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“No hats, no hoods, no sunglasses” debate calls for care

Respect, judgment, and facts must be weighed

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  • By  Leslie Callaway and Heather Wyson, ABA
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  • Comments:   comments
“No hats, no hoods, no sunglasses” debate calls for care

Many ABA Banking Journal readers refer monthly to the magazine’s “Compliance Clinic Inbox” feature, where banker questions are answered by ABA experts. Periodically compliance issues come up that warrant a special focus.

Q. My bank wants to institute a "No Hats, No Hoods, No Sunglasses" program to mitigate the risk of robbery and harm to our customers and employees. What do I need to consider when instituting this policy?

A. "No Hats, No Hoods, No Sunglasses" is a program started almost 10 years ago and is used in a number of financial institutions. This “No Hats” policy is intended as a deterrent to would-be robbers by making it easier to identify and capture anyone committing a crime or by preventing such crimes from occurring altogether. Simply put, a policy asking bank customers to remove hats, hoods, and sunglasses while in the bank, through  posting signage on bank doors and inside branches, serves as one of a number of measures a financial institution can take to addresses the issue of bank robberies.

Or is it really that simple?

Recently, a New Jersey bank posted signage in its branches asking patrons of the bank to remove headgear before entering the premises. The sign, which included a picture of a woman wearing Islamic headwear (Hijab) came to the attention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

The organization wrote to the bank, asking it to respect the rights of people wearing religious head covering and asking that the bank remove the signage. The bank complied with the ADC’s request. The ADC has asked all financial institutions to consider the ramifications of "No Hats, No Hoods, No Sunglasses" and similar signage.

The New Jersey case is not isolated. In 2012, a Tulsa, Okla., bank that had a “no hats, no hoods, no sunglasses” safety policy in place for over six years was accused of singling out Muslim women and other people of faith who wear religious headwear. The bank explained that its policy was based on a recommended security measure from the Oklahoma Bankers Association and because it applies to anyone entering the bank, is not discriminatory.

Following this incident, however, the Oklahoma Bankers Association mitigated its policy. Mary Beth Guard, a Bankers Association attorney, addressed the topic in the group's industry newsletter, Oklahoma Banker, writing:

“If someone came in with a ski mask to cash a check or open an account, you wouldn't hesitate to tell them they would need to remove it so you could take a gander at them, but when the head covering is worn for religious purposes, a more sensitive approach is required.”

One banker said that when her bank received its signs from a vendor, the sign depicted a person in a hood and sunglasses who was obviously non-white. This angered customers and the bank ordered new signs without any pictures.

Banks aren't alone in dealing with this issue. In a March 10, 2009, article in the Washington Post business section, reporter Matt Zapotosky reported that a Muslim woman was asked to leave her place in line at a credit union in southern Maryland and be served in a back room because the head scarf she wore for religious reasons violated the institution's "no hats, hoods, or sunglasses" policy. The customer was acutely embarrassed.

This issue extends beyond just persons of the Muslim faith. Many Catholic nuns wear habits covering their heads and in some faiths, men cannot remove their hats for religious reasons. In addition, a person going through chemotherapy could be wearing a surgical mask to prevent infection or a head scarf due to hair loss. A blind person could wear dark glasses.

Despite such potential drawbacks and objections, a number of banks and state bankers associations support the “No Hats” policy because they believe the policy protects both customers and employees. In some municipalities the police have partnered with banks to post this signage in the hope of educating the public and increasing voluntary compliance. In 2008, the Florida Bankers Association reported that some 40% of all bank robberies involve some kind of facial disguise: masks, helmets, or other head coverings. Missouri reportedly saw a 47% drop in bank heists after adopting the “No hats” policy in 2002.

Banks are mixed in their use of such policies. Early in 2013, the American Bankers Association conducted a survey of 22 of the largest banks in the United States. Only five had a "no hats" policy in any of their markets. Of the remaining 17, one bank indicated that it had a policy previously, but had rescinded it. Another stated that it was considering reinstating its policy and another stated that its policy is to allow employees to request removal but that employees are encouraged to attempt identification without requesting removal of headgear.

Banks surveyed that have adopted such a policy stressed politeness and non-confrontation. For example, employees are encouraged to make exceptions for headgear or sunglasses worn for religious or medical reasons. Bank responses to a refusal to comply with the request for removal of headgear ran the gamut from processing the customer's transaction—but taking appropriate security measures that included proper identification—to asking the customer to leave.

Policies to help discourage and identify criminals are of course commendable as they help banks protect their customers and employees. The challenge is to balance that goal with the need to be sensitive to religious and cultural beliefs and consider whether there are alternative ways to protect customers and employees than simply banning all facial and head covers.

For example, elaborate disguises are unusual in robberies because, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Erik Vasys, the robber needs to blend in with the public once the robber leaves the bank.

While determining the best way to protect employees and customers in a public place such as a bank can be extremely difficult, banks can and should work closely with law enforcement to develop and keep current on the latest robbery trends. Banks can also partner with law enforcement to provide ongoing training on responding to robberies and preserving evidence after a robbery. Because bank robberies are often a serialized crime involving more than one bank, sharing data with other banks, through joining a bank robbery alerting and analysis system like ABA’s BankCapture, can also help.

Bottom line: Each bank needs to determine what works best for that bank, based upon its customer base and an assessment of the risk each office presents to the bank. "No Hats" signage can be a part of the bank’s overall robbery deterrence efforts—but only if managed with awareness and sensitivity.

Each bank should analyze its branch robbery risk to give management a better understanding of the factors that contribute to it, as it is only after analyzing the issues specific to each branch that an appropriate policy can be established regarding which robbery prevention techniques the bank should use.

About the authors

Leslie Callaway is co-author of ABA Banking Journal’s monthly “Compliance Clinic Inbox” Q&A department. She is Compliance Project Manager in ABA’s Office of the Chief Economist. Enter for Regulatory Compliance. Heather Wyson is senior director, risk management policy, at ABA.

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