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Stick ’em up: Wild West in New York

New York, May 6 (Reuters): The old-fashioned “Stick ’em Up” — the daylight bank robbery more associated with the days of the Wild West than with modern America — is making a comeback in New York.

Criminologists first noticed the trend late last year when the sluggish economy sent the Big Apple’s jobless rate soaring to its highest level in a decade. But hold-ups have tripled this year and now happen as often as three or four times a day.

Masked men have repeatedly struck big and small banks in Manhattan, including on the wealthy Upper East Side, home to many Wall Street executives and celebrities.

Brandishing a partially concealed brown bag that has the sinister hint of a gun, the robbers typically pass a written note to the teller demanding cash and then usually take relatively small amounts before fleeing.

“These small-time guys go where the money is,” said Eli Silverman of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“A lot of these are crimes of opportunity... the economic decline probably aggravates it, but they might have been doing it anyway,” Silverman said.

Most of the hold-ups this year have been non-violent and the thieves usually take a few thousand dollars at a time, often much less.

Some of the robberies are for money to buy food or drugs, but the epidemic is one crime category that the much-vaunted New York Police Department has been unable to crack. And it comes after years of aggressive policing that has cut the murder rate to its lowest level since the 1960s and made the city’s streets safer.

Police and bank officials have squabbled publicly over who to blame for the hold-ups. Last month, they held a meeting at which the police “read the riot act” to bank executives, said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg accused the banks of not providing enough security because the cost of losing small amounts of cash in robberies was less than that of trying to prevent them.

The bankers contended that they were working with the police to beat the robbers.

“The industry has made this initiative a top priority,” said Michael Smith, president of the New York Bankers’ Association, which represents many of the top 20 US banks.

Bloomberg said some banks had taken precautions and would-be robbers avoided them, but others would have to step up security. “Word is also out that some banks don’t care, that you pass the note, you get some money and you get away with it,” said Bloomberg. “Some day, that’s going to lead to somebody getting shot and killed.”

Surveillance cameras and video systems installed inside banks or at automated teller machines are too poorly maintained or out of date to be helpful to the police. As the mayor was speaking, a bank was robbed in Queens and two more were held up later in the day — one just a block from City Hall.

The average haul in the heists is less than $5,000, but as little as $98 was stolen from a Brooklyn bank last month by a man strung out on drugs. In March, a homeless man robbed a Manhattan bank so he could buy food, the police said.

By mid-April, there were at least 170 bank robberies in all five city boroughs compared with 57 over the same period a year ago, the police data showed.

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