BEFORE CRIMINALS COME CALLING - Have a Security Plan
One of the more frustrating job responsibilities of a property manager is discovering how to keep criminal activity off an apartment community.
Most experienced property managers have been successful in resolving crime outbreaks by either hiring a patrol service, evicting a troublesome resident, or by calling the police to report disturbances. However, these same property managers will be the first to tell you that this cycle of temporary solutions is expensive, time-consuming, and usually ineffective over time. Worst of all, these interim measures could actually prove harmful during a lawsuit claiming inadequate security measures. For example, if you hired a patrol service following an assault and then discontinued the service a few weeks later, without changing any of the underlying conditions that caused the concern in the first place, you would be opening yourself up for more potential liability.
In most cases, to be successful over the long term you don't need to spend a fortune or take radical measures to keep most criminals out. Usually, if a basic apartment security plan is thoughtfully conceived and maintained, crime problems will not escalate. A basic security plan should include good resident screening, fair and swift enforcement of the community rules, good door locks and window latches in the units, good common area lighting and visibility, and key control.
Multihousing studies have repeatedly shown that moderate to high crime problems can usually be traced back to a percentage of our own residents or their unauthorized occupants, friends, ex-spouses, boyfriends, and assorted associates. There is no doubt that the most cost-effective form of criminal access control can be accomplished in the leasing office during the new resident screening process. Criminal activity has been seen to fluctuate proportionally as resident screening standards vary following management changes.
Basic resident screening involves checking credit, employment, and rental history. A basic screening plan should call for all adult occupants to be included on the lease and subject to the resident qualifications. In this day and age, screening is more than establishing the ability to pay rent. It should also be used as an effective tool to limit criminals and their friends from moving onto the property. Criminal background checks are becoming easier and therefore more common in some areas. Some troubled properties that have incorporated criminal background checks into their screening process have reported incredible reductions (70 percent) in police calls over previous years. When career criminals have a hard time getting qualified, they will either be displaced to another property or they may try to infiltrate your property by becoming an unauthorized occupant.
To further screen out unauthorized occupants and bad residents, a good security plan should require the fair and firm enforcement of the rules of the community. Property managers should have anti-crime rules in place similar to the crime-free, drug-free lease addendum. These written agreements have proven to be extremely effective by giving property managers the tools to swiftly evict those residents suspected of being involved in illegal activity. Because it is a civil agreement, signed by the applicant at the time of lease, it holds residents responsible for their illegal conduct and for the misconduct of their guests. In most jurisdictions, the courts have been willing to support evictions based only on a preponderance of evidence of criminal conduct and the use of a properly executed anti-crime lease addendum. Good residents appreciate and deserve consistent rule enforcement. It has a way of encouraging community involvement in reporting suspicious activity, especially if management demonstrates a willingness to act on legitimate complaints.
A significant bonus of having a good security plan in place is the impression it makes during an inadequate security lawsuit. One secret to defending these claims is to show evidence of good faith planning and that management cares about the welfare of the residents. According to insurance industry data, rental housing properties have been successfully sued more often for inadequate security claims than any other type of commercial property. As an owner or manager, to prevail in a premises security lawsuit you need to be able to prove that you acted reasonably and had a system in place to reduce crime. During a lawsuit, proof of reasonableness usually requires three things: documentation, documentation, and documentation.
DOORS AND LOCKS
By far, the most common claims against apartment owners and managers are allegations of defective locks and latches on the apartment home that contributed to a criminal getting easy access to the resident.
The best times to inspect the locks and latches of a rental unit are before you rent it and at turnover. A good policy is to require your service technicians to inspect and test each door lock and window latch during the apartment make-ready process. Next, walk the apartment unit with the incoming resident and inspect and test each locking device again. These inspections should be documented on the maintenance make-ready and resident walk-through forms and the resident should be asked to sign-off on each locking device entry. Front and back door lighting should be inspected and signed-off on at the same time.
Basic door security should include a solid, tight-fitting door, a quality deadbolt lock, and a 180-degree peephole. The most common way criminals force entry through wooden frame doors is simply kicking them open. The weakest point is almost always the strike plate that holds the latch or lock bolt in place. Even today, most door strike-plates are secured with only two 1/2-inch wood screws set into a weak doorframe molding. These lightweight moldings are often just tacked onto the doorframe and can be easily torn away with a firm kick. Because of this construction flaw, it makes sense to upgrade to a heavy-duty four-screw strike plate. They are available in most quality hardware stores and home improvement centers and are definitely worth the extra expense. Install this strike plate for your residents using four three-inch screws to cut deep into the doorframe stud. This one step alone will deter or prevent most forced entries through the front door. Of course, you should document this important step because it is proof of you acting reasonably.
SLIDING GLASS DOORS
Criminals have been known to use sliding glass doors for entry. In warm climates, an experienced criminal knows that sliding glass doors are often left standing open for ventilation or for pet access. Because they slide horizontally, it is important to have a secondary blocking device in place to prevent the door from being fully opened from the outside. This can be easily accomplished by inserting a wooden dowel or other rigid blocking device into the track, thus preventing or limiting movement. Other blocking devices available are metal, fold-down devices called 'charley bars' and various other track-block devices that can be screwed down. These track-block devices can allow a door to stand open six-inches but block further movement. It's a good policy for owners and managers to provide these devices and request, in writing, that residents use them. Again, you should document this important step because it is proof of you acting reasonably.
Poorly maintained sliding glass doors are notorious for failing to prevent forced entry attempts. This is because of the wear and tear they receive and the inadequate nature of many of the latching mechanisms. Sliding glass doors usually do not have locks on them, only latches. The latches are often made of aluminum and can become worn or go out of adjustment. The most common methods used to force entry, aside from breaking the glass, is by prying the door near the latch of lifting the door off the track. The blocking devices described previously solve half the problem. To prevent lifting, you need to keep the door rollers in good condition and properly adjusted. You can also install anti-lift devices such as a pin that extends through both the sliding and fixed portion of the door. There are also numerous locking and blocking devices available in any good quality hardware store that will prevent a sliding door from being lifted or forced horizontally.
Windows are left unlatched and open at a much higher rate than doors. An open window, visible from the street or alley, may be the sole reason for an apartment to be selected by a criminal. Ground floor windows are more susceptible to break-ins for obvious reasons. Upper floors windows become attractive only if they can be accessed easily from a stairway, tree, fence, or by climbing on balconies. Windows have latches, not locks, therefore should have secondary blocking devices to prevent sliding them open from the outside. Inexpensive wooden dowels work well for horizontal sliding windows and a through-the-frame pin works well for vertical sliding windows. For ventilation, block the windows open no more than six-inches and make sure you can't reach in from the outside and remove the blocking device. These window-blocking devices should be capable of being removed easily from the inside to comply with fire codes. Like sliding glass doors, anti-lift devices are necessary for ground level and accessible aluminum windows that slide horizontally. The least expensive and easiest method is to install screws halfway into the upper track of the movable glass panel to prevent it from being lifted out in the half-open and closed positions. The owner or manager should supply these additional security devices and request, in writing, that the residents use them. Of course, you should document this important step because it is proof of you acting reasonably.
In Texas, a jury awarded a multi-million dollar verdict to a woman who had been raped and abducted by a man who gained access to her apartment using management's back-up key. The rapist broke into the management office and found the correctly numbered back-up key hanging unsecured on a hook in an unlocked key storage locker.
Many other very large jury awards have been made to former residents because of negligent control and use of the master key. The negligence issue is always the same. If you require a resident to supply an extra key to his apartment, then you must take reasonable steps to safeguard that key. If you maintain a master key that unlocks all the units, you must take even greater steps to control access to this key.
The concept is simple to argue. A resident gives up some rights when he moves onto a rental property. On most properties, the resident, per lease agreement, cannot add or replace the deadbolt on his door unless management is given an extra key. By doing this, the property manager assumes the responsibility of key control.
The other theory is one of reliance. The owner or manager supplies the locks and keys and therefore, a resident must rely on management to have re-keyed the door lock and to have secured the backup and master keys.
Key control, by definition, requires restriction and documentation of those who use the back-up keys and master keys. Of course, you should document this important step because it is proof of you acting reasonably.
Here are 10 proven steps to follow for better key control and resident security: Always re-key or replace the unit door locks at turnover; Always eliminate or limit the use of the master key; Always keep the back-up keys in a locked keybox; Always code the keys not to reflect the unit number; Always secure the code sheer and keybox key separately; Always keep a log of who checks out a back-up key; Always keep two keys on a hook for quick visual inventory; Always keep the key cutting machine and blanks secure; Always lock the room that houses the keybox; and Always set the office burglar alarm after hours.
McGoey, CPP, CSP, CAM, is a professional security consultant, a former property owner/manager, and is a NAA Certified Apartment Manager. He is currently writing a book, 'Apartment Security,' which will be published in the fall of 1998.
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|Comment:||Apartment property managers should have a security plan|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1998|
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