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Denver's bank robbery czar weighs in on all the stick-ups

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Today, while law enforcement and bank honchos were meeting to discuss a recent upsurge in Denver-area bank robberies, a new bank was hit a little over a mile away.

Score one for the robbers.

In total, there were 208 robberies in Colorado and Wyoming in 2009, a 37 percent increase from the year before. What's the deal with all the stick-ups? Is the sour financial situation turning everybody into scofflaws?

Probably not, says Phil Niedringhaus, the FBI special agent in charge of the Rocky Mountain Safe Streets Task Force, the law-enforcement team charged with tracking down all the robbers. (To read about the unusual crew and their strangely named targets, check out this Westword feature).

"I don't think you can blame it on the economy," he says. "If you say bank robberies go up when the economy is bad, then you are implying that good people, when they don't have any money, turn to robbing banks." Such a concept doesn't sit well with him, nor do statistics bear it out. He points out the vast majority of bank robbers are far from first-time offenders.

So what's causing the crime wave? Niedringhaus believes it's a confluence of factors. Any time bank robberies do pick up -- as they did around the holidays -- new organizations report on it, and those stories may incite other criminals to get in on the action.

Whatever the reason for increased robberies, Safe Streets and its partners in crime fighting are on the case. That's why the met with bank representatives today, to discuss new and improved security. One suggestion Neidringhaus mentions involves placing security cameras lower to the ground, to capture the stick-up artists' faces. "We want them to lower the camera angles so we are getting face shots and not just the top of peoples' heads," he says. "The cameras are usually lined up to see what the teller is doing, not what the people in front of them look like."

Another thing banks can do? Post signs in the lobby asking customers to remove hats, hoods and sunglasses. That way, low-key "note job" robbers -- who act like a normal customer, sans mask, until they pass a note to a teller demanding the loot -- will have to expose their faces.

Who knows: Maybe these security measures will help the dozen or so Safe Streets members capture some of the prolific robbers currently on the prowl. To help keep them all straight and capture the public's attention, Safe Streets members come up with colorful names for each target. Right now, for example, the crew is hot on the trail of the Portfolio Bandit, the $83 Bandit and Hopping Hooded Bandits.

Since Safe Streets is located in the heart of the National Western Stock Show grounds, they also had to deal with working amid the chaos that is the massive stock show for the last few weeks in January.

"It's just something else," says Neidringhaus, an old ranch hand himself. "It's like having a circus in your front yard."

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