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Parking Lots/Garages

A R T I C L E — W H I T E  P A P E R

Parking Lot and Garage Security

by Ralph Witherspoon, CPP, CSC


Security professionals and police have long known that locations where people and their valuables are together - such as in parking lots and garages - are often favorite targets of criminals.


That fact was confirmed by a study conducted several years ago by Liability Consultants, Inc. of Sudbury, Massachusetts. The study of more than 1,000 premises security liability lawsuits over a ten year period revealed that in almost one-third of all the cases reviewed, the basis of the lawsuit was a murder, rape, robbery or assault that occurred in a parking lot or garage. The parking facilities included those such as might be found at office buildings, motels and apartments, bars and nightclubs, retail stores and shopping centers, plus, garages open to the general public. The study also found that jury awards or pre-trial settlements to the plaintiffs in the lawsuits averaged between approximately $1 million for assaults and $2.75 million for homicides. And since, jury awards and settlements continue toincrease!


So, can owners provide "reasonable" parking lot and garage security for their customers and employees against these type crimes? In a word, Yes! (but it takes planning and work).


Some cities and counties mandate specific security measures to be used at parking lots and garages. Where such laws or regulations are not in effect, the general national standard of care for owners / operators of such facilities is “reasonable care” for the facility, its employees and invitees (customers) at that time and place, as in" reasonable to a judge or jury." That means first identifying the likely security threats and crime risks to that specific facility, then implementing reasonable and appropriate security measures to counter those risks - and, maintaining those measures as appropriate.


Garages and Covered Parking Facilities


Because garages and parking lots contain valuable vehicles and their contents, plus the car occupants who also represent potential victims - both are frequent favored "hunting grounds" for robbers and thieves.


In some garages, access to the garage can be controlled or closely monitored. A parking attendant can view the occupants of cars entering and leaving, and a closed circuit television (CCTV) camera may be used to record license numbers and drivers' faces … both major deterrents to many criminals.


However, ground-level pedestrian doors located out of sight of the parking attendant should not be accessible from the exterior of the building, or at least should be monitored by CCTV. Nor should there be any openings in the building walls (within 15 feet above the ground) through to which a person could climb and enter. Where possible, vehicle entry and exit should be limited to a single monitored entry, or to adjacent entry and exit points.


The threat to persons and property in covered/enclosed parking garages can be even higher than the threat in open lots, because isolated floors and locations often make effective surveillance or monitoring difficult. However, adequate lighting and the use of CCTV monitoring can reduce (but not eliminate) the crime risk. Adequate lighting not only helps people recognize and avoid dangers, but also in many cases deters criminals by creating in them the fear of detection, identification and apprehension. Note: If the CCTV cameras are only recorded for later review and prosecution, but not continuously monitored live, prominent signage should state this so that customers do not rely, to their detriment, on cameras that they think are being monitored and will produce immediate help.


When CCTV is used, good-quality digital color cameras that can, in enclosed garages operate in low light, plus high-resolution color monitoring/recording systems are essential. Digital recording is preferred. Black-and-white cameras usually offer poor detail and color definition,  critical issues when attempting to identify suspects or potential problems. A penny saved here may equal many thousands or even millions of dollars lost later!


For safety and security, I recommend interior garage lighting should be a minimum of five foot-candles (50 lux) on the pavement (with approximately the same level measured 1.5m or five feet above the pavement) with an average uniformity ratio of not greater than 4:1. This level should be maintained throughout the garage, 24 hours per day, as sunlight seldom enters garage interiors, and cannot be relied upon for lighting. A minimum of 10 foot-candles (100 lux) is recommended at pedestrian entry/exit points, over driving lanes, stairwells and elevator lobbies (out to a 30' radius from the elevator doors). Energy-efficient metal-halide lighting provides reasonable color rendition for CCTV and direct viewing. Interior walls and ceilings should be painted with a glossy or semi-glossy white paint to increase light reflection. This also increases the ability of parkers to observe movement and potential threats. Pillars and ramp corners should be painted in contrasting (striped) colors for driving safety. Transitional lighting at the vehicle entry/exit points should be lighted for eye adaption when going into the structure from the street, or vice versa. Garage owners/operators should discuss their specific lighting needs with a lighting engineer.


Rooftop parking open to the sky should be illuminated to at least three foot-candles, as specified below for surface parking lots.


Where possible, interior and exterior stairwells should be visible, either through the use of no walls on the stairwells, or by using plexi-glass or "see-through" type walls. This "open" approach deprives criminals of a place to hide and assault their victims, while providing customers early warning of potential danger and possibly the ability to be heard if they shout for help. In either case, the stairwells should be well lit.


Emergency call boxes, "panic alarms" and intercom systems often have large, red mushroom-shaped buttons. When pushed, the buttons activate an intercom connected to a security office or the parking garage attendant, who can provide directions or summon aid. When a CCTV camera also monitors the alarm box or station, the parking attendant or security officer can view the scene to assess the situation and more accurately respond. Boxes should be mounted five feet above surface to ensure visibility, but also comply with any applicable ADA requirements. High visibility signage or lights at a six or seven foot height also increase their visibility.


Uniformed security officers on continuous patrol of all the levels of a garage, while costly, can also be a significant deterrent to criminals, and provide reassurance to customers and employees. A patrol tour tracking system should be used to ensure that all patrolling officers are, in fact, patrolling as required. Security officers can also be used for customer escorts to their cars, but sufficient officers and other employees should be available so that no customer must wait more than 15-minutes for an escort. Generally, patrolling security officers should not be away from their patrol rounds for more than 15-minutes escorting employees or patrons, or performing other duties.


Many of the measures recommended here for garages might, depending on their specific configuration and needs, be used on surface parking lots. When making changes in garages, owners and operators should ensure that they are in compliance with ADA requirements and any local fire, safety and security codes.


Surface Parking Lots and Areas

Similar approaches can be used with surface parking lots, including those adjcent to retail or entertainment facilities. If the lot can be surrounded by a "see-through" fence, that is ideal. If not, lesser demarcation of the lot boundaries with partial fencing, low hedges, planters or shrubs (not more than 36" high), etc. can provide a psychological barrier to criminals, and a clear indication of where the "private" property begins. Patrolling security personnel can also provide a significant deterrent to criminals.


Where appropriate, the use of a parking lot attendant can also serve as a deterrent if the attendant is able to view the lot. With no CCTV for remote viewing on most large lots, and with the attendant's booth usually at the entrance/exit facing out toward the street, plus the attendant's head often stuck in a book or portable TV, many attendants can’t and don't see much of anything. As a result, they don’t provide much, if any, security or deterrence. This factor needs to be considered in planning, and in how the attendants will themselves be monitored or checked.


A key element of security in most surface parking lots is visibility — for employees, customers, and passers-by. Within the lot, any trees and shrubs should not obstruct viewing, either by direct viewing or through use of CCTV. Tree branches and leaves should be not lower than 10 feet above the lot surface, and interior shrubs and bushes should not be higher than 18 inches above ground or curb so as not to obstruct vision, or provide concealment for a robber or rapist. Perimeter shrubs used as a barrier, with or without an adjacent fence, should not exceed 36" in height.


A significant part of visibility is lighting. Artificial lighting should enable parkers and employees to note individuals or movement at night at a distance of 75 feet or more, and to identify a human face at approximately 30 feet, a distance that will allow them, if necessary, to take defensive action or avoidance while still at a safe distance. For safety and security, I recommend a minimum maintained illumination of not less than three foot-candles (30 lux) throughout open surface parking lots. This will also provide adequate illumination for driving purposes. Energy-efficient metal-halide lighting offers good color recognition. The lighting should be controlled on and off - by a timer, or preferably, by a photo-electric sensor so that, whatever time it gets dark, the lights go on.


This brief article cannot hope to answer all security related questions on parking lots and garages with thousands of different configurations and operating requirements. It does, however, provide an introduction to those security measures and approaches that will help owners and operators provide a reasonable level of security at their property.


Readers desiring additional information on these or related subjects should contact a qualified professional security consultant and/or their attorney.



Based on what the author believes are generally accepted security principles as of the date of its writing, and on data gathered from what are believed to be reliable sources, this article is written for general information purposes only and is not intended to be, and should not be used as a primary source for making security decisions. Each situation is or can be unique. The author is not an attorney, is not engaged in the practice of law, and is not rendering legal advice. Readers requiring advice about specific security problems or concerns should consult directly with a security professional. The author of this article shall have no liability to any person or entity with respect to any loss, liability, or damage alleged to have been caused by the use or application of any information in this article, nor information contained on this or any linked or related web site.

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