Securing parking lots with video surveillance

With many stores staying open all night for the first time, Black Friday 2011 presented retailers with some new challenges. Among incidents reported this year were attacks, thefts, and other violent acts in retail parking lots across the country. As retailers focus on protecting people and property inside the store, they sometimes overlook the potential risks that customers may face in the parking lot, stairwells, and sidewalks. Offering a safe, secure experience to customers as they proceed from their car into the store is just as important as maintaining safety inside the store, as a bad experience can turn customers away, erode brand equity, or even trigger litigation and loss.

Surveillance systems are critical for securing parking areas. However, as with any security solution, surveillance systems should be designed and maintained based upon the unique risks and conditions at each individual store. Retailers should take time to evaluate and ensure adequate video coverage of their parking areas year-round, but especially during the busy holiday season. Whether installing a new system or simply maximizing existing equipment, here are some tips.

Consider the objective - It is possible to cover every part of a parking lot in great detail, capturing license plates, identification shots of people leaving their cars, and detailed videos of people? This is neither practical nor cost effective for many retailers. Because most retailers do not constantly monitor live video, the objective of video coverage in parking lots is detection: being able to see if someone suspicious is wandering the parking lots, seeing if someone proceeds from their car into the store, or determining if an altercation has taken place. The configuration of the parking lot also affects objectives. For example, in a parking deck with two entrances, it is possible to capture detailed vehicle information such as license plates or driver's faces as each car enters the lot, but in open-air parking lots, this is much more challenging. Retailers should consider what they wish to be able to do with the video from their parking lots. In most cases, it will be investigating claims and detection capabilities will suffice.

Secure the way from car to store entrance - The customer's walk from the car to store entrance can be a long one, depending on the configuration and size of the parking area. In a parking deck, it can mean entering a stairwell, with potential dangers lurking on every floor. Video coverage in stairwells provides a deterrent to would-be loiterers and also serves as a great way to provide "identification" shots of potential criminals as they move around the property. If everyone coming from the parking deck into the store must go through a stairwell, then they are great "chokepoints" for collecting identification shots.

Post the right signage - Retailers should post signage clearly indicating that parking areas are under surveillance. However, unless live video is actually monitored 24/7, avoid saying that it is. When retailers claim this, an expectation of security response has been established and may result in a lawsuit. Rather, retailers should post signage that says parking lots are under video surveillance and/or that video is being recorded. This helps deter unwanted behavior.

Keep Things Bright - Lighting in parking areas is not only important for making the customer feel more secure in the area, but also helpful for making video more valuable. While many cameras are designed to operate in pure dark conditions, most cameras work best in well-lit conditions. Retailers should ensure adequate lighting in all parking areas. In parking decks, bright paint catches the ambient light and makes things brighter. A well-lit parking area makes it difficult for would-be criminals to lurk undetected, and offers legitimate customers greater security.

Check and double-check - Hopefully, the retail parking lot is a safe, uneventful place. Therefore, video systems already installed may not be regularly used. Scheduled maintenance programs are important, especially prior to major events such as Black Friday. It is critical that LP teams take time to test systems to verify functionality and address any maintenance issues before crowds arrive. Over time, cameras could accidentally be repositioned, become damaged, or suffer from a malfunction. Software may have glitches or schedules may have been reset. Testing should include a review of all camera shots, ensuring live video is captured, as well as reviewing that video is being recorded properly and stored to meet expectations. This type of testing requires some time, but is worth the effort to ensure the necessary video is being captured.

Protect from environmental hazards - In some cases, foliage, signage and other items can block a camera's view, thus negating the camera's value. Retailers should regularly survey the property to ensure that nothing is blocking camera views or diffusing the light source. To protect the longevity and performance of camera equipment, purchase vandal-resistant or ruggedized housings. In parking decks, particularly in urban areas and/or harsh climates, equipment may be subject to vandalism, sabotage, or harsh conditions.

For high-traffic events, retailers need to use every asset they have to help ensure a safe, secure customer experience. This includes security in parking lots and the property immediately surrounding the store. Video surveillance can help retailers keep an eye out for trouble and preserve the positive customer experience.

About the Author: Jeff Floreno serves as director of operations and security strategy at Wren. With nearly thirty years of experience in corporate and top-level government security with corporations including Georgia Pacific, 3M and Northrop Grumman, Floreno has a wealth of experience in project and program management, business operations, security governance initiatives and risk management.