Parking Lot Safety: 23 Ideas to Push Security to the Edge of the Shopping Experience

Holiday season crowds, a wrongful death lawsuit against a Dallas shopping mall, and a shooting at an Oklahoma Walmart are reminders of the danger that lurks in parking areas.

NorthPark Center in Dallas was hit with a wrongful-death lawsuit in November that alleges the mall turned a blind eye to joyriding in its parking garages resulting in the death of a visiting Chinese businessman and seriously injuring his friend in March. The mall denies all claims of wrongdoing, but the lawsuit, which seeks millions in damages, alleges that its parking garages had become “de facto racetracks” where rooftops were constantly being covered in doughnuts from drifting drivers. The garages’ lack of speedbumps, limited video surveillance, and multiple escape routes invited the reckless driving, an attorney for the family alleges.

It’s evidence that parking areas continue to demand special security consideration, especially during the holiday shopping season when law enforcement officials warn thieves actively target shoppers and vehicles. Another example occurred in November in a Walmart parking lot in Duncan, Oklahoma, in which a shooting left three people dead.

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According to FBI data, 4.1 percent of all crimes against persons in the US occur in parking lots or garages, and it’s the location of 5.8 percent of all hate crimes. Additionally, parking lots are by far the most common location of domestic-related assaults on employees at work. Unsafe parking areas remain fertile ground for negligent security lawsuits and parking areas have become an important consideration in bomb threat planning because use of a secondary device has become a common attack strategy.

In directly addressing the risk of crime in large parking lots and garages, experts typically suggest strategies to slow vehicles down, like speed bumps; increasing the presence of employees, such as with security patrols; installing high-quality lighting; and using video surveillance to identify suspects and track the occurrence of problems such as unsafe driving. Video analytics can alert staff when a car lingers in a no-parking area or is speeding.

Because they are often isolated with limited casual surveillance, parking areas also need layers of security to prevent theft by dishonest security officers. For example, four security officers at a New Jersey shopping mall were arrested for theft, including allegedly stealing GPS devices from vehicles parked in the shopping mall parking lot. The officers apparently worked together to target vehicles and elude detection.

Following is a host of other ideas that were suggested at a panel discussion at a national security conference for security practitioners.

1. Use patrol vehicles. Bikes, cars, or other vehicles will allow officers to get to the site of an incident three times faster on average than officers on foot and allows them to cover more ground, more quickly during routine patrols. Research if any of the many new personal mobility vehicles or devices are a good fit for your operation.

2. In high traffic times of the year, such as the holiday shopping season, alert store security to be aware of loiterers outside the store and increase parking area patrols.

3. Make vehicles noticeable during routine patrols, such as strobe lights on vehicles. Make sure patrol vehicles have clear lines of vision, a tight turning radius, and are comfortable for officers.

4. Weigh the customer service value of different patrol vehicles when purchasing a patrol fleet. Some golf-cart style parking patrol vehicles may be more appreciated by visitors, who may need a ride to find where they parked and reflect environmental sensitivity.

5. To facilitate identification, patrol vehicles should be clearly marked with a number on each corner and the roof of the vehicle. This allows you to tell which vehicles responded to an incident from looking at surveillance video, for example.

6. Vary the routes and schedules of parking area patrols to prevent criminals from learning when they can attack vehicles.

7. Position someone at the main entrance to the parking area. An individual at this post can “eyeball everyone who comes in” and will frequently receive reports from exiting visitors that they would otherwise be unlikely to report, such as, “Hey, just so you know, there was this guy on level 2 of the garage that just seemed to be hanging around.” Such employees can also help direct traffic to available parking spaces in crowded lots or garages.

8. Give officers in garages laser pointers. In response to questions by customers or visitors for directions, like the location of the store’s entrance, they make it easy for officers to point the way.

9. Help shoppers with bulky items or large orders to their vehicles, as these individuals could be inviting targets.

10. Invest in a vehicle hood piercing device. In the event of a car engine fire, this critical piece of equipment creates a hole so you can pour in an agent to put out the fire. Fast, effective response to parking garage car fires is critical because they can completely shut down your operation for hours.

11. Review area crime statistics on a scheduled basis. An increase or displacement of crime is typically felt first in parking areas.

12. Produce incident frequency reports on a regular schedule so you can deploy your people appropriately.

13. Paint parking garage walls white if lighting is a problem. The reflective properties will enhance illumination.

14. Track how many hours you spend assisting visitors with locating vehicles. If it’s a time-consuming function, a parking locator system may be a worthwhile investment. Also, when using a text-messaging feature for vehicle location, the marketing department can piggyback on the technology to advertise promotions.

15. Assign a clear number identification to all assistance call boxes located in a parking structure. Boxes should be numbered and allow for two-way communication to quickly help and speak with injured, lost, or fearful individuals.

16. Provide clear and adequate signage to reduce confusion and help visitors move safely and efficiently through parking structures. It’s also helpful to post signage regarding limits to liability for lost or stolen item at each entrance.

17. Use signs to warn shoppers about the danger of pickpocketing, purse snatching, or other criminal activity in shopping parking areas and instruct them to put packages in the trunk of their vehicles while shopping.

18. Don’t evacuate to the parking area in a bomb scare. This is the most common assembly evacuation point in case of fire but in a bomb scare an evacuation needs to take people away from vehicles. The parking lot is the most likely place for a large, secondary explosive devices in the form of a car bomb.

19. Coordinate employee parking with work schedules. For example, assigning all third-shift workers to one parking garage level or parking area makes workers safer because it ensures other workers will be coming and going in the same area of the parking facility at the same time.

20. Offer security escorts to any employee who feels unsafe walking alone to the garage or parking lot or suggest to workers they use the “buddy system” and always leave with a coworker if they feel unsafe.

21. Work closely with appropriate managers to make sure security is a primary consideration for lighting choices and deploy lighting fixtures that emit high levels of vertical illumination and optimize performance of your outdoor security cameras.

22. After deciding on how many lighting fixtures you need, add 15 percent. This “buffer zone” will accommodate for the number of fixtures that may be out of service at any given time.

23. Conduct a fresh facility survey to note small things that may be making parking areas or garages less safe. For example, an ATM near a stairwell or an exit encourages thieves by giving them a quick escape route. Or, previously small bushes surrounding the parking area may have grown to provide perfect cover for an assailant. Follow recommendations for parking area safety made during security audits and reviews.

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