Apartment Security, What Can You Do?

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By Cliff Hockley and Heather Hill,
Bluestone & Hockley Real Estate Services

Property security is an aspect of property management operations often overlooked and not budgeted for.   Properties typically need security for: transient removal, trespassing, illegal dumping, vandalism, theft, alarm response, illegal camping, and criminal issues on site (like drug dealing for example). Property owners and managers can choose to implement a variety of strategies to improve property security.

Screening
Property owners assume that onsite managers are responsible for property security. Many years ago we took over management of a low end mobile home park which had many drug dealers onsite (something we did not know when we agreed to manage the property.) The onsite manager and his wife were exceptionally large and had used their size to discourage obvious crime and keep the tenants in line.  We were fortunate that the FBI and DEA arrested the worst tenants.  In any case, once we took over management of the property, we were able to use improved tenant screening techniques to select better tenants and create a safer environment. More importantly, we were able to reposition the property (over a period of seven years) to enable the ownership group to sell the property for a profit.

Community Building
Community organizing is an important tool for crime prevention.  Onsite managers can work with neighborhood police officers to foster positive relationships with law enforcement at the property. Events such as the National Night Out draw attention to police partnerships that can get communities aware of their role in making neighborhoods safer. This is not an easy task.  It will take a lot of work to get community members involved.  A good onsite manager who understands the benefits of community building will put the extra effort into this and help tenants get to know each other, through monthly parties, events and newsletters.

Lighting and Landscaping Issues
Crime rarely takes place in open areas under spotlights. Make sure the property has adequate lighting and that all lamps work at night, especially in the parking areas to discourage car theft or break-ins. To save energy, motion sensors can be installed that illuminate a space only when a large moving object is present. This has a dual benefit of scaring away trespassers and relieving tenants who might find constant lights too bright in their windows at night.
Overgrown landscaping can provide easy cover for criminals. Make sure that bushes or trees don’t obscure property windows, entries, and/or lighting systems. When planting bushes near access points like windows, choose thorny yet ornamental bushes such as holly, hawthorn, or roses as these are more difficult to climb over. These plants can also serve as a natural fence. If the property has a problem with pass-through traffic, for example, corner properties or those adjacent to a retail area where pedestrians might choose to cut through the property to shorten the walk to another street, you can plant thorny bushes to discourage this practice. Criminals find properties with only one in and out point of access less desirable than those with multiple escape routes.   These steps require the cooperation of the owners, the managers and the landscape team.

Cameras
As the cost of technology has plummeted, it has become easier to install security cameras and DVRs to track the data.  Many commercial and some residential buildings have cameras to observe access and help security personnel and property managers track activity at their properties twenty-four hours a day on their smart phones.
At one of our commercial properties we were having a problem with transients sleeping in the entryway of a vacant space.  We installed a camera with remote access.  This enabled the property manager to catch the transients in the act and call local police to arrest them.  We did press charges.  The security camera worked.
Like good lighting, even the very presence of security cameras can deter crime, however owners and managers should keep in mind that they have limited capabilities when it comes to helping convict criminals after a crime has taken place. The quality of camera images vary greatly, and without adequate lighting, some are virtually useless for night imaging. Most exterior cameras are effective for collecting evidence such as a car make and model and a general height, clothing, build or sex of a perpetrator, but fail to capture essential details such as license plates and facial features.
Also, external cameras must be maintained like any other structure on the property that weathers the elements. Water, dirt, dust and insects can find their way into the camera housing, obscuring the view. Make sure any external cameras are clean to maximize their value. Again, just as the resolution differs from camera to camera, the quality of the housing differs as well. Vendors who specialize in electronic security can advise you on the best options for your situation.

Access Controls
Some buildings are designed with common area central access, which allows for the use of access controls.  Typically, tenants are issued cards, fobs, special keys or codes that make it hard for non-tenants to access buildings. Tenants can then allow access to their guests through the use of audio or video communication to their front or back door entries. 
Like camera systems, access control systems require some upkeep to sustain their effectiveness. Property managers should understand their role and responsibilities to control access in their buildings. First, cards/fobs, like keys, should be tracked and accounted for. Order new cards or fobs from the same vendor to make sure they are not duplicated. Missing cards/fobs should be immediately removed from the system, and always either collect the card/fob from the tenant upon move-out or retire the card/fob from the system upon move out.
Though it takes more time and work, the most secure option is to make sure that cards/fobs are returned upon move-out and then reissued to the new tenant. By using this practice you have a general idea of how many fobs are needed for the building. If you find you are buying more fobs without retiring them, you may have an undeclared loss issue. Like computer systems, access systems have a limited amount of memory. Adding new codes without retiring any may cause the system to reach the limit requiring the purchase of added memory, which can be expensive.

The Police
We encourage our property managers and tenants to call the police when faced with a security problem. We do not want anyone to get injured by an angry tenant or a criminal. Unlike the strategies previously covered, the police not only discourage crime, they also document it on the public record through police reports and can help draw the local police department’s attention to the issues at the properties. Police presence can be very helpful in discouraging crime.
Sometimes, when budgets are tight or crime is rampant, the police departments don’t have time or staff to respond to suspicious activity.  When all else fails, you may need to hire private security patrol services.

Private Security Patrol Services
Security patrol services deliver uniformed visibility to discourage criminal behavior when police departments are not available.
The best security patrol companies staff trained and armed officers who wear body cameras to track the audio and video of every incident. Their patrol vehicles are equipped with GPS and computer systems that allow them to take active notes for all properties, map locations of failed lighting systems, track parking violations, and collect evidence that can be used in court if the property owner chooses to pursue legal proceedings.
Physical security companies offer services that include driving through properties and stationing overnight guards.  These security patrol services typically check doors to make sure they are locked up, and respond to calls from on-site managers who request them to roust transients or help break up fights. Like the other strategies discussed, security patrol services deter criminal activity by being visible. Managers and owners can also post their signage at the property to deter criminals from cruising the property.
If you have an active drug dealing problem, onsite security can help protect the onsite manager.  At a difficult property it might be almost impossible to recruit and hire a property manager without twenty-four hour armed and uniformed security.
Many years ago we were hired to manage a property that the city threatened to take over due to the numerous police calls there.  We hired onsite security for two months, identified and evicted the problem tenants, and were able to turn the property around.

Summary
Property security should never be overlooked by owners of investment properties.  There are many strategies used to improve property security including thorough tenant screening, community building activities, adequate lighting, trim and effective landscaping, camera systems, access control systems, cooperation with the police and the hiring of private security patrols.
When properties have a pattern of crime, it makes sense for owners and property managers to review all of the resources that can help create a safer environment for all.  Safer properties equate to lower tenant turnover and more profit for property owners.  Safety should always be a component of a property operations plan.

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