Bank robberies nationwide fell 23% last year, the largest one-year plunge since such crimes peaked in 1991, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

There were 5,500 bank robberies in 1995, a sharp drop from the 9,381 reported four years earlier.

Security experts say that the decline in bank robberies shows that stepped-up policing, stiffer sentencing, and improved security are working, especially in greater Los Angeles, which has the dubious distinction of being the nation's bank robbery capital.

Each year, about a fifth of all bank heists happen in the Los Angeles area.

"We're still seeing the fallout from security prevention programs coupled with more stringent law enforcement," said William R. Wipprecht, the security director for Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco.

While bank robberies have little effect on the industry's bottom line - many losses are insured - the effects of the terror and tragedy such crimes can wreak on a bank branch often linger for years.

In 1994, according to the most recent FBI data, 23 people were killed and 167 injured during bank robberies. Two of the dead and 88 of the injured were bankers.

"It was the worst experience of my life, and the only day I haven't enjoyed being in this business," said D. Linn Wiley, president and chief executive of Citizens Business Bank, in Ontario, Calif.

Mr. Wiley was referring to an Aug. 22, 1995, robbery at a Citizens branch in the Los Angeles suburb of Pomona. During the heist, Teresa Ann Hernandez, a 35-year-old operations manager and single mother of an 18- month-old, was shot in the chest and killed.

But such crimes have become less frequent in the region.

The 1995 tally in greater Los Angeles was 7% below 1994's, and less than half the all-time high of 2,641 in 1992, the year of the Rodney King riots.

Nevertheless, the number of bank holdups in the Los Angeles area last year - 1,122 - was more than four and a half times the 245 in New York, which had the second-highest tally, and more than five times more than third-place Miami's 216 robberies.

Bankers and law enforcement officials say Los Angeles' dubious prominence in bank robbery statistics results from a potent mix of gangs, drugs, numerous bank branches, and easy getaways on local freeways.

In the early 1990s, a more pernicious problem also arose, that of gangs of gun-wielding youths, called "baby bandits," who were taught to rob banks by adults. The adults would share in the loot, but not actually rob the banks, making them hard to find and prosecute.

Concerted enforcement efforts in recent years have put many of the baby- bandit leaders behind bars. At the same time, federal sentencing guidelines have been stiffened so that robbers who previously would have been back on the streets in a few years are now serving minimum terms of 15 to 20 years.

The result: "We seldom now see kids go in and do armed takeovers," Mr. Wipprecht said.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles office of the FBI said that suspects are caught in about 60% of the area's bank robberies.

Security experts say banks have played a helping role in thwarting crime. For instance, some 300 to 400 bank branches in crime-sensitive Los Angeles neighborhoods have installed bulletproof glass since 1992, Mr. Wipprecht said.

Bankers also are doing a better job of getting photographs of robbers, thanks to better equipment and teller training. Technology, such as exploding dye packs and radio tracers hidden in cash, have also helped, as have reward offers from banks for information leading to arrests and convictions.

Mr. Wipprecht said that Wells Fargo has paid out $250,000 in rewards since 1991. Bank of America on Tuesday offered a reward of $100,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a gang believed to be responsible for seven robberies at its branches in the past 18 months.

This was its largest reward offer ever, a spokesman said.

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