Parking Security: A Lot to Think About

A Level Three sex offender, armed with a knife and handcuffs, pled guilty earlier this year to hiding in a woman’s car in a Costco parking lot with the intent of kidnapping and sexually assaulting her.  A Murfreesboro, Tennessee, student was attacked with a knife after a dispute over a parking space.  According to Gary R. Cook, a well-known security specialist, “roughly 80 percent of the criminal acts at shopping centers, strip malls, and business offices occur in the parking lot.”  

Even more serious is the threat posed by terrorists.  In 1995 in Rijeka, Croatia, Islamic terrorists drove a car with a bomb into a building where a police station was located, injuring 29 people.  The terrorists had accessed the building via a surface parking lot.  The most significant parking garage incident, however, occurred in 1993 when Islamic terrorists detonated a massive bomb in the underground parking garage beneath the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring 1,042.  Their goal had been to drop both towers, but the terrorists fell far short of that goal – until 11 September 2001.

It is easy to see that all parking facilities pose difficult challenges for security planners, whether those facilities are beneath buildings, are stand-alone lots, or are adjacent to buildings.  In many instances, the parking area represents the building’s greatest source of vulnerability, and for this reason it is almost inconceivable that so many U.S. office buildings, universities, shopping malls, and venue designers view parking security so casually — often only as an afterthought, if at all.

The failure to provide adequate parking security has led to both out-of-court and jury awards in many states around the country.  In the wake of the 1993 attack, for example, a Manhattan jury found the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey negligent for permitting public parking under the World Trade Center. The 400 plaintiffs in that case were seeking $1.8 billion in damages.  The Port Authority appealed the decision, but it was upheld this April by a New York State Appeals Court. The judgment fell back on long-established legal precedents relating to the duties of landlords to keep their premises safe. 

The Appeals Court said in its ruling that, “… it is fair to say that no reasonably prudent landlord, aware as defendant was of the value of his or her structure as a terrorist target and of a specifically identified condition upon the property rendering it vulnerable to terrorist penetration, would await a terrorist attack, particularly one directed at basic structural elements, before undertaking, to the extent reasonably possible, to minimize the risk.”      

Which brings up a reasonable question: What are the most important factors that landlords — and their architects and security advisors — should consider when it comes to protecting their structures from crime and terrorism?  The first and foremost of those considerations is the simple fact that a parking area adjacent to the structure — or, even better, remote from the structure — will always be safer than one underneath the structure.  If underground parking is unavoidable, however, it may be prudent to restrict parking to tenants of the building or, possibly, to monthly pass holders who have been pre-screened and possess verifiables, windshield stickers, and/or smartcards. 

Gate Barriers, Mirrors, Passenger Cars Only

The worst option is to make public parking available to anyone and everyone paying a fee at the entrance to the parking facility.  In that situation, which is sometimes unavoidable, consideration should be given to at least restricting parking to passenger cars only — and prohibiting vans, trucks, and other large vehicles capable of transporting a large amount of explosives. Gate barriers also should be part of the design, and parking attendants should be trained to eyeball vehicles to identify those sagging on their springs (suggesting a heavy load) or driven by persons who are “suspicious-looking” – a difficult term to define — or behaving in a bizarre manner.

In extreme cases and/or in areas where tightened security is the daily norm — as in Northern Ireland during the “troubles” or in contemporary Iraq — parking attendants should and do make drivers step out of their vehicles and open the trunk (boot) for inspection, while security personnel run pole-mounted mirrors underneath the vehicle to search for explosives.    

It is not recommended that parking areas have tenants’ name listed on or in front of his or her parking space.  This writer was performing a security assessment of a well-known synagogue when he came across the chief Rabbi’s name emblazoned in large letters on the wall abutting the parking space.  He raised the issue with the Rabbi — who complained, despite having received a number of serious threats, that if he did not indicate his title to the space others would park there (even though there was other signage to indicate that the space was reserved). The Rabbi was told that, if he did not remove his name from the space, any malefactor would know precisely what car to tamper with – a point with which the Rabbi only reluctantly agreed.

All parking areas, whether on the surface or underground, should be brightly illuminated with maximum coverage to reduce shadows and blind spots. The lighting not only will be helpful in itself but also will assist those monitoring CCTV (closed-circuit television) surveillance systems and serve as a deterrent to thieves and attackers who attempt to hide someplace and wait for a victim.  Studies show that better lighting also makes customers feel safer and – in shopping malls and similar areas — helps, therefore, to generate more revenue. Easily identified call stations and panic buttons also are recommended so that anyone seeing suspicious activity in a parking area can report it immediately and summon help in an emergency.

For parking areas adjacent to properties, setbacks are recommended.  If setbacks are impossible, consideration should then be given to incorporating blast walls or other forms of structural hardening into the design of the building or facility. Restrictions also should be established to prevent vehicles from double-parking in front of or next to entrances, along curb lanes, and in other critical areas.  Here it should be remembered that the operations room (and security hub) of the World Trade Center was located adjacent to the underground parking area where the bomb was detonated in 1993, and was destroyed in the attack.

Finally, all parking facilities must establish some kind of response system in the event that a panic button is pushed or that CCTV coverage identifies a suspicious activity or criminal situation.  All of the security enhancements and procedures discussed above are of little value, though, unless there is a valid response mechanism in place. Landlords also should remember that a facility’s financial liability could arguably increase by instituting halfway measures that the public grows to depend on without some kind of follow-through in the event of a problem.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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