Parking Security: Worth the Money?
Our experience and statistics indicate generally that parking structures are the least likely place to have security problems with vehicle parking. Surface lots are a bit more problematic, and are more often susceptible to security breaches, of course, depending on how much access is controlled. Or controlled at all.
Data show that of all the places that people could store their vehicles, they are usually best placed in the hands of the professionals who own and operate parking facilities. This is not to say there are not vulnerabilities; it’s simply a statement of fact.
A question we as security planning consultants randomly ask of patrons when we are performing assessments for parking operators: Do you park here because you feel safer than at other facilities?
Although not performed as scientific surveys, we nearly always receive answers that indicate that parkers want convenience. Our experience indicates that people would walk through a den of hungry lions if a parking location was convenient for them.
But regardless of their opinions, we as security planners are responsible for creating reasonably safe environments for parking patrons. A quasi-legal liability-release statement printed on the back of a parking ticket has no power to reduce such responsibility.
So, how far do we go with security?
Deter – Detect – Delay –
Respond – Do Something!
Deterrence? A major electronic component used in parking security, closed-circuit television (CCTV), is seen as a panacea for the deterrence of criminal activity at a facility. However, it may be the most abused and misunderstood security system component of the many features used today.
Security professionals seek to deter, detect, delay and then respond to criminal activity in their parking facilities. But how do we deter a crime when we use cameras that are so small that they are barely noticed even by the bad guys? And then we use such cheap cameras that images are poor and unable to be enlarged for identification purposes. The capabilities of television’s CSI units would be strained by the poor images produced by the cheap cameras that are recorded at less-than-ideal resolutions.
Detection? That’s possible, but personnel must be watching the CCTV monitors at virtually all times in order to see a crime being committed. That’s great if any business has the funds to pay for dedicated observation staff. Most cannot afford that. And even if that were affordable, how does a security person maintain a high level of observation when about 98% of the time nothing is happening that requires attention?
Delay? Our efforts trying to delay a criminal from committing an act of theft, vandalism, assault or even murder are difficult at best. We must first detect the activity or perhaps the potential for criminal acts. That’s difficult unless, again, a staff person is viewing a monitor when the act begins.
Respond? Well, first we must detect the activity and then choose the proper response. Now that’s an entire subject unto itself.
Vandalism, theft, hit and run, assault, stalking, robbery, murder – of course we want to prevent crimes against persons, but we can’t wait until personal crimes occur before deciding how to combat them.
Courts have held that owners were not performing due diligence when assessing security conditions at their parking facilities if they used the argument that they had not had any personal crimes at their lot or garage, even though only property crime numbers were increasing.
In reality, increasing property crime increases the likelihood of crimes being committed against persons.
The following are a few of the common security solutions used in parking environments. We strongly encourage creativity in developing remedies to security problems, both real and perceived.
• Control of Access: Perhaps the most important component of any security system. Our efforts must be to allow patrons easy access to our facilities while discouraging others from entering. At its most basic, control entry so that pedestrians can enter only at doors or through entry/exit lanes, not everywhere around the perimeter. Unauthorized persons are more likely seen at those specific locations, and CCTV cameras can more easily view them entering through control points.
• Lighting: I’m not an engineer, but I do know there’s a single word to be applied: uniformity! Uniformly high or uniformly low, but uniform. Bright spots and then dark areas create difficulty for parkers to see their surroundings. If CCTV is used, contrasting light levels contribute to poor images. Daytime hours often result in energy-saving efforts through lighting reductions. Why have lights on during daylight hours? We usually find that parking garages are darker in mid-day than they are at midnight. And remember, most parking crime occurs when parking facilities are busy. That’s when there are the most potential targets. And that’s when we have the darkest structures. Not so on surface lots.
• CCTV: Let’s not be cheap here. You must decide what it is you are trying to accomplish and then purchase the equipment that will make that happen. The biggest problem we security consultants find when inspecting CCTV systems is that the camera images are poor and not designed for the environment. Parking garages especially are notorious for high-contrast conditions. Standard cameras cannot deal with the large light-level variations. One camera model does not fit all applications. We find that rather than quality, owners rely on quantity. Cover the crucial spaces with the best cameras you can afford, and then add others as budgets allow. Ten cameras of high quality with useable images are far better than 25 cameras at the same cost that produce useless images. And make sure that everyone who enters your facilities sees the cameras. Paint them fluorescent orange if you must, but make sure the cameras have some deterrent value.
• Emergency Call Stations: Hard-wired call boxes, either intercom or phone, are the most reliable of any communication method, especially when immediate help is called for. It’s virtually guaranteed that those who rely entirely on cellular or Internet links will suffer in times of emergency. Today’s technology allows a combination of wireless and wired communications links for parking employees and patrons to seek assistance. Even with their unreliability, people will still use the device that’s in their hand or pocket – their cellphone – to report trouble. And most of the time that will work. But if severe weather, for example, roars in, try making a cellular call. I’m never without my smartphone, but does it work in parking structures? Sometimes. And try to find other uses for your expensive security equipment. Why install a sophisticated intercom system that just sits and waits for trouble, going unused 98% of the time? Use it to make announcements such as location, parking specials, reminders to remove valuables, etc. etc.
• Patron Information: We have a penchant in US parking for not informing people what the risks really are in garages. Oh, my, that may scare them away to a competitor’s facility. Well, again, courts have held that there is a responsibility for property owners to inform patrons of hazards. British studies found that information signs in parking facilities that informed patrons about removing valuables from within their automobiles may have had as much impact on reducing parking crime as just about any other measure. Yes, signs.
This article barely scratches the requirements of a comprehensive parking security plan. Building and site design, staffing, training, signage, and other key components must also be addressed.
Ultimately, it will be your employees who detect and respond to incidents. But the tools that they are provided will go a long way toward helping them accomplish those tasks.
I wish I could include our photos of the sleeping security guard in a large East Coast parking structure. He was awakened twice to no avail. In the end, all the electronic remedies will do little good without staff paying attention.
Be creative in planning security remedies. Define your problems, assign solutions, and keep good records so you know how to respond to changing conditions.
Safer parking environments, better-informed patrons taking some of the responsibility for their own security, plus smartphones and other electronic advancements will aid parking operators in their never-ending quest to increase business while keeping patrons safe.
James Johnson is President of James L. Johnson Associates, Security Planning Consultants. He can be reached at