MINNEAPOLIS - Minnesota bankers are worried by a recent spurt in bank robberies that's reversing a four-year decline.

Already, 31 robberies have occurred in the state this year - the same as the total for all of 1994. In May alone, eight banks were hit, including four community banks.

Officials acknowledge that last year's total was unusually low. The number of bank robberies in Minnesota peaked at 82 in 1991 but has since dropped, according to the Minnesota Bankers Association.

The state bankers association has doubled, to $10,000, the maximum reward it offers to catch robbers.

"We believe that by doubling the amount of the trade group's Robbery Reward Program more individuals will be willing to step forward to assist law enforcement officials," said Truman Jeffers, the group's executive vice president.

The reward increase was recommended by the association's operations committee, which is made up of member bankers. Additional money for the program will come from the group's budget.

Members of the include 136 nationally chartered banks and 414 state- chartered institutions.

"The problem isn't extreme," Mr. Jeffers said. "But this is a program that works as a deterrent to those who might think about robbing a bank, and it emphasizes to the public the importance of coming forward with information."

FBI spokeswoman Coleen Rowley said that rewards are an effective incentive to gain public cooperation in apprehending criminals. Typically, the bureau achieves "absolute solutions" to about 75% of robberies. Rewards contribute to an average of about 15% of the convictions, she said.

"The rewards wouldn't exist if they weren't extremely valuable," Ms. Rowley said.

Despite that, many states do not offer rewards for the apprehension of robbers. Bankers associations in Illinois, Iowa, and the Dakotas offer no rewards. Wisconsin offers up to $1,000.

Ms. Rowley said that while increases and decreases in the incidence of robberies appear to be cyclical, the FBI can't put its finger on exactly why.

"If you have a couple of serious bank robbers who are robbing four or five banks in succession, that can make the numbers jump quite a bit," she said.

So far this year, 29 of the Minnesota robberies have occurred in the Twin Cities. Ms. Rowley said the reason is drugs. More than half of all bank robberies have a drug connection, "and of course, the urban areas are more afflicted with drug problems than the rural areas."

Though the state bankers group puts up the reward money, the FBI determines the reward amount in each case. The total varies, depending on the timeliness of the tip, the number of robberies the criminal has committed, and whether the robber appeared violent.

"There's a big difference between a run-of-the-mill bank robber with a demand note and an armed robber who vaults the counter and threatens people," Ms. Rowley said.

According to FBI statistics, 50% of all bank robberies involve a demand note, while 30% of robbers display or threaten the use of a gun. Most robberies occur near midday, and Friday is robbers' favorite day to strike.

The reward increase is the first since the MBA began offering rewards in 1979. In 16 years, the group has paid 123 rewards, totaling $105,500, for an average of about $857.

Mr. Engen is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.

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