Managing a Hostage-Robbery Crisis
In the span of just two months from December 2016 to January 2017, criminals used employees and members as hostages and terrorized them during robbery attempts at three credit union branches in Florida, Alabama and California.
Although no one was hurt, executives explain how these traumatic events affected their credit unions in the aftermath, how they managed the hostage crisis and what were the most important lessons learned.
Shortly after 9 a.m., Nicholas Humphrey walked into a Jacksonville, Fla., branch of the $1.5 billion Community First Credit Union posing as a blind man with a dog on a leash. He then pulled out a gun and took eight employees and five members hostage. During a tense two-hour standoff with police, he demanded money and threatened to kill the hostages.
Surveillance video shows Humphrey letting go of one of the hostages. Soon after that, two employees who were hiding escaped and Humphrey walked up to the front of the credit union, threw his gun and stood with his hands up at the front door. The surveillance video then shows Humphrey on the floor with his arms extended when a SWAT team rushed the building, arrested him and freed the members and employees.
John Hirabayashi, president/CEO of Community First, was at a meeting when he got a text from his assistant that there was a hostage situation at the branch.
He immediately left the meeting and called three executive to meet him at the branch.
Hirabayashi instinctively knew it was important for executives to be onsite to see first-hand what was going on and to provide whatever kind of support they could offer.
“We had other senior leadership walking the hallways (at other offices, branches) really trying to be extraordinarily visible so that our employees knew that we were doing everything we could to help bring this to whatever type of resolution we could successfully, because they are looking at this [incident] in real-time on the internet,” he explained. “You never want to be in a situation where leadership is not exactly where it needs to be when something of this magnitude is happening.”
Fortuitously, before the hostage crisis, the credit union installed a new security camera system that produced very high-resolution images and expanded the internal views of the branch.
This was very helpful for the SWAT team because it was able to monitor just about everything that was going on inside the branch and prepare a plan to end the hostage crisis.
“The value of those HD cameras that we had just installed was huge,” Roger Rassman, vice president of marketing for Community First, said. “If I was to give advice to another credit union about how they could prepare [for a crisis like this] that's a big deal to have those [HD cameras] in place.”
Following the hostage-attempted robbery, the credit union was monitoring for rumors about why that branch was selected by the suspect.
“Every reporter wanted to try to make some connection between the criminal and us,” Rassman said.
Wild rumors circulated that the criminal's family worked for the credit union or that the criminal's girlfriend worked at Community First, or that the criminal once worked for the credit union and became a disgruntled employee. Rassman said the credit union responded to all of these rumors via email, and its web page and social media site, noting the credit union's goal was to be upfront and transparent to keep the rumor mill from spinning out of control.
What was on the minds of many Alabama Credit Union employees on the morning of Jan. 10 was how their University of Alabama football team blew an 11-point fourth quarter lead to lose the national championship to Clemson University.
But their day was about to go from bad to worse.
At about 8:30 a.m., a gun-wielding man, Cedrick Collins, overpowered two female employees as they walked into credit union's University of Alabama branch. He held 11 employees captive and terrorized them during the hours-long standoff.
Once inside, Collins confiscated employees’ mobile phones and then held his gun to their heads demanding that they open the vault. While sobbing, employees explained the vault could not be opened because of a timing mechanism and coding controls. Because Collins continued to threaten employees, the credit union managed to open the vault, however.
ACU learned Collins was hiding behind the four-foot tall shrubbery near the employees’ entrance after they received the safety signal to enter the branch.
“We wiped all of that [shrubbery] stuff down,” Kaycee M. Bell, ACU's chief development officer, said. “We have now the ugliest employee entrance in the history of employee entrances there, but now there is nowhere for anyone to hide. What we learned there is what your landscaping people want your site to look like is a little different from what your security people want your site to look like.”
Communications with worried employees, anxious relatives of the hostages and others was different and challenging, ACU found, in part because everyone was watching the traumatic event on the internet and television. But the credit union realized after the crisis that a communications plan to keep everyone informed about what was happening could have helped to calm frayed nerves.
“We were busier than we ever thought we could be in trying to respond to the needs of law enforcement and keep other employees safe and manage the situation as law enforcement would have us do it,” Bell explained. “We didn't have a built-in [communications plan] that would say, ding, ding, it's been 30 minutes, let's send out a call now to all our employees and say what has been happening and we’ll update you again in 30 minutes.”
Since the branch was adjacent to the credit union's administration office, the police took it over as a command center to oversee the hostage crisis.
As soon as police arrived, they asked the credit union to identify the employees who were being held hostage, including dates of birth, next of kin, phone numbers and other information. But all of that data was in the closed network in the administration building that was taken over by police and employees who had been corralled in a nearby restaurant could not access that information from their mobile phones.
Since then, Bell said ACU modified its system so employee information is securely stored, updated regularly and accessible remotely by the executive team. ACU was also unable to access its branch's floor plans because they were in the branch that was under siege. So the credit union now stores PDF files of its floor plans for all buildings with an offsite business continuity service so that they can be accessed at any time.
In addition to providing counseling and support services for the hostages, ACU also asked other employees to go through counseling so that they would not impose on those who were held hostage.
“It's so easy for a co-worker to approach one of the employees who was held hostage and say ‘How are you doing now, are you OK, yet?’” Bell explained. “Don't put them in a position where they have to report to you on how they’re feeling. Let them talk to you if and when they’re ready. It's not their responsibility to inform everybody they know and work with what that event was like.”
In any hostage situation, executives should prepare to face a difficult moral dilemma, said Dick Ashjian, SVP of risk management at the $2.9 billion Educational Employees Credit Union in Fresno, Calif.
On the morning of Jan. 25, Jesse Anthony Flores walked up to the front doors at EECU's East Shaw Avenue branch as employees reported to work. The manager inside the branch keeps the front doors locked until employees give a thumb's up signaling it's safe to open the doors. The bank manager, however, did not allow employees to enter the branch because Flores was standing near the entrance.
As employees were trying to get Flores to leave, he grabbed one of the female employees, placing his arm around her, and put a knife to her throat. He demanded entry into the credit union but the manager refused and pressed the panic button to call police.
“At that moment we were faced with a moral dilemma,” Ashjian said. “You have this issue of protecting a large number of people that were already inside the facility, and then there was this demand that was going on outside the facility and an ongoing threat. As difficult as it was, law enforcement indicated this was the appropriate decision and the way the procedure had been designed for some time.”
By allowing Flores into the branch, it would have endangered employees in the branch and it would have made the situation far more difficult for police.
Fortunately, the credit union employee, who was briefly taken hostage at knifepoint, was not harmed.
Police arrived at the branch within three minutes and demanded that Flores release the hostage.
After releasing the hostage, Flores walked to the parking lot and threw away a large steak knife. One of the officers approached Flores at gunpoint and arrested him.