Being a hero isn’t what it used to be. Once, if you foiled a bank robbery, you might have gotten a medal. Today you’re more likely to get fired.
Just ask Jim Nicholson, the ex-bank teller whose reward for foiling a bank heist was finding himself on the unemployment line.
As if to underline how much times have changed, even Nicholson understands why he no longer has a job. Banks are insured, and everyone from security consultants to law-enforcement authorities to the banks themselves agree that the most dangerous thing any civilian can do is attempt to stop a robber who may be armed and dangerous.
“We are supposed to comply with what the robber says. We are supposed to just hand it over,” Nicholson admitted Wednesday in New York to TODAY’s Ann Curry.
He’d do it again
Just the same, Nicholson said if he were in the same situation again, he still wouldn’t just hand over the money. Instead, he’d probably go the hero route again. He can’t help it, he said. It’s just the way he is.
“It’s something that’s in my nature. It’s how I was raised,” Nicholson said. “If something goes wrong around me, I have to do what I can to make it right.”
Nicholson was working as a teller in a Key Bank branch in Seattle on Tuesday, July 28, when a man dressed in black and wearing a knit watch cap came into the building. The teller suspected something was amiss — especially after the man, who was acting nervously, got out of line once before approaching Nicholson’s station.
The man was intent on making an unauthorized withdrawal, and he gave Nicholson a bag, saying, “This is a ransom, fill the bag with money,” Nicholson said.
Bank rules are universal on this: When confronted by a robber, tellers are to hand over the cash. Any other action, experts say, could provoke violence that could leave innocent customers, employees and bystanders injured or dead.
But Nicholson thought it was curious that the robber used the word “ransom” instead of “robbery.” He demanded to see the man’s weapon. The robber replied, “It’s a verbal ransom.”
With the help of another civilian, Nicholson caught the suspect, who has a record of convictions for theft and robbery, and held him until police arrived to take him into custody. As of Wednesday, the man had not yet been charged in connection with the robbery attempt at Nicholson’s bank branch.
‘Something just clicks’
Curry asked him whether his actions were prompted by outrage at the robbery attempt.
“Honestly, I wasn’t angry at all,” said Nicholson, who used to chase down shoplifters when he had a job in retail sales. “I was very calm, surprisingly. I just wanted to prevent him from doing this. If I let him go, he could go to another branch and do it again.”
“It’s one thing to receive training, but when it actually happens, something else just clicks,” he said brightly.
Nicholson insisted that even though something bad could have happened had the man been armed, equally unpleasant things could have happened had he not acted.
“If I let him go, it could end up in a police pursuit,” Nicholson told Curry. “It could be a shootout. It could be just as dangerous to let him go.”
But FBI experts disagree, as did Nicholson’s employers at the bank. After finishing his shift Tuesday, Nicholson worked a regular shift Wednesday. But at the end of his Thursday shift, his supervisor told him that bank officials wanted to talk to him.
“I hoped for a reprimand,” he told Curry.
Instead, he got a pink slip.
He held no grudges and made no apologies. And when Curry asked whether he’d do the same thing if he found himself in a similar situation, Nicholson replied without hesitation.
“I think I would.”