Case Study: Hands-on Security

Sept. 15, 2006
Cheektowaga, N.Y., police incorporate biometrics for a real "hands-on" access solution

The police department of Cheektowaga, New York, is taking a "hands-on" approach to security. With new biometric fingerprint readers, officers control access and prisoners better than ever.

Nearly 100,000 people live in Cheektowaga, making it one of the largest towns in New York. Historically a prime hunting and fishing territory of Native Americans, modern Cheektowaga is a thriving suburb of Buffalo, and home to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Cheektowaga's police department is located in the heart of town, in a two-story building adjoining the town courthouse. The complex, built in 1965, features a shared area between the two buildings, with doors to both the courthouse and the police department. The police department also houses the cellblocks where prisoners are detained while awaiting their court appearances.

Access control at the facility had been largely unchanged for nearly two decades. Prior to 2005, there was no centralized access control system at the facility. The front door of the police department was locked all the time with an officer posted to allow entry. The department's two back doors, where officers enter and leave for the day, relied on cipher locks. The doors to the common area were controlled with standard locksets on both the department and courthouse sides.

In late 2005, the police department saw the opportunity for updating their facility's access control. They had recently worked with LINSTAR, Inc., of Buffalo, who had installed a system to securely produce officer and civilian ID cards. The department knew that LINSTAR provided integrated systems for schools, hospitals, corporations, and government entities, and they had confidence in LINSTAR's support capabilities. "We specialize in customized identity management and security programs," explains Mary Jo Cornell, LINSTAR president and CEO, "and our experience in integrated systems made us uniquely qualified to assist with this project."

LINSTAR and the department began to develop a solution for the Cheektowaga facility. Lt. Michael Isbrandt of the Cheektowaga Police Department describes the project's overall goal as "target hardening." The department had never had an intruder event or even the unauthorized return of a prior employee, but the threat was possible and they wanted to prevent it.

The main source of that threat was the old cipher locks on the back doors – and their equally old code numbers. According to Lt. Isbrandt, "we didn't have as much control as we would have liked over who had access to th e doors. There was a code…which probably hadn't changed in 15 years." Improving control of those doors was definitely a priority for the department.

The common area doors presented another issue for the team. Every day, prisoners are escorted from the police department to the courtroom by way of the common area. When passing through the common area doors, the escorting officers have to unlock the doors while still restraining the prisoners. This was not a minor nuisance; over 4,500 prisoners made this trip in 2005. Finding a more "hands-free" way to control access through the doors was a significant goal.

In the end, LINSTAR and the police department decided on biometric fingerprint readers as the solution for both issues. For the back door entries, the police department liked that they knew exactly who was entering the building. As Lt. Isbrandt put it, "you couldn't pass someone a code or a key; it was an undeniable fact that a certain officer had entered the building."

For the common area doors, the biometric readers were also a natural solution. Tom Hosking, the implementation manager for LINSTAR, explains that "[the officers] didn't want to be fumbling with keys or cards so they could keep one hand on the cuffs and use one hand to open the door. They are definitely able to control prisoners better with biometric access."

To connect and control the biometric readers, LINSTAR chose System Galaxy, an access control product from Galaxy Control Systems in Walkersville, Maryland. System Galaxy's hardware and software created a centralized system that Lt. Isbrandt could control easily from the workstation in his office. For the readers, LINSTAR chose fingerprint readers from Sagem Morpho, Inc. The readers identify a user by fingerprint alone, without the use of a card or token.

When installation began, LINSTAR worked on just one door at time to limit any inconvenience to the department. Six interior biometric readers and two exterior readers covered the necessary doors, and an intercom at a back door provided access for whenever a county sheriff might deliver a prisoner.

LINSTAR installed two System Galaxy 508 control panels in the department's UPS-powered server room, and one System Galaxy 502 panel in the courthouse. System Galaxy software (version 7) runs on a laptop for Lt. Isbrandt, on a workstation for his boss, Captain Thomas Rowan, and on a server in the server room. This arrangement gives both the lieutenant and the captain the ability to view, control, and change the system parameters conveniently from either of their offices.

Lt. Isbrandt is responsible for administering the system for the department, which includes adding new employees to the system and changing the settings for current employees. He describes, "I do all the fingerprinting for new employees. I can make changes here on my laptop to access settings - take certain doors away, add other doors." The system is also programmed to sound an alarm on the lieutenant's laptop if a door is forced or left open too long.

Fingerprinting the entire staff of the police department and courthouse proved to be the most daunting task of the project. As Lt. Isbrandt states, "These people work 24 hours a day, in three different shifts, so trying to get in touch with all of them and get fingerprints from them was complicated." More than 200 people needed to be printed; with only one person collecting the fingerprints, the process took a month to complete.

As the finger printing process occurred, LINSTAR left the old locks on the doors so employees could still enter using keys and codes. Since switching over completely, reaction to the system has been positive. "It was a change, and people tend to resist change," explains Lt. Isbrandt, “but overall, we've had positive feedback from everybody…we finally have some control over who can come in and who can't." The system has also been helpful with a personnel issue, as "it records who comes in and goes out, and we've used [that information] in an internal investigation."

Hosking gives a larger perspective on the improvement. "We've helped improve public safety," says Hosking, "and made the building safer for everyone. The officers have said they feel safer when they're moving prisoners. That's a good feeling for them - and for all of us at LINSTAR."

About the author: Rick Fournier is chief operating officer of Galaxy Control Systems. He can be reached at [email protected].