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Financial institutions face many challenges in 2021. Digital and business security stories catch the headlines—usually illustrated with a photo of smashed bank windows. But the general trend is how to treat cybercrime, the only “real threat” to US banking.
That said, physical security and in-person banking are still huge issues. It’s true that, in many communities, the pandemic largely hit pause on traditional threats like bank robberies and ATM attacks. But that same period also saw banks increasingly at odds with both organized protest movements and rioting mobs, despite efforts to “help many small-business clients recover from their second major economic blow this year and figure out how banks can promote long-term socioeconomic change” and social justice.
The Evolving Safety and Threat Environment for Banks
On June 17 the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP) released their 15th edition of the Global Peace Index, noting that 2020 saw 14,871 violent demonstrations, protests, and riots. This amounts to a 10% increase in civil unrest globally. But that increase was not evenly distributed. Some areas, such as Ukraine and Iraq, actually saw decreased civil unrest in 2020. But the report authors note that, overall, “three times as many countries deteriorated than improved [and] … North America had the largest deterioration on the index[,] fueled by political instability in the US.”
This dovetails with a reported massive single-year rise in U.S. homicides. According to NPR, “At the end of 2020, Chicago police reported more than 750 murders, a jump of more than 50% compared with 2019. By mid-December, Los Angeles saw a 30% increase over the previous year with 322 homicides. There were 437 homicides in New York City by Dec. 20, nearly 40% more than the previous year.” NY Mayor Bill de Blasio attributed this both to stresses of coronavirus and lockdown—and to “the fact that the criminal justice system is on pause and that’s causing a lot of problems.”
According to New Orleans-based data consultant Jeff Asher, this isn’t limited to big cities. “We’re going to see, historically, the largest one-year rise in murder rates that we’ve ever seen,” he says. Asher further noted that the country has not seen a year-to-year murder rate increase more than 13% in more than 50 years.
Final national murder update of 2020:
Murder up 36.7% in 57 agencies with data through at least September (though most have data through November). Murder up in 51 of 57, 37 of 58 agencies reporting murder up more than 30%.
— Jeff Asher (@Crimealytics) December 29, 2020
Bank Windows and Security
Given these realities, many U.S. banks took precautions. For example, across the nation, they shuttered branches and boarded up bank windows prior to the November 2020 presidential election. In many parts of the U.S. (for example, in the Pacific Northwest), some banks and conspicuous businesses still had windows covered with “temporary” plywood as of July 2021.
“It is an unprecedented move for the industry,” John Friedlander, an expert in security risk management told American Banker last year. Friedlander could think of no other instance in American history where banks had seen the need to take such measures prior to an election. Nonetheless, he concluded it was “obviously warranted” based on how financial institutions were “caught off guard earlier this year  when protests over racial injustice turned violent in some U.S. cities and caused millions of dollars in damage.” He concluded that “For those with branch locations that are foreseeably in the pathway of protest activity or those that were victimized previously, it would be prudent for them to implement such measures to prevent vandalism or intrusion.”
Jim Richards, CEO of Total Security Solutions, saw this unfold firsthand. “During the pandemic and then all that followed, we saw banks really working to adapt. They took the steps to continue safely serving their customers, despite everything. These are really challenging times. Everywhere. Even as we return to more normal business operations, and the political and financial outlook starts to look better for more people, we’ve got to remember: This has been a traumatic year. This period of reopening, it’s bound to be just as bumpy as shutting down. We have a responsibility to help keep each other safe and healthy through it all.”