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Back to Archives | Back to March 2009 Contents 

SafeCatch: An Educational Partnership Offering More Customer Development and Less Crime

By Paul Seibert, Certified Management Consultant, and Vice President, Financial Services, EHS Design, Seattle, Washington

t 2:25 on a Thursday afternoon, a man in his mid-30s, wearing jeans, a white T-shirt, a short jacket, a baseball cap, and dark sunglasses enters a busy bank branch. He appears nervous and stops momentarily inside the entrance, quickly surveying the surroundings. Before he can get much farther, a branch employee approaches him, offering a handshake and asking how he can help.

“Good afternoon! I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. My name is Mark—how can I help you?”

Mark has just taken the first step either in delivering great customer service or in foiling an attempted robbery—or both. It can be hard to tell. But that is the beauty of SafeCatch, a behavior-based system designed to thwart attempted robberies and fraud.

As U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent in charge of bank robbery coordination in the Seattle Division, Larry Carr developed the SafeCatch concept in 2006 in response to an increase in robberies and a decrease in the quality of robber recognition and apprehension. The concept is founded on three key principles:

  • Staff vigilance and safe, “friendly” action

  • Clear suspect recognition

  • Effective postincident follow-up

Since then, staff have been trained at more than 350 branches—and these institutions are already seeing results, with one large institution, Bank of America in Washington state, reporting a 70 percent reduction in robberies since the program was initiated.

For staff in the banking industry, the prospect of being robbed is always a concern. Over the years, much has been done to protect against robbery and to teach staff to react appropriately and safely in the event of an attempted robbery. Yet robberies continue to take place, and in many parts of the country, they are increasing. This is because the “tried and true” practices adopted by most financial institutions are simply ineffective. Yet these techniques have become ingrained in the practices of banks, credit unions, and even police authorities. There is a better approach.

Proactive Security Measures

Common wisdom in the banking industry would suggest that the best way to respond to a potential robbery is through compliance: not approaching the person, activating a hidden alarm, and handing over the cash. From this perspective SafeCatch could be described as taking a counterintuitive approach. The goal of most bank robbers is to remain as anonymous as possible when approaching a teller—to “fade into the surroundings,” so to speak. By calling out suspicious-looking or unfamiliar visitors to a branch, bank employees take away that anonymity and take the first step toward avoiding a potential robbery.

Branch managers and staff agree. Scott Taffera, manager of a First Mutual Bank branch in Ballard, Washington, was interviewed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about his experience integrating SafeCatch into his branch operation. “Before we got trained, we had always been under the mind-frame to be defenseless. The robber approached a teller, he comes to you—you just have to be the victim and comply.” Now Taffera feels that his staff are empowered: “SafeCatch has done a great job of giving us back that sense of security.”1

“Many tellers have admitted they thought something was suspicious sometimes several minutes before they were robbed,” stated Carr. “With the traditional response, even though tellers know they are about to be robbed, they have no tools to deal with it other than simply to wait and hope for the best. With SafeCatch, they no longer have to wait to become a victim.”

Program Design

There are two parts to the SafeCatch program: “Safe,” steps designed to deter would-be robbers from moving forward with their intended crime, and “Catch,” the portion of the program that is implemented if, at any point, a demand has been made.

In this case, Safe is an acronym that stands for scan (for suspicious persons); alert (relevant personnel and help); friendly, neutral confrontation; and escape (as in, escape by the perpetrator should not mean the end of the situation). SafeCatch does not rely on expensive barriers, cameras, two-way glass, or other devices. Instead, it is a set of principles that could have a huge impact on bank security.

SafeCatch incorporates five key points that make the program effective and sustainable:

  • Simple staff training and alignment with effective customer development and service principles

  • Technical branch architecture and design that support SafeCatch principles, cause would-be robbers to act in predictable ways, and drive a powerful and productive branded customer service experience

  • Accurate placement of video technologies to increase robber recognition and speed of suspect photo distribution

  • Restructuring of robbery procedures to enhance response time and increase safety; response times are dropping from 13 to 5 minutes on average

  • Ongoing performance measurement

Bank employees exposed to SafeCatch principles have felt empowered by the process. Unlike traditional robbery training, which tells staff to passively respond to a robbery, SafeCatch shows staff how to take control of their branch environments. In the process, the program increases staff and customer safety, which is the ultimate goal.

Training is a critical element of the program. The initial session can be completed in about 90 minutes. It is important to note, however, that years of ingrained banking habits cannot be washed away in an hour and a half. Ongoing, focused training followed with refresher training can reprogram bank employees to the extent that they will not forget the new principles and turn back to old habits in the heat and anxiety of the moment. For this reason, it is important for bank and security leaders to understand thoroughly themselves the philosophy behind SafeCatch; only in so doing can a bank successfully retrain its employees to embrace the new principles.

SafeCatch principles are not just for banks; they can be applied tp retail and public environments such as jewelry stores, convention centers, and airports as well.
For banks, SafeCatch and the supporting architecture offer not only a deterrent to crime and a methodology for quickly recovering if a robbery should occur, but the elements of the program also serve to support and strengthen customer service. More psychological than physical in nature, the training that bank staff receive through the program emphasizes staff-customer contact more than techniques for apprehension.

Development of the New Approach

About three years ago, a presentation was given on the principles that would become SafeCatch to a group of bank security officers, including Drew Ness, a representative of First Mutual Bank (now Washington Federal Savings), based in Bellevue, Washington. Some of the ideas Larry Carr suggested were a bit revolutionary for the ears that were there, but Ness accepted an offer to review First Mutual’s policies and procedures to see if there might be opportunities to strengthen its ability to suppress and apprehend robbers. Noticing the potential benefits of these principles, Ness worked with Carr over the next year to “tweak some of the suggestions to make them more palatable to retail banking.” First Mutual became a laboratory of sorts for what would eventually become SafeCatch. Not only did this partnership result in a reduction in attempted or actual robberies and fraud for First Mutual, but there were important residual effects as well.

Anyone who has been a victim of a robbery or an attempted robbery knows that it is psychologically traumatizing, regardless of whether the perpetrator has a gun, because there is the assumed threat of a gun. Before SafeCatch, such an event might cause a traumatized employee to miss several days, weeks, or even months of work. But with SafeCatch principles in place, what is fascinating to observe is that with the handful of successful suppressions First Mutual had, none of the individuals involved experienced that psychological trauma. SafeCatch has been a benefit to bank management and employees alike.

Understanding the benefits, First Mutual retrofitted elements of the SafeCatch approach in its 12 branches. For other banks building new branches, though, there are even greater opportunities to take advantage of the program to build in security from the ground up.

Integrating SafeCatch Principles into Facility Design

North Shore Credit Union (NSCU) is a progressive and spirited financial institution in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. NSCU operates much like an advanced bank, even paying taxes. Considering a new concept to differentiate its branches from those of its competitors, it wanted to create a customer, staff, and target community experience unchallenged by any other bank or credit union in the market. NSCU wanted a concept that would reinforce its strong brand, connect with target customers and communities, and provide a highly productive business model. In addition, it wanted a branch design and operating concept that would ensure the safety of customers and staff.

Enter Seattle, Washington–based EHS Design. EHS Design’s consulting practice to the financial industry is also concerned about branch security. The EHS team has completed the design of more than 1,600 branches and numerous brand-image projects for financial institutions nationally and internationally. Its vice president of financial services has authored the United States’ only comprehensive books for financial institutions on planning and design through Time Warner, Scheshunoff Information Systems, and the Credit Union Executives Society.

By combining Carr’s expertise with the capabilities of EHS Design, the two partners believe that they have developed a customer service process and the supporting SafeCatch architecture that will significantly reduce the number of robberies at banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions while enhancing branch performance in terms of customer development.

Figure 1. NSCU customer engagement area, where visitors can
be observed for suspicious activities or body language
Photo by permission of North Shore Credit Union

SafeCatch security enhancements have been fully integrated into the NSCU experience, including the concierge, who greets customers at the door; the customer engagement area (figure 1); and interactions with highly trained relationship staff at transaction pods (figure 2) and throughout the entry and exiting process. Visible and hidden cameras have been positioned to ensure clear capture of people entering and leaving each branch; cash recyclers are employed to protect cash while offering more teller focus and customer relationship building; and customer photos are displayed on each staff member’s monitor during transactions. The first branch that employed the new branch business model and SafeCatch experienced a fivefold increase in customer and deposit development, which it continues to enjoy today, proving that enhancing security does not need to get in the way of a compelling customer experience and strong target market growth.
Figure 2. Relationship development staff
at teller pods Photo by permission of
North Shore Credit Union

SafeCatch design concepts provide a common ground for managers of security, facilities, branch banking, and marketing to enjoy mutual benefits. They empower staff to manage the customer branch experience and feel secure about their actions before, during, and after a robbery. The principles of designing both high-performance customer development environments and applying SafeCatch are so close in process and execution that both objectives are attainable without compromise. In fact, the sum of the combined objectives is proving to be greater.

But although facility enhancements can certainly strengthen the elements of the SafeCatch program, the most significant value comes from behavioral and process changes that staff learn through a convergent training process. In the traditional model, security and customer development training are separate. However, SafeCatch can easily be combined with other training due to the parallel nature of its process; this integration elevates the importance of both training initiatives, making them “stick” and thus enhancing their level of success.

Impediments to Adoption

SafeCatch is not an expensive proposition for financial institutions. The training through the Seattle Division of the FBI is free; other, physical alterations to branches can be minimal in the design of new branches. However, the potential for more cost exists when retrofitting existing branches to accommodate the type of flow, camera placement, and interaction necessary to make the program most effective.

Despite the low cost, it has proved challenging to sell the concept to large institutions. The training covers techniques and methods that are often counterintuitive and fly in the face of traditional wisdom just to hand over the money and, when it appears safe to do so, sound an alarm. For some banks, the relatively low number of yearly robberies and limited amount of funds lost does not warrant changing training or modifying branch design. Because the concept may be contrary to practices already in place, it can be difficult to convince security managers to change their policies and approaches and condone a philosophy with which they are not familiar.

In fact, the innovative behavioral elements of the program, coupled with the low cost, may actually be an impediment to adoption. Many organizations—and individuals—are a little skeptical to jump on board with something that is virtually free. Furthermore, SafeCatch training is less tangible than a $40,000 bullet-resistant shield at the teller line, a $50,000 man trap at the entry, or a $150,000 replacement of tellers with automated or remote teller technologies.

Existing branches may require some investment in retrofitting to make the minimal modifications necessary to change the existing traffic flow or setup. But the cost is very low, and the modifications are relatively simple.

“It can be said that the first ‘costs’ to a financial institution are a dose of humility and the recognition that it needs to be open to new ideas and suggestions. Whereas sales personnel are generally more open to such feedback, bank security officers tend to be on the conservative side,” states Ness.

Positive Results

Despite the industry resistance, the concept is catching on, and numbers are now available to indicate that SafeCatch can make a significant difference in robbery experience for financial institutions.

Bank of America is one of the early adopters of SafeCatch in Washington. Between 1996 and 2006, this bank averaged 50 robberies per year in Washington. In 2007, there were only 15, while robberies in Oregon where slightly higher. This is a very dramatic reduction suggesting the significant positive impact of SafeCatch.

Statewide 2008 robbery statistics paint an impressive picture as well. In the late 1990s, Washington bank robberies peaked at 350 in one year. Branch tellers began receiving SafeCatch training in mid-2006. In 2007, bank robberies declined to 176, the lowest point in 20 years, and in 2008, the robbery rate dropped even more, to 153. Additionally, the FBI’s Seattle Division solved 71 percent of the bank robbery cases last year, compared with 61 percent of the cases in 2006. This success is attributed to improved suspect recognition and reduced police response times. Banks and law enforcement agencies across the United States can enjoy the same lower robbery rates with the adoption of SafeCatch.


SafeCatch is not a highly physical or technological solution. Rather, it is one driven by human nature—the desire to engage with customers and the observation of people and activities within one’s environment. It changes the way staff see their roles in the everyday operation of a highly effective branch facility. But most importantly, the improvements enabled by SafeCatch training directly benefit the security and safety of bank employees and customers.

For those interested in implementing the principles of SafeCatch in their branch business model and design, the best time to integrate the approach into the institution’s practices is when a new branch business model and prototype are being developed. New branch business modeling can integrate SafeCatch principles with modest modification to the plan. It is possible, though, to retrofit existing branches with SafeCatch components to enhance the application of SafeCatch principles as well as the customer’s experience, as First Mutual has done.

One of the reasons SafeCatch should be an attractive concept for banks is that it delivers more than just enhanced security at a modest cost. It also can deliver a significantly heightened level of customer development and cross-selling, as well as share-of-wallet and high net advocacy scores. Each customer entering a branch is addressed, creating a customer-centered environment and providing opportunities for development. This same focus causes staff to address unknown visitors in a friendly and nonthreatening way. A quick greeting such as, “Hi, My name is Chris I am the manager. How can I help you?” works with both potential robbers and new customers as well.

To learn more about how to integrate SafeCatch into existing or new branches and discuss the undisclosed elements that are not being made public knowledge for security reasons, readers can visit or contact the author at 206-223-4999 or via e-mail at

The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Jaime Carter in the development of this article.


1Paul Shukovsky, “Bank Robberies Hit a 20-Year Low: Intense Customer Service Driving Crime Away,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 4, 2008, (accessed January 22, 2009).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 3, March 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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