Many people are afraid of crime in parking lots and garages, and not without reason. According to a 1999 U.S. Department of Justice report, they are the second most frequent place for nonviolent crimes and the third most frequent place for violent crimes in the United States.
That said, hiring armed guards at $40 to $50 an hour to patrol parking garages in downtown Baltimore may not always be necessary. A recent report from the city's inspector general, David McClintock, said much the same thing. It raised a number of issues about how the Parking Authority of Baltimore handles security at the 17 facilities it oversees. A central question raised by the investigation was how the Parking Authority determined whether a garage needed the heightened and expensive presence of armed guards, or whether it could function with unarmed security guards, who cost about $15 an hour.
The authority began hiring armed guards in 2007 to patrol the Marina garage on Key Highway in response to a series of vehicle thefts there. But then this seemingly targeted response morphed, the inspector general found, into widespread if undocumented policy. As a result, security costs increased 118 percent, to $1.5 million, in fiscal year 2009. It has since dropped a bit, to $1.1 million, in fiscal 2010. Guards were used at eight garages.
Here's why it matters: The Parking Authority is a quasi-government agency that manages city-owned parking lots and garages. The city gets the revenue from the facilities and provides an annual grant to the Parking Authority to cover its expenses — last year, about $3.6 million. The more the Parking Authority spends on armed guards, the less the city gets to keep in its coffers to spend on other services.
One beneficiary of the shift to armed guards was C.W. Security, whose owner, Arthur Cheeks, was engaged to and eventually married Bheti M. Woodberry, a manager for the Parking Authority. The inspector general said the manager pressured garage operators to hire armed guards, including those working for C.W. Security, and that was a conflict of interest. The inspector general has referred the matter to the city ethics board to determine if she violated the city ethics code. Ms. Woodberry, who has been suspended from the Parking Authority, has denied any wrongdoing.
In addition to tightening up clear lines of authority on how security firms are hired, the inspector general said the Parking Authority also needs to develop a systematic, factual approach for determining what level of security is needed at each garage. There are some times and some garages where basic, unarmed security would be sufficient. There might be times and locales where heightened security is required. But this call should be made on the basis of facts and documented incidents, not because of personal connections. Peter Little, the executive director of the Parking Authority, said he welcomes the inspector general's report and has already taken steps to implement its recommendations.
Researchers at Ohio State University have found that good design in parking garages — strong lighting, making elevators and stairwells open to public viewing — will deter crime. At the same time, they noted that crime rates inside garages were directly proportional to crime rates in the surrounding neighborhood. So there could be occasions when armed guards would deter crime in parking garages, but as the report from the inspector general makes clear, that should be the exception rather than the rule.