Parking Lot Security

by Gary R. Cook

Security for parking lots seems to be getting a lot of press lately. If you look at the statistics, roughly 80% of the criminal acts at shopping centers, strip malls and business offices occur in the parking lot. Lawyers make a good living off liability cases based on a lack of sufficient security measures or not taking "reasonable care" in the protection of employees and customers against criminal threats. The lawsuits often revolve around lack of sufficient lighting, surveillance and response. Once crime takes a foothold in an area it is difficult to break the trend, but there are some things you can do that can improve security, deter crime, reduce potential liability and make your customers feel safer. It's interesting to note that where parking lot security has been implemented, customer use has actually increased because they feel safer. Increased customer use means increased profit which can be used to justify the increased cost related to any security improvements.


Security lighting is used to increase effectiveness of guard forces and closed circuit television by increasing the visual range of the guards or CCTV during periods of darkness or by increased illumination of an area where natural light does not reach or is insufficient. Lighting also has value as a deterrent to potential individuals looking for an opportunity to commit crime. Normally security lighting requires less intensity than working areas. The exception is at normal doorways. Exterior lighting for areas such as parking lots, is required to ensure a minimum level of visibility when guards are used to perform inspection duties of the protected area. Guards and CCTV surveillance systems must be able to badges, people and guards at gates, observe activity, inspect vehicles, observe illegal entry attempts, detect intruders in the protected area, and observe unusual or suspicious circumstances. Each parking lot presents its own particular problems based on physical layout, terrain, atmospheric conditions, and security requirements. The goal of direct illumination is to provide a specified intensity throughout the area for support of guard forces or CCTV, provide good visibility for customers or employees and have a minimum of glare. The most severe problem is illuminating the small narrow "corridors" formed by adjacent parked cars. In order to get some light into these areas, it is recommended that any point in the entire parking lot be provided with illumination from at least 2 and preferably 4 lighting (pole) locations and with the lights mounted at a minimum height of 20 ft. ((lowest value on the pavement should not be less than one fourth of the recommended average). The minimum recommended illumination levels for the barest sight essentials on the parking lot proper is 1 foot-candle (average maintained horizontal to the surface) for self-parking areas and 2 footcandles for attendant parking areas (because of liability and potential damage to automobiles). Where additional lighting for business attraction or customer convenience are a consideration, 5 footcandles and higher are often used.

Illumination levels at entrances, exits, loading zones and collector lanes of parking areas should not be less than twice the illumination of the adjacent parking area or the adjoining street which ever is greater. Lighting poles should be mounted along the parking barriers and outside boundaries. Lighting requirements for CCTV are considerably lower than those required for direct visual observation depending on the type of system selected. CCTV cameras must be oriented so they are not blinded by the rising or setting sun, automobile headlights and reflections from parking lot luminaries.


The layout of a parking lot can sometimes provide an advantage for natural surveillance, CCTV coverage and structured surveillance and response. Parking lots for retail centers are unique because there is no way to control who has access as opposed to business parking areas that can and do control access if the potential risk to employees justify it. For layout of parking for retail centers, first look at the potential parking sequence and determine if there is a way to increase natural surveillance. Normally retail patrons who arrive early also leave early, leaving late arrivals the less secure (further away from the store front and traffic flow) parking spaces. Since these late arrivals also are usually the last to leave, they are also the most vulnerable to crime. By rerouting incoming and outgoing traffic through the parking lot to pass by the more remote areas, natural surveillance is increased and criminal opportunity is reduced.

Positioning of the layout to increase the effectiveness of CCTV surveillance at the parking areas can also be cost effective. Parking perpendicular to the line of sight and CCTV coverage reduces the criminal value of hiding between cars waiting for potential victims. Walking corridors between cars at strategic locations also concentrates foot traffic and increases natural surveillance by retail patrons.


Surveillance without potential response provides little increase in system trust by customers. It is not uncommon in high crime or remote areas to install Emergency Call Stations that can be used to call security forces or police to an emergency situation. Availability of these call stations for use by customers observing a crime in progress or by victims who are threatened provides a considerable increase in comfort level for employees and customers. These systems provide immediate voice contact (with security forces), alarm (to attract attention) and light signal (quick location of trouble spot).

The use of radio equipped bicycle patrols and golf carts are also gaining popularity to provide quicker security response and service for customers ( ambulance, AAA, locksmith, etc.) as well as a more consistent and frequent presence. A visual reminder of territoriality is sometimes all that is necessary to deter crime. The more consistent the visual reminder, the higher the deterrent level. This method was a factor to success of security at the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. Every attendant, volunteer and security person was dressed in a bright easily recognized uniform. They were a constant and overwhelming reminder that security was important and that someone was always near to sound the alarm and summon help.


Implementation of these measures is a function of risk and risk management. I strongly recommend that for this and any other security improvement plan, a risk analysis be performed that will help convince management that security improvements are justifiable and cost effective. The asset at risk in parking lot security is the personal property and well being of your customers and employees. How much you are willing to spend to protect them and keep them as customers is a function of their value to you as an organization. If there are other shopping centers to shop at or other businesses to work for, and your customers and employees will go there if they feel safer, the cost is apparent.

Gary R. Cook, P.E. is a registered professional engineer in the State of California, the owner of Security Design Sciences in Ventura, CA, and the publisher of Security Design Newsletter, a free quarterly publication focusing primarily on physical security issues. Mr. Cook may be contacted by email or by phone/fax at (805) 659-1952.

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