Park safe

April 2005 Access Control & Identity Management

Technology on the move to tighten up parking security at shopping centres

Theft from car parks and parking garages has long been a problem in South African cities, with the result that some major public parking facilities, such as those at business/shopping complexes and airports, have commenced installing state-of-the-art parking control and CCTV surveillance systems to reduce crime.

This trend is obviously in the public interest, but it is accompanied by an interesting phenomenon - the migration of criminals from establishments that have installed effective security systems to other establishments that have not, and are thus considered 'soft targets'.

It is a pattern that has been clearly established from the experience of the highly effective street CCTV surveillance and quick reaction security systems implemented in major city centres such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria. In all cases, crime in the surveillance areas was reduced to almost nil and the criminals that operated there either moved to less secure areas or turned to legitimate means of earning a living.

For shopping centres and similar commercial complexes, the message is clear: criminals like soft targets and operate where there are either no security systems or those that have been implemented are inefficient or easy to circumvent with a little imagination. They avoid complexes where effective security systems make it difficult for them to get away with criminal acts.

Security in parking areas focuses on two aspects:

Personal safety and vehicle safety in order to prevent incidents such as muggings and bag-snatchings and, where vehicles are concerned, to prevent break-ins and theft from cars or malicious damage, such as deliberate paint-scratching, breaking off radio aerials and badge removal.

To achieve effective security from a personal safety perspective in the parking area requires a CCTV surveillance system in which images from the cameras are conveyed to a manned control room. Incidents picked up on the monitoring screens can be reported by radio to patrolling security guards who can instigate immediate reaction. This type of live system can also be proactive as well-trained control room personnel can recognise circumstances that typically lead to a mugging or bag-snatching and an early warning to patrolling guards either prevents the incident taking place or ensures the perpetrators are apprehended in the act. To a degree, such manned surveillance systems can also help to prevent vehicles being stolen and driven out of the parking area.

Vehicle theft prevention

To obtain a high degree of vehicle theft prevention it is necessary to implement other security systems that provide control of vehicle entry and exit and also integrate with the CCTV surveillance and control room monitoring system. Such a solution would be obtained if all entry events are logged and exit events are checked against these. Although a parking ticket in itself is already a deterrent it is not successful enough as it is quite a simple matter to drive in with one vehicle and leave with a better one.

It is therefore necessary to tie the actual vehicle into the ticket transaction. This can be most easily achieved by using licence plate recognition and linking the ticket to the vehicle on entry and checking for a match on exit.

Facial recognition can be used to improve on this by also linking the driver to the ticket transaction. Manual verification in the case of a transaction alarm will probably work best. The inconsistency of drivers - for example a husband may bring the car in but hand the keys and ticket to his wife, who leaves with the car while he accompanies a friend elsewhere - coupled with the inherent unreliability of automatic facial recognition systems means it is not a good solution, especially in high volume traffic areas such as shopping centres.

It is also important to consider to what extent the system could cause delays. All security systems tend to impose restrictions but in public areas such as shopping centres these have to be applied in a way that causes minimum disruption. Delays on entry can cause severe backup problems on main roads and delays at exits cause great unhappiness among customers sitting in long queues.

The SINON new generation CCTV electronic surveillance system for parking security, developed by Thales, is highly automated and monitors the entry and exit of each vehicle. The system extracts the number plate and colour of the vehicle from the entry event to significantly improve overall security.

It automatically tracks the vehicle type, colour and registration and, because it can be linked to payment systems, it is ideal for security at open parking areas for shopping centres or commercial complexes.

Number plate recognition is the best way of connecting an entry ticket to a specific car and the physical installation and placement of the camera is as important as the camera itself, which should be high-resolution with infrared illumination. Overall system reliability and availability is critical because with a parking area visited by 5000 cars a day, a reliability of 99% means 50 cars cannot be identified. Unreliability also means delays for motorists wanting to exit the complex and thus upsetting shoppers.

Thales' system provides a major deterrent for criminals and there is potential to link it with the SAPS stolen vehicle registry. This could help to locate stolen vehicles and reduce crime in general. As far as shopping centres are concerned, system efficiency is the key. Customers entering a shopping centre do not want to see queues of cars as a result of delays caused by slow, inefficient security systems and neither does management. It is important to ensure that there are correct mechanisms in place to deal with events at exits. There have to be slipways to take problem traffic - vehicles that the system has flagged - out of the way so as not to hinder other exiting traffic.

The bottom line is that electronic, computerised parking surveillance and control at shopping centres has to be very carefully thought through to obtain the most efficient security and the highest crime deterrence factor without impeding ease of access for law-abiding customers.

Concluding comments

Most of the car thefts and major incidents such as armed bank or shop robberies at shopping centres fall under organised crime. There are very professional syndicates behind the big cash heists and many of the car thefts are to order with make, model and colour being stipulated.

Organised crime is aggressive and we need to prevent it wherever possible. There is no doubt that effective security measures bring about significant reductions in crime. Modern shopping centres and other high traffic public facilities need high quality, integrated systems. Advancements in camera technology, CCTV systems and image recording, storage, retrieval and analysis add up to highly effective security.

Today we have cameras of a quality that provide positive facial identification that could lead to a conviction. The placement of cameras and the design of the system are critical and can not only help to prevent a crime but also, in the event that a crime does take place, to identify the perpetrators who can then be apprehended afterwards and tried and convicted on the visual evidence.

A major objective is to prevent violent action inside a shopping centre to protect innocent shoppers. If any reaction does take place it will be outside in the car park where there is much less chance of people being hurt. In any event, with good cameras it is highly likely the perpetrators will later be identified, arrested and successfully prosecuted.

Today's video image recorders can operate at 400 frames/second, which is ideal for recognition and identification. Also, as a centre will know within minutes that there has been an incident, concerns about higher quality pictures leading to a reduction in the length of image storage time fall away.

There are major benefits to be obtained from integrating the shopping centre security system with the parking control system and licence plate recognition is the way to go. While there are many suppliers of these systems, not all of them achieve the quality of picture required. Facial recognition is also coming into contention.

Security personnel today work with systems that operate automatically and can immediately zoom a camera onto an area where a panic alarm signal has been received. If there is a parking exit problem, the camera at the exit will come up automatically on the control room screen, enabling the problem to be quickly resolved or reacted to. Cameras can be pre-programmed to regularly scan and zoom onto 'hot spots'.

Control room operators should be well trained and are predominantly women as they show most aptitude for observation and surveillance. They are taught how to interpret human behaviour and are familiar with the set-up patterns employed by pickpockets and others.

The technology is there for shopping centres. Retrofitment is expensive so it makes economic sense to design and install the right system first time. Security should be visible to patrons because people are becoming more and more security-minded. They will not go where they do not feel safe. Shopping centre developers/management would do well to ensure their security office and control room are prominently positioned in mall areas so that shoppers can see an active security system.

For more information contact Dr Bennie Coetzer, Thales Advanced Engineering, 011 465 4312,

Dr Bennie Coetzer is joint managing director of Thales Advanced Engineering, a specialist in image processing, data communications and digital CCTV surveillance systems. This article contains concluding comments by Peet Geldenhuys of BMS System Consultancy, a specialist consultant on security systems for large public complexes such as shopping centres, airports and office parks.

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