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Can casino robberies be prevented?

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As gaming continues to expand into various locations around the world, the temptation to criminals to commit robberies also increases. In the early decades of gaming in Nevada, the intimidation, rumors and stories, along with the design of casinos, created a formidable deterrent. Very few robberies involving casinos were attempted, although they still occurred on rare occasions.

The perception that casinos have video cameras that are everywhere is still a sizeable deterrent to the potential robber, conveying the fact that a robbery is quite risky. Much the same as banks, casino cash-handling areas have cameras that capture every person that walks up to a cashier. Some gaming operations and regulatory jurisdictions are more comprehensive in their camera coverage and requirements for coverage than others, but the focus is more on following the money internally than robbery prevention.

Third-party robberies—those where a customer is robbed, with a gun or knife—are also increasing in gaming environments, especially in areas outside of the casino such as hotel towers or parking areas. A robbery at gunpoint in the parking lot can escalate into a homicide in a matter of seconds, and the negative aftermath will often be present for many years. In these often-isolated environments, a robbery can occur and not be detected by cameras or patrol officers until much later.

Emphasizing patrol priorities, adequate lighting, CCTV coverage, offering escorts to customers and employees and basic parking management strategies will all help to limit third-party robbery events.

The practice of a robbery team working together inside and outside of the casino is becoming more common. One person observes the customers who are either paid large jackpots at slot machines, cashing in chips at the cashier’s cage, or using a kiosk, and simply take a picture of them with a cell phone. The picture is then transmitted in text form to their partner who is waiting in the parking lot to rob the unsuspecting victim. As a result, many casinos across the country are rethinking the policy of prohibiting photographs in the gaming areas.

Banks are still robbed every business day around the world, even with the obvious and visible cameras pointing directly at the perpetrator. We see the still shots of often-poor-quality images in the news and wonder why, with today’s digital technology, they cannot get higher-resolution pictures. The same holds true of casino surveillance systems.

A simple ball cap and sunglasses can easily hide the features of a criminal, and the limitation of the two-dimensional images that a video camera captures becomes frustrating to security and surveillance professionals. Because a casino is truly what is called a soft target—there is no securable perimeter, it is open to the public 24/7, has numerous points of ingress and egress and has no access controls—it is difficult to monitor and control.

Risk Assessment
During the 1990s, in several jurisdictions across the United States, robberies were occurring at alarming intervals, especially along the Strip in Las Vegas. Casinos quickly added features to include bars that prohibited an armed robber from merely hopping over the counter with a gun, making it easy to commit the felony. Additionally, other features appeared that are now quite common in casino cage design.

Because more casinos are opened across the world every year (creating more opportunity), the potential targets are eyed by criminals, and even the desperate lone individual involved in a financial crisis. If you watch the news blogs and daily gaming news services, you will observe almost every day where there has been a robbery of a casino or customer at a casino somewhere in the world.

Careful evaluation of countermeasures should be made with input from in-house security and surveillance professionals, or outside consultants if needed. Knee-jerk reactions such as arming all security staff without careful analysis, research and training along with individual officer evaluations and impact on insurance premiums can create a host of other problems, and will not necessarily solve the objective of eliminating robbery events. Preparing the security staff for dealing with a robbery event is one thing; creating an environment where a potential firefight of guns in the casino is possible is quite another.

Regardless of the location, target or environment involved in a robbery, casinos by nature deal with large sums of cash and negotiable chips that require security measures very different than other businesses. A risk assessment by a professional that includes robbery events will go a long way in deterring and preventing these undesirable events.

The fact that robberies have occurred regularly in gaming environments requires focused attention on the security and surveillance plan in place at a gaming operation. The idea that you can’t do anything to prevent or deter robberies is not viable, and the “elephant in the room” concept might get employees killed. Executive-level management should closely examine the procedures, design and trends associated with robbery events and make
sure adequate countermeasures and an action plan are in place.

Cashier Cage Design
Unfortunately, many casinos design the physical cash-handling areas without direct input from the security and surveillance professional, relying on the operational manager and the architects to do what is logical. They then turn the plans over to security and surveillance and ask them to protect the predesigned area. Involving the property security and surveillance professionals early in the design process is recommended, to assure proper safety and security precautions are taken for this reasonably anticipated event.  The following should be considered in the design of the cash areas such as cashier cages.

  1. Counters should be constructed of quality plywood, especially on those sides exposed to the casino where an armed robber might approach. Double layers of three-quarters to one-inch quality plywood will slow down or stop most bullets or projectiles.
  2. Counter width should be increased from standard widths to prohibit anyone from reaching over the counter and accessing drawers or shelves.
  3. Quality bars that protect the employees from the public side should be constructed to withstand at least two people yanking on them at full strength. They should not be designed to allow even a small person to slip between the bars and the counter or in between vertical bars. Creative designs can make this feature attractive and effective.
  4. Careful review of the sight lines that could allow customers and potential criminals to view cash should be reviewed regularly, to limit the observance of large stacks of cash or other tempting negotiable instruments. Cash drawers or bulk storage areas should not be easily viewed from the casino side of the cashier cage by anyone—again, through creative design.
  5. Location of any cash-handling function should be carefully reviewed to make sure it is not close to an exit and has the highest exposure to employee and guest witnesses as possible. This includes remote cashiers in venues and outlets. Installing simple low countertop barriers can assist greatly and still allow for adequate observation.
  6. Height markers much the same as seen in convenience store door jambs are also prudent, and can be helpful in obtaining descriptions from not only the cage employees but the surveillance images that will be examined later. Placement on the employee sidewalls adjacent to cage windows is simple and basic.
  7. Carefully evaluate man traps and their effectiveness prior to installing them. Work with local law enforcement in designing one that promotes safety and security. The man trap is designed to not allow a person to enter or exit a secured area without holding doors open, and typically is operated electronically. It is designed to trap a person in, including an armed robber.

The most dangerous gaming environments are those that did not have sufficient barriers to prevent the robbers from entering the cage areas. In those that have the design components mentioned above, the typical cage employee response is to drop to the floor next to the counter. The robber cannot see or reach them, or point a weapon at them. The thickness of the counter will resist most projectiles if the robber decides to start shooting.

If senior managers step into the casino and observe the cage processes, they will quickly observe those functions that expose the tempting piles of cash, and will be able to implement protective functions to limit that observation by a criminal casing the cage area. Designing various areas to store cash in locked locations will also make it difficult for someone to commit a robbery, and will limit the potential rewards.

Cash Inventory
There are certain times in any cashier environment when there is more cash than at other times. Coordinating delivery, counting and moving of bulk cash will limit exposure to robberies. Because cash inventories are often dictated by regulators to facilitate customer winnings, there can be significant amounts on hand. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Do not keep clipped and bundled cash in open view to customers anywhere in the cage area. This includes individual drawers.
  2. Review the handling of bulk cash through surveillance audits to correct procedural violations and limit the exposures of negotiable currency.
  3. Evaluate the necessity of the cash amounts and do not allow more cash than is necessary to be easily accessible, even if it means multiple banks, securely locked down, in one small area. Use and lock the safes provided even though employees may complain it is a hassle to use the combinations.
  4. Understand that the person who commits a robbery will most likely have watched the area prior to committing the actual deed; they will have seen the piles of cash, which will be a motivator to risk an open robbery.

The employees and managers who deal with cash daily will get into habits that make the job more convenient and, unfortunately, more visible to criminal eyes.

Training Tips
Training of employees is critical if you want to save lives. The employees will typically revert to their training in stress situations. No life is worth the cash assets in the environment, and all employees should be clearly trained in this philosophy. The following are some suggestions on training:

  1. A formal training program for all employees who handle cash throughout the facility can be designed to educate them on the company policy regarding robbery events. Cooperation, complying with the request of an armed robber and personal safety training will go a long way in keeping employees alert and alive during the unpredictable robbery event.
  2. Careful consideration of use of dye packs and silent alarms in cash drawers and other locations, along with very specific instructions for employees to only activate after the robber has left and the gun is no longer pointed at them, will also save lives. Training staff on how to obtain a description, and having pre-designed forms at cashier environments, will also be helpful in getting the information to law enforcement.
  3. Security personnel should have a formal procedure that is followed during and after a robbery event. Keeping it basic with the objective to protect customers and employees as opposed to catching the fleeing felon is always desirable. Coordination with responding police and interacting with them as they enter the building with guns drawn is also desirable, and can be accomplished in advance. Pre-designed staging points are typical in coordinated response plans with law enforcement.
  4. Surveillance personnel should also have very specific instructions on response, to include making the phone call to the police to keep them posted on the activity they are observing from above. Security will be extremely busy, and having a surveillance agent on the phone with a police dispatcher is vital to the safety of everyone involved or within range. The agent can update the responding police on the events, direction of travel, weapons used and other vital information prior to and as they enter the dynamic event.
  5. Protection of the crime scene, including counters, cash drawers, employees and witnesses and anything that may contain evidence, is also important in the period between the event and the police taking over the scene and investigation.
  6. Pre-designated triage locations for the severe event where people are injured, and training for this function, can be accomplished easily.

Policy and Procedure
Robbery and active shooter events are emergencies in every sense. As an emergency, they should be included in the emergency operations manual of the property. Because of their dynamic nature and the impact on employees, many issues will arise if there is not a formal plan to deal with the basics of these events. Chaos will occur in the immediate aftermath before the responding police come in and control the event.

Employee response to include security and surveillance personnel should be designed in advance, and in written form. Understanding that all emergencies are not predictable, these plans can be basic, including the important functions and division of responsibility and response.

Your local law enforcement crime prevention specialist will have many resources in assisting with the development of a written plan, and will have great training resources as well. Having victim impact information on hand, employee and guest counseling services available, proper crime scene protection procedures, and authority to close off the area or even the entire

Additionally, the plan can include use of various employees post-incident, and can mirror the evacuation plans already established. The importance of having the written basic plan for robbery or active shooter will familiarize affected employees with what they are supposed to do, and will assure they clearly understand established management protocols for dealing with the event and the aftermath in a consistent manner as desired by the executives of the property. It will also be much easier for the witnesses to testify in the legal aftermath that almost always follows these types of events.

Alan W. Zajic, CPP, CSP, is an independent security consultant specializing in gaming environments.