By Dr. Steve Albrecht
In Part One of the Perils of the Parking Lot, I provided an (overly) long list of possible problems created by possible problem people in the exterior areas where patrons park. (That’s a lot of p-words in one sentence.) Some readers were kind enough to contact Steve Hargadon at Library 2.0 and say they had similar issues in their parking lots and were looking forward to my advice as to some solutions. Several librarians said that the security of their parking lots is made more difficult by the challenges of reduced staffing from Covid and because they are only providing curb service now, so a library employee must stand outside, alone, with no security officers, amongst whoever walks or drives by or may be there to pick up or drop off books.
Reviewing my list from the previous blog, most of the issues I mentioned are either crimes in progress or could become crimes. Others relate to less-than-ideal behavior from people with behavioral issues and who may not be the best rule-followers in the whole wide sweet world. Some safety and security concerns can’t be fixed easily or inexpensively - installing new lights, exterior cameras, hiring security officers, and re-paving and re-striping the parking lot can get costly.
It’s important to prioritize any parking lot safety and security improvements based on two issues: likelihood and liability. Misunderstanding or minimizing both can create your pathway to a civil courtroom. Despite what some plaintiff’s attorneys will tell juries about people who work for government agencies, we aren’t expected to be able to predict the future, anticipate crimes, or see accidents before they happen. But if we have prior notice of past crimes or accidents, or our list of Security Incident Reports is piled high with parking lot problems, then we can get hammered in court for that classic legal doctrine, “you knew or should have known this bad thing was about to happen to my client.”
Our defense of “We didn’t have the money in the budget to make security lighting or camera improvements or fix the giant sinkhole in the parking lot before it swallowed up 16 cars” will fall upon the deaf ears of a judge or jury. They will have expected you to take “reasonable steps, that a reasonable library, would need to do to mitigate serious risks once they came to your attention.” In other words, spend your dollars wisely in the beginning (repairs, new policies, and security equipment) so they don’t get wasted at the end (civil case settlements and legal fees).
It may help to think of those issues which are criminal or potentially criminal in nature as one category and then consider others that may require a design fix, like permanently blocking off one of the many entrances to your parking lot to improve the traffic flow. Still others may require some outside the box (OTB) thinking, so I will note when it’s time for some OTB considerations below.
Two other suggestions: get help from your safety and security stakeholders who also work for your same city/county (Facilities, Maintenance, Public Works, law enforcement, fire, risk management) and borrow/steal good ideas from other libraries who have tamed their parking lots.
Pay attention to the traffic flow in the parking lot. Note where drivers pick up and drop-off people or kids, especially if it’s not where it’s designated. Be certain the directional signage, painted arrows, and red curbs versus loading zone curbs are visible. Juries love to pay high-dollar amounts in so-called “darting kid” cases, where a child is injured or killed even though he or she ran out from behind two parked cars. Some parking lot designs make this unlikely and others are more dangerous, with blindspots, frequent speeders, or proximity to an elementary school.
Consider installing speed bumps if drivers use your parking lot like a race track. These can be especially useful if drivers cut through your parking lot to get to another nearby building, an adjacent parking lot, or use it as a shortcut to a major street.
Install bollards or concrete planter boxes in front of your entrance doors or pedestrian access points. If you need to justify the cost, just Google how many inattentive, elderly, or teenaged drivers mistook the gas pedal for the brake and crashed their cars into the local Starbucks, convenience store, garage, or house. These barriers can prevent people from driving on to your grass, sidewalks, driveways, or into the rear of the building or your loading dock area.
You don’t need an expensive exterior camera system, but in these trying times, you do need an exterior cameras system. I get it; banks have cameras and they still get robbed. Cameras don’t prevent crime, they deter it, especially if you post signs in the parking lot that remind everyone who uses the lot that you have cameras watching what they’re doing. At a minimum, your first, best exterior camera should be installed over your main entrance doorway, to see who is entering the library. Other exterior camera views should cover the parking lot and get recorded to a Network Video Recorder (or NVR, to the Cloud). Having any exterior cameras in your parking lot will require an investment in both quality devices and sufficient lighting. You need cameras that can capture nighttime problems too. (Never install fake cameras as a cost-saving measure, anywhere inside or outside the library. We can be liable if someone gets injured and had an expectation that his or her assault was captured on a real camera.)
Improve your signage. You will need a variety of so-called “bailment” signs (“Park At Your Own Risk,” “We Are Not Responsible for Theft or Damage”) to put people on notice, that say other things like, “No overnight parking or day/night camping”; “Take all valuables with you, bring your keys, lock your car”; “This area monitored by security cameras” (if that’s true).
Get your security officers outside. They need to leave the library on an irregular schedule (not at the top of each hour, but in a regular, vigilant, but unpredictable way). They can do their security patrols on foot, by car, and golf cart.
Meet with your Police Department or Sheriff’s Office. Ask them to do more drive-bys through the parking lot at different times, even when the library is closed; have them do their reports in the parking lot; exercise their K9s at the nearby park or on the nearby grass if there is any; and focus on the small number of people who may be causing the biggest collection of problems. (When they do this it’s called “Problem-Oriented Policing” - or doing POP projects.)
Talk to your PD/Sheriff’s civilian Parking Enforcement Unit. They may need to drive through your lot on a more regular basis if you are having lots of issues with drivers parking in handicapped stalls without the proper placards or plates, parking in red zone/fire lanes, and blocking loading doors. (Make certain the stalls and curbs are newly painted and have the right signs in place; no need to irritate patrons who get expensive tickets they didn’t deserve because it’s not fully clear what is legal or illegal parking.) The fearless Parking Ticket Squad can also mark possibly abandoned cars for a 72-hour violation, or verify stolen or stripped cars and tow them away.
Improve the exterior lighting. Talk with your Director of Facilities or Maintenance about getting brighter, more efficient lights in your lot. Some parking lots still use old-school low sodium lights instead of LED lights. LEDs are far superior to the low sodium parking lot lights that many cities and counties installed several decades ago. The low sodium lights are expensive, hazardous when broken, and don’t show actual colors of objects at night with any clarity. Have your Shops people give you (exciting) lessons on the differences between Lumens and Candlepower.
Review Security Incident Reports from the past year. Look for the two things civil suit attorneys love to focus on as a weakness in our security responses: “patterns and practices.” This means events that have become a pattern (happening too much) and failed practices (we did not respond or take adequate measures to solve the problem).
Reward employee vigilance and reporting. Remind all library employees to pay careful attention to what they see as they cross the parking lot. Tell them to watch how and where they come and go to the building before and after work and on their meal breaks. Give your employees an Amazon card every time they report serious safety or crime problems in the parking lot. They see things directors, managers, and supervisors may not see. Praise them for being watchful. The injury or incident they may prevent affects the safety of everybody. Money we don’t have to spend on legal claims can be put to good use in the library.
Remind your Public Works landscapers or groundskeeping vendors about security vigilance. Tell them to keep all bushes and trees trimmed away from buildings and lights, so as not to provide hiding places or block the view from the street or inside the building. Tell them to report any vandalism or theft related to sprinkler parts, water spigots, or gas/electrical/telephone utility boxes.
Tell your Maintenance staff to keep the area clean. This may involve them having to pick up broken needles, syringe parts, human waste, and other bloodborne pathogens, so they need to be trained in how to collect and safely dispose of these items. Make certain they are doing their snow removal and sidewalk salting during winter. Have them fix potholes that can damage cars and any concrete or asphalt-related pedestrian trip hazards.
OTB Suggestion: Make friends with your (most sober, reasonable, cooperative) Streetwise Frequent Fliers, who hang around the interiors and exteriors of your library. Ask them to self-police themselves and to help keep the peace in and around “our library.” Sometimes street people can speak the necessary language to other street people in ways where the peer pressure can support your efforts to keep everyone safe, without needing to involve Security or the Police.
OTB Suggestion: If you have overnight sleepers or loiterers who won’t leave (and the police can’t or won’t help), what about doing what convenience stores and gas stations do and play loud classical music through speakers mounted on poles outside?
OTB Suggestion: Consider installing parking lot gates and lock the gate at the end of the night? This is a big step and it may require discussions, approvals, signage, new policies about cars left inside overnight, legal opinions, and even public comment. You’ll also need someone to unlock and lock the gates, seven days a week. This should be done by employees from your Public Works, Parks Department, Maintenance Department, or your security guards, not by your library employees.
If you have a large parking lot to secure or your library is adjacent to a multi-story parking garage, these can present additional security challenges that I will address in a future Library 2.0 column (probably called The Perils of the Parking Lot: Part 3 because I don’t have much imagination).