No organization compiles a comprehensive database of all parking lot crime, but it’s not hard to get a sense of the nature of the risk—one quick search of Google News using the words “parking lot crime” turns up a typical list, including the following: “Woman, 66, robbed in Walmart parking lot…. [A]fternoon shooting in apartment complex parking lot…. [M]an drives three miles to empty parking lot, and rapes woman.” These three incidents, which occurred within a 48-hour period around the United States, illustrate the range of crimes that occur in parking facilities.
Countering these security threats in parking facilities is challenging. Parking lots and garages often encompass large spaces, and even if security patrols are implemented, they cannot be everywhere at once. Though surveillance cameras can help, the contours of garages and the quality of lighting, especially at night, often hinder image quality. There are ways to adapt security solutions to address these issues, however.
One approach is to adjust operations to minimize vulnerabilities. For example, cashiers and toll booths represent some of the major vulnerabilities for a parking facility. Bob Kane of Federal APD, which manufactures parking and access control systems, says that his company has strongly supported the push to remove exit cashiers from parking facilities in favor of cashiering done in a central space or by an automatic pay machine. “That’s to get all the money in a centrally controlled area,” he says, which is safer for the paying customer, the cashier, and the company’s cash assets. Kane notes that cash typically gets immediately placed in a locked vault inside a machine, and that vault cash gets picked up by an armored car service, just as cash from an ATM does.
Those who design and retrofit parking lots are also including an alternative route so that people who have paid at the central location are not stuck behind someone who has headed for the exit without paying, says Kane. The route also ensures that someone who realizes they must go back and pay can have a means of doing so.
In addition to those design issues, companies are turning to improved technology to secure their parking facilities. One tool is video analytics. Some of the analytics employed in parking facilities, according to experts interviewed, are those designed to detect moving vehicles and people, especially detection of movement into restricted areas. These systems also allow for virtual tripwires and virtual perimeters.
These types of technologies are also becoming more affordable. “What’s occurred in the last several years is that the price of what we call a ‘channel’ of analytics has come down dramatically to a price point where an end user can pick it up for under $1,000,” says John Whiteman, president of the Americas for ioimage.
But video analytics alone are not enough. There must be someone to assess any alarms the analytics generate. Remote monitoring services are offered by companies like Visentry, which serves as a type of virtual security guard and works with ioimage’s analytics capabilities in parking facilities and other areas.
One approach to monitoring at Visentry is to have an automatic video tour in which operators remotely use a combination of pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) and fixed cameras, equipped with analytics, to patrol parking facilities, says Visentry COO Juda Slomovich. If the analytics alert the operators to something suspicious in the area, such as two people walking around with a toolbox, the operator can use the loud speakers installed in the parking lot to warn the potential perpetrators that they are under surveillance.
Visentry can employ various cameras to take a closer look at what is going on around the parking facility. If necessary, the Visentry operators will contact the client or local law enforcement.
Visentry also offers a video escort service, according to Slomovich. In that case, tenants of a Visentry client can call Visentry when they want to walk to their car (if they are working late, for example). With this service, an operator virtually escorts the individual to his or her car using the various cameras in the parking facility, communicating through loud speakers or the telephone.
Another type of technology that can help parking lot and garage operators is license plate recognition (LPR). There are two major approaches to using LPR in parking security, says Pierre Hubert, business development director of AutoVu for Genetec, which offers an IP LPR camera called the AutoVu Sharp. The first is to have it take and save pictures that might be used later in a forensic capacity. The second is to tie the LPR camera into a database in real time for matching purposes. This second approach might be used in a gated community, where there might be a database of plate numbers for vehicles that are designated as ones that should be permitted or denied entrance. The LPR cameras can also be tied in with other security technology, such as access control cards.
A challenge in using LPR is that it requires a certain amount of light and a specific angle for the camera, as well as a database full of plate numbers to compare against the entering vehicle’s if that’s the type of security desired.
LPR is more widespread in Europe where plates are uniform. It has taken longer to develop effective LPR technology in North America, notes Hubert, because the license plates vary so widely among states. But there are places using it effectively in the United States. For example, Kane says that he sees it used by places that have a fixed number of plates to compare to, like hospitals that want to ensure that employees are not using patient parking lots. He notes also that prices for the software are coming down.
The Human Factor
As in all aspects of security, technology will only get you so far. The human element should never be discounted.
For that reason, some facilities may benefit from roving onsite patrols. If patrols are in vehicles, they should proceed slowly enough to identify at-risk vehicles and suspicious individuals, says Sonny Mounicou, national portfolio manager at AlliedBarton Security Services. In addition, the patrol route should be random, so that any potential perpetrators cannot plan around where the patrols will be at a given time, he says. Mounicou also suggests that patrol officers can give patrons of the lot safe parking tips, such as warning against leaving valuable objects visible in parked vehicles.
Another human factor with regard to parking lot security is the need to liaise with local law enforcement. “Probably the biggest thing that’s overlooked by private security companies or people who have proprietary security is actually the relationships that they need to develop with the police,” says Mounicou.
Slomovich concurs, noting that Visentry meets with local law enforcement and shows them the technology that has been implemented. “When they’re getting a call from us, they know it’s for real,” Slomovich says. That may make them more likely to respond quickly.
Another benefit of working with law enforcement is that security personnel can learn about crime trends in the area and can use that information in considering what type of security is needed. That data can also serve as a benchmark against which to view incidents that occur at the parking facility.
Parking lots present numerous security challenges, but by considering design, the human element, and technology, property operators can reduce the risks and help to keep their facilities’ patrons safe.
Laura Spadanuta is an associate editor at Security Management.