakdown based on the borough.

In January Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly noted a surge in unarmed bank robberies in the city compared to the beginning of 2002 and vowed to track the crimes more closely. The commissioner also announced that police would step up surveillance in and around banks that are robbery targets.

Kelly also said that he and Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be sending letters to bank chiefs asking them to improve security.

But the jump in bank robberies citywide continued over the next three months, prompting Bloomberg to publicly chide some financial institutions last month for not spending enough money to protect themselves.

In Laurelton, the Ridgewood Savings Bank at 230-22 Merrick Blvd. was robbed three times between April 9 and April 22 by different robbers. The men passed notes to tellers in each case, and made off with a total of $15,400 in cash, police said. None of the men were arrested.

The bank declined to comment on the heists.

Police arrested Karis Nembhard, 21, of Rochdale Village last Thursday on charges he held up a Chase Bank at 165-40 Baisley Blvd. April 23. Nembhard allegedly entered the bank, put a knife to the throat of a 70-year-old woman customer and demanded money, police said.

It was unclear how much money Nembhard allegedly made off with, but officers caught up with him in a 133rd Avenue backyard and placed him under arrest, authorities said.

Police said Tuesday they had arrested Bryan Brown, 37, in connection with 14 bank robberies in the city, including one at a North Fork branch in Ozone Park April 9.

The spot check showed that North Fork had had nine robberies at branches in Bayside, Ozone Park, Floral Park, Jamaica, Maspeth and Astoria since the beginning of the year.

Melville, L.I.-based North Fork ranked third citywide in the ratio of bank robberies to branches, according to Police Department statistics. North Fork Bank operates about 35 branches in Queens.

Edward Hausdorf, the bank's security director, said even Queens branches that were "smothered" with visible security cameras had been robbed.

"I personally don't see how it's the bank's fault," said Hausdorf, who suggested that tougher prison sentences for robbers and better publicity on arrests might help in deterring incidents.

Almost all the North Fork branches that were robbed had "bandit barriers," and one even had a security guard who attempted to chase down a robber to no avail, said Hausdorf.

In a meeting with bank officials last week, Kelly emphasized what the Police Department considered "best practices" for deterring would-be robbers.

Those practices included installing high-resolution, well-positioned security cameras, bulletproof floor-to-ceiling "bandit barriers" and putting security guards or employees at the bank entrance to greet customers.

It was also recommended at the meeting that banks notify each other by e-mail of robberies and suspect descriptions, and establish video links between bank cameras and police cars.

Washington Mutual, a Seattle, Wash.-based bank that began expanding into Queens this year and opened a branch in the Bayside Movie Theatre Building in February, has installed certain safety systems.

Its bank staff does not have access to a cash drawer, requiring bank customers to pick up their money from an automatic dispenser.

"In that way, it has resulted in being a more secure environment," said bank spokesman Derek Aney.

Nevertheless, Washington Mutual had 11 robberies in 46 branches citywide this year. The bank ranked fourth in the robbery-to-branch ratio after North Fork.

"We certainly take security very seriously, and the safety of our customers and employees is the highest priority we have," said Aney. "We spend a tremendous amount of time and resources to make sure we have secure facilities."

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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