Northeast Tact takes lead in continuous battle Against low-risk, high-reward bank juggers

Tom Kennedy

Nothing angers and frustrates a dedicated police officer more than an increase in the number of crimes that offer a high reward with little if any risk. Even if caught in the act the jail time for a convicted suspect can be termed minimal at best.

Investigators across the state of Texas are angered and frustrated with the growing crime trend of bank juggin’, a term ‘that comes from criminal street slang for a bank bag known as a “jug.”

One of those growing number of officers is Houston Police Officer Christian Dorton of the 14-member Northeast Division Tactical Unit.

Juggin’ Education

A “jugger” is the street term for a crook who lurks in the shadows of bank parking lots awaiting a likely victim who’s carrying a jug loaded with cash. The juggers – they almost always work in pairs, trios or even gangs of four – follow the victim when he or she drives away and seizes the money bag from the person or burglarizes their motor vehicle. In some known cases the victim leaves the bag in the car while making a routine stop at a grocery store or fast-food business.

In numerous instances these bank juggins have escalated to aggravated robbery or even capital murder.

The juggin’ trend actually began in the 1980s but officers observed a sharp increase in 2013. Dorton and fellow Tact members noticed a significant increase in the number of bank customers who fit this victim profile. They began to use the terms “juggin’ ” and “jugger” when they learned that these have become common street terms crooks used to describe their scheming.

“Overwhelmingly the majority of bank juggin’ suspects are from northeast Houston,” Dorton explained, detailing Northeast Tact’s pro-active approach to this frustrating policing situation.

Dorton and the Tact – who were strongly encouraged by Northeast Capt. Greg Fremin – adopted a pro-active approach that included surveillance of “the usual suspects” and public education through the news media.

“This is organized crime,” Dorton said. “It’s a very sophisticated operation. We made 250 arrests on bank juggin’ since 2013. It’s the same suspects over and over again and the majority of them are gang members.

“I believe that five percent of the criminals are committing 95 percent of the crime and if we would target and punish that five percent we would see a major decrease in crime.

“The city is like a pie or a clock. In the Northeast corner everybody here is either a victim of a crime or a suspect in a crime. In Northeast we see the same suspects all the time and the good people are constantly victimized. If we could target, disrupt and prosecute the career criminals who are responsible for the overwhelming majority of crime, we could increase the quality of life for citizens throughout Houston and the state of Texas.”

Northeast Tact, again with Capt. Fremin’s encouragement, has trained other HPD divisions about bank juggin’ and preventive methods. The dedication to this duty and its pro-active commitment has resulted in Fremin’s group becoming a recognized national leader in the effort to thwart this fad crime.

Fremin is an ex-Marine who prefers no-nonsense tactics that produce good-guy success stories. Of Northeast Tact, he said, “They’ve assisted other Tact teams with their knowledge. There are a lot of other great Tact teams in the city and we collaborate with them and work very closely with them.

“The Northeast Division Tact unit is truly the best of the best in the nation for what they do. They have a credible amount of knowledge and expertise. The vast majority of juggers and serial bank robbery suspects are from Northeast.

“They (Tact members) literally interact with these guys. I’m not a micro-manager. I point them in the right direction and let them go. Have Gun Will Travel!”

Dorton said that means training other area police departments and, especially, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, where the routine charge for a bank jugger usually amounts to Burglary of a Motor Vehicle, a misdemeanor which usually carries a low sentence of county jail time. When the suspect has multiple previous convictions, they can only be sentenced to a state jail sentence of up to two years.

Low Risk, High Rewards

Dorton and others, including many prosecutors, rankle at the idea that this sentencing practice is based on the belief that bank juggins are generally classified as property crimes, which are given lower priority. Prosecutors and officers point out that these crimes are currently filed in numerous ways – burglary of a motor vehicle, theft from a person, robbery and aggravated robbery. When a suspect is charged with a lower level crime, they typically get minimal sentencing. This enables the juggers to get back on the bank parking lots to stalk bank customers.

Northeast Tact members – led by Lt. Jay Chase and Sgt. Hito Bazan – occasionally see the misdemeanor increased to a third degree felony, usually when a bank customer is confronted and assaulted in order to get the jug with the big money.

And here comes that frustration officers experience.

Dorton said, “We have seen one individual with an ankle monitor commit five more robberies with no fear of punishment. When these suspects post a bond, they have no fear of being caught for anything equal to or less than their current offense. And when they’re finally prosecuted, their sentences don’t stack and they’re only going to do time for one offense. They’re coming back and we’re arresting them again, again and again.”

He and his fellow Tact members believe the state of Texas needs a change in laws that enables police officers to charge juggers with a third degree felony offense to begin with. Dorton would like to see any bank juggin’ theft start at this level. Then, if they keep on keeping on with their juggin’ offenses, the punishment enhancements will keep them in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for longer periods of time, perhaps as habitual offenders.

“Most are recidivists,” Dorton said. “We see multiple felony convictions on every one of them. How do we stop these criminals?  We need Harris County to be tough on all suspects. If they use a gun, they are just a trigger-pull away from a capital murder. Short sentences in the Harris County Jail do not deter these career criminals.”

(Please see the story about Harris County prosecutor Bill Exley in this B&G edition for the full discussion of the proposed “Predatory Theft” law that should be proposed in next year’s Legislature to better combat and thwart bank juggers).

Dorton believes bank juggin’ is “an organized crime.”  He continuously emphasizes the “low-risk, high-reward” aspect.

Sure, they could wind up with a bank bag with only a few hundred dollars. But Dorton and his fellow Tact officers feel that all these crime perpetrators have to do is drive across town to another bank and use the same tactics. Records show bank juggers have scored as much as much as $100,000 or even $150,000. HPD has documented juggin’ targeting jewelry stores and high-end retail stories. “They use these same tactics to target anything they want to steal, including jewelry and other high-end merchandise and electronics,” Dorton said.

To stress the organization of bank juggers, Dorton said it’s very common for members of a bank-juggin’ group or gang to bond out any fellow jugger who gets caught in the act. They also have enough cash from multiple scores to take care of a jugger’s family if he winds up in state jail for a few months or a year.

The organized effort has spread from Northeast Houston to other sections of the city, the surrounding suburbs, other Texas cities and towns and even other states such as Louisiana and Tennessee have been targets.

Dorton said none of the hundreds of banks in Houston/Harris County has an easy-to-implement security system, while at the same time this area’s bank juggers lick their chops at the number of opportunities. “We’ve seen bank juggers in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Brenham, Baytown, Sugar Land, Spring, The Woodlands, Pearland, Humble, Kingwood, League City, Bryan-College Station and every suburb around Dallas and all the major cities in Texas,” the Tact officer said. “All suspects were from Northeast Houston.

“These are crews of twos, threes or fours. They often use multiple vehicles. They post bonds for each other, pay for lawyers – the money is shared throughout the community. They help families and if you go to prison they put money in your commissary.”
These bank juggin’ suspects are not only responsible for this type of offense. The same criminals who commit bank juggin’ also commit aggravated bank robberies, aggravated jewelry store robberies, convenience store purse sliding, pharmacy burglaries, nighttime safe-cracking commercial burglaries, ATM smash-and-grab robberies, auto theft and narcotics-related offenses.

“Too many people in the criminal justice system view these suspects through a narrow lens,” Dorton said. “They don’t see the whole picture and don’t realize the other crimes these same suspects are responsible for. Then they appear shocked when they find out that their ‘non-violent criminal’ killed someone in a robbery. Criminals are criminals. They do not care about our laws and they will do anything they want to take it from anyone they want to take it from.”

Again here is another example of Capt. Fremin’s Marine approach. “These are sophisticated crime rings. They operate statewide and go out of state to Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. I’ve given them free reign. They are not restricted to Northeast Houston. They can go throughout the city of Houston and beyond. We’re going to go out there and find them.”

The resultant inter-agency cooperation, requiring a greater awareness and training. “They (Northeast Tact members) have trained the DAs in Harris County,” Fremin said. “They’ve received national recognition for what they’ve done.”

Besides educating other HPD Tact teams and police agencies in surrounding suburbs, Dorton and his fellow Tact members seldom turn away from an opportunity to work with the news media to educate the public about the typical modus operandi of bank juggers.

Capt. Fremin, Dorton and the rest of Texas law enforcement officers will continue to target and disrupt these well organized criminal groups, whose juggin’ should soon entail greater risks and smaller rewards.

The Bank Juggin’ Education 101 begins with the following bullet points:

  • Avoid using cash as often as possible. Write checks or use money orders or cashier’s checks.
  • If you must use cash, be as low-profile as possible. Don’t walk out of a financial institution carrying a bank bag or envelop in full view of anyone who might be watching you.
  • Be alert and very attentive to your surroundings when you’re carrying lots of cash.
  • Look for suspicious individuals or vehicles near the ATM or on the parking lot of the bank you use.
  • Once you leave the bank, make a mental note of any vehicles that may be following you. If you see you are being followed, call 911. Keep driving and let the police catch the suspicious driver.