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Elevator vandalism squad.

Today, most Americans take elevators for granted. These wonders of the modern age allow architects to design structures that provide ample working and living areas, while making efficient use of limited space in urban centers.

However, elevators also create special problems for law enforcement agencies that provide police service to public housing highrise buildings. In New York City, this responsibility rests with the Housing Authority Police.

With an increasing number of apparent elevator vandalism cases that caused some New York City elevators to come to a halt, new problems confronted Housing Authority officers. Department leaders responded by creating the Elevator Outage Reduction Program, which evolved into the Elevator Vandalism Squad (EVS).

This article discusses the EVS and how it aids in reducing vandalism and serious injuries on elevators. It also explains how the squad assists in investigations of crimes that occur on elevators, such as robberies and sexual assaults.

BACKGROUND

In 1980, the estimated cost of elevator vandalism in New York City's public housing developments approached a staggering $10 million annually. In addition to this large financial loss, the vandalism also caused great inconvenience to scores of housing development residents.

To combat the problem, Housing Authority administrators developed the Elevator Outage Reduction Program. They began the program by assigning two investigators to review elevator records in buildings that reported an unusually high number of outages. Officials hoped to determine whether the outages were actually caused by vandalism or whether the problem was, instead, a result of stolen elevator parts.

These investigations revealed that most outages were a result of parts thefts, not merely vandalism. However, investigators also discovered a far more dangerous situation--juveniles were playing in and on the elevators, which resulted in many injuries and deaths. This discovery led department leaders to expand the program and to form the Elevator Vandalism Squad, which now focuses on reducing the number of juvenile deaths and injuries on elevators.

SQUAD SELECTION

Given the technical nature of the assignment, most investigators chosen for the EVS have either a mechanical or electrical background. These backgrounds are helpful because squad members receive extensive training, much like that given to elevator mechanics. Squad members learn about elevator electrical systems and how to read wiring schematics and blueprints.

The extensive training provided to squad members gives them an added edge in solving cases. Their expertise in elevators allows them to pursue suspicions they may have about how the crimes were actually committed or how the accidents really occurred, either proving or disproving the original theories of responding investigators.

SQUAD DUTIES

The Elevator Vandalism Squad focuses primarily on reducing the number of elevator injuries and fatalities among juveniles who play dangerous elevator games. However, they also investigate other elevator injuries and deaths and make recommendations for elevator safety modifications that may reduce unsafe access to elevator shafts. In addition, they assist in other investigations that involve elevators, and they support drug teams when they raid apartments in highrise buildings.

Investigate Elevator Deaths

The expertise of EVS members is crucial in investigations of elevator deaths. This expertise allows them to determine whether an injury or death resulted from a dangerous elevator game or whether it resulted from an elevator malfunction.

For example, when Housing Authority officers found a blind woman at the bottom of an elevator shaft, they originally believed that the woman was murdered. However, the responding officers immediately called in EVS members to assess the incident.

When squad members arrived, tenants advised them that the elevator doors on the third floor (the victim's floor) would often fail to open. With trained eyes, EVS members focused on the elevator's locking mechanism, which should have prevented the outside door from opening before the elevator arrived at the floor. When squad members took the lock apart, they found that the catch to the lock had actually been bent, allowing the door to open without the elevator being on the floor.

Further investigation revealed that the blind victim had no way of knowing when the elevator arrived at her floor. Because of this, she constantly pulled on the hallway door to the elevator until it opened. When the door opened, she assumed the elevator was there. Tragically, on the day she died, the lock failed because of the repeated pulling action.

In other cases, EVS members determined how juveniles died while playing dangerous elevator games. The youths would gain entry to the elevator shafts by circumventing safety features and then jump from the top of the elevator to the counterweight or from one elevator to the next. Eventually, bad timing, lack of concentration, or other factors led to the lose of life.

Investigate Elevator Injuries

The EVS also investigates elevator injuries to determine how the injuries actually occurred. For example, one youth left his apartment and returned later with three fingers missing. The youth told responding Housing Authority officers that the injury was caused by the elevator door closing on his fingers. A trail of blood from the elevator to the youth's apartment appeared to corroborate this story, but the officers could not find the severed fingers.

When EVS members arrived to investigate, they meticulously searched the garbage-strewn elevator shaft for the fingers. They then examined the top of the elevator, actually riding the top to check every ledge, where the fingers might possibly have fallen.

Past experience then led them to check the guide rollers on the floor where the accident occurred. (Guide rollers are wheels attached to the steel tracks that run vertically inside the shaft. The elevator runs on these tracks, and the rollers stabilize the cab while it is in motion.) Juveniles who ride the tops of elevators sometimes grab the steel tracks for balance. This young man, while playing a dangerous game on the elevator, grabbed the steel tracks for balance, and his hands slid up to the guide roller, severing his fingers. EVS members found the fingers still in the guide roller.

Through investigations of this type, the EVS provides valuable information that protects the Housing Authority from costly negligence lawsuits. Officials estimate that this program saved the Housing Authority between $40 and $50 million over the last 10 years.

Recommend Modifications

In addition to investigating injuries or deaths on elevators, EVS members make recommendations concerning possible safety modifications that could prevent future incidents. In some cases, simple modifications can totally eliminate specific problems.

For example, prior to the formation of the EVS, the city required that all safety hatches at the tops of elevators remain unlocked in order to allow trapped riders to exit the elevators in cases of emergency. However, EVS members determined that juveniles were being killed or injured when they climbed through the hatches to ride the tops of elevators.

EVS members convinced city administrators that trapped riders would be safer if they remained inside the elevator until help arrived, rather than risking injury by climbing through the safety hatch. Now, the city requires all safety hatches to remain locked. This simple modification resulted in an immediate decrease in the number of juvenile injuries and deaths caused by riding the tops of elevators.

At times, specific cases serve as the impetus for changes that enhance elevator safety. When the blind woman died as a result of the faulty elevator lock, the EVS recommended certain changes that have since been implemented. First, whenever possible, building managers rent ground floor apartments to blind individuals. Second, elevator maintenance workers now focus special attention on the locks of elevator hallway doors on the floors of blind residents. These simple precautions can help to reduce elevator fatalities among the blind.

Investigate Other Elevator Crimes

The EVS also investigates other types of elevator crimes, such as robberies and sexual assaults. Elevators provide ideal environments for such crimes because criminals can contain the movements of the victim and control the movement of the elevator. The isolation also heightens the victim's fear.

When a particular crime pattern develops, EVS personnel mount cameras (approximately the size of a pack of cigarettes) equipped with pinhole lenses on the roofs of elevator cabs. This allows them to view the interior of the elevator on a television monitor located in the motor room. They can also video tape any action within the elevator.

This technique helps to obtain valuable information in cases where authorities identify particular crime patterns. The EVS has used the cameras in over 20 crime patterns that detectives identified, solving cases in 8 of these patterns.

Assist Drug Teams

Often, EVS members are called on to assist drug teams that plan to raid apartments in highrise buildings. When such a raid is planned, the drug teams contact EVS members, who enter the buildings disguised as elevator mechanics. They then hold an elevator at the main floor so that the drug team can enter the building, quickly get on the elevator without waiting for one to arrive, and go straight to the appropriate floor.

Another benefit of having the EVS present during drug raids is that they can keep the elevator at the floor where the raid takes place. This way, if any injuries occur during the raid, an elevator is immediately available to take the injured persons directly to the lobby.

CONCLUSION

The Elevator Vandalism Squad has proved to be an asset to the New York City Housing Authority Police. The professional, knowledgeable investigations conducted by the squad avert costly lawsuits, saving the Housing Authority large amounts of money. Because of their speedy responses to elevator accidents, the squad can reconstruct the incident almost immediately, as opposed to reconstructing the incident at some later date in response to a civil lawsuit. In addition, the EVS reduces the amount of vandalism to elevators, as well as thefts of elevator parts.

Most importantly, however, the EVS saves lives. Buildings that previously experienced numerous elevator incidents now report no problems. This is due, in large part, to the implementation of EVS recommendations.

Departments continually seek out programs that make their citizens safer, while conserving money. This is a program well worth consideration by departments that must ensure the safety of their citizens while in elevators.

Captain Welsh is with the Housing Authority Police Department in New York, New York.

Sergeant Cestare is commanding officer of the Elevator Vandalism Squad of the Housing Authority Police Department.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:New York City's Elevator Vandalism Squad
Author:Cestare, Peter
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1712
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