If your community is like most others in the Bay Area, you’ve experienced an increase in criminal activity of late. Reported incidents of burglary, car break-ins, thefts from storage areas, trespassing, homeless encampments, mail and package thefts are notably increasing. Condominium and townhome communities can be attractive targets for criminals because of their characteristics (unsecured parking areas, multiple residents, rental units, and resident turnover to name a few). While the root causes of increased criminal activity can be debated (decriminalization of non-violent crimes, drug addiction, reduced sentencing for convicted criminals, prison realignment, early release policies, etc.) there is no doubt that it is impacting our general feelings of safety and security in our homes.
Safety and security are critical factors that people consider when they decide where they want to live. Remember, Safety is the second level in Maslow’s hierarchy of human psychological needs, prioritized one rung lower than basic physiological needs (food, water and shelter). People strive to live in a safe and secure environment. They don’t want to live in fear of crime, victimization and injury. The extreme feeling of violation, no matter how serious the offense, is a common reaction for crime victims. We all know to lock our doors when we leave home, to remove valuables from our cars when they’re parked in a public place, and to employ good security and safety practices wherever we are. Yet, we still become victims of criminal acts beyond our control.
As a result of increased crime and other quality of life concerns in their communities, residents feel less secure than they did just a few short years ago. HOA leaders and community managers need to evaluate strategies to address these legitimate concerns within their communities.
So, how should managers and boards take proactive steps to reducing crime in their neighborhoods? A 5-step assessment process works well in assessing vulnerabilities and developing comprehensive plans to address community safety and security fears. Let’s look at the process:
Step #1: Develop Understanding of Background Information and Data Analysis
A good safety & security analysis must be founded upon a clear understanding of the issues to be addressed. To effectively accomplish this, a series of analytical questions needs to be asked, and answered:
- What kinds of criminal acts are happening within the community?
- When and where have they been occurring?
- Are they spread throughout the community, or are they localized?
- What security measures are already in place?
- What resources (money, time and people) is the community willing to commit to address the problems?
- Are there opportunities to partner with other local resources or communities?
- Does the local policing agency provide any support or services?
- Has anything been done in the past, successfully or unsuccessfully, to address similar issues?
This is just a short list of questions, and there are could be many more depending upon the specific community and their needs. One thing for sure is that the more detailed and comprehensive your research then the better your analysis and response plan will be will be. It is generally better to ask too many questions than to leave important ones unanswered in this phase!
Once there’s a clear understanding and analysis of the underlying issues and problems, then you can move to the next step.
Step #2: Evaluation and Assessment
The purpose of this step in the process is to identify what measures are in place, to consider actions that may have been tried in the past, and to consider innovative strategies that could be implemented. Obviously, this process is intended to address the specific safety considerations and shortcomings that were identified in Step 1. It is best to evaluate and assess community security strategies by dissecting them into three distinct categories.
The first category is “Systems”. This includes the various “things” implemented to enhance security and safety (e.g. outdoor and perimeter lighting, alarm systems, video surveillance systems, access controls, perimeter controls, fencing and walls, signage, security locks, key controls, etc.). While security systems may be very effective in preventing and memorializing criminal acts, they all involve a commitment of association resources (money). In many cases, the cost of security systems might be prohibitive. Community associations don’t always have adequate funds (operating or reserve) to install and maintain intricate security systems. Community managers and association leaders may not have the expertise, or bandwidth, to manage complicated security system installations. Some security measures, however, mey be acquired and implemented rather inexpensively. Each community’s situation is unique. Regardless of the perceived fiscal limitations, security related systems are an essential consideration in any security plan.
The second category is “Security Services”. Does your community have a security provider that monitors the property (full- or part-time)? If so, has the effectiveness of this service been evaluated? Private security firms can be hired to perform a number of security services, like periodically patrolling your community to detect, prevent, and intervene in criminal activity when it is occurring. Some communities engage full-time security teams to monitor controlled access points, video surveillance systems and on-site alarms. At a minimum, uniformed security guards serve as a highly visible deterrent to criminals intending to victimize your community. You need to consider that the deployment of security officers is generally effective, but it is never 100% effective and cannot be a community’s only strategy to prevent criminal activity. Engaging security services is typically somewhat costly, potentially many thousands of dollars annually. It is also difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of security services since it is hard to determine how much criminal activity they have deterred due to their presence. Security services might not fit the needs of all communities, it should be considered when conducting any security assessment and developing a security plan.
The third component is “Community Engagement”. A community of educated, engaged and attentive residents tends to experience less criminal activity. When a community is actively involved in crime prevention it is obvious to most criminals because it is visible and palpable. There are many strategies to help encourage your community to take a proactive stance in their own security and safety. Information sharing is one important part of that strategy. Most community associations distribute periodic newsletters, in which crime reports and crime prevention strategies could be regularly included. Likewise, community websites and bulletin boards may be utilized for the same purpose. Scheduling periodic community meetings (possibly including local governmental public safety organizations and private security/safety presenters) to discuss crime trends, prevention strategies and personal safety, all while encouraging community activism, might be part of a community’s comprehensive safety strategy. Establishing neighborhood or community watch groups, or safety committees, increases the number of watchful eyes in the community. Community engagement is a critical part of the solution and it is relatively inexpensive.
While all three of these systems components are important to the evaluation process, none is individually better than the other. Communities are best served when multiple components are orchestrated in concert with each other to develop a holistic security strategy. It is important that evaluators and decision makers remain open and flexible when considering alternatives and developing a tailored plan that best meets the community’s unique needs, resources, and characteristics.
Step #3: Build a Comprehensive Plan
Being armed with data from the assessment phase, and an understanding of the community’s existing security and safety systems, it is now time to work on developing a formal security plan. Your plan will incorporate the analysis of existing systems and processes, the evaluation of reasonable alternatives (components), consideration of the community’s limitations, and outlines a prioritized course of action. Most of the hard work has already been done in steps one and two. This step simply involves the evaluation and prioritization of alternatives identified in steps 1 and 2 into a written format. A plan can be as simple as developing a checklist with a timeline for implementation, or it can be very detailed and specific. No matter how detailed the plan, the process cannot be completely successful if it doesn’t result in the development of a formal implementation strategy.
Step #4: Implementation Phase
This step should be relatively easy to take, because your plan of action has already been developed based upon the inputs from steps 1 & 2. Implementation can become somewhat complicated, however, if the plan calls for complicated “systems” projects, especially when there’s a need to implement systems over a lengthy period of time or coordination of projects is required. Additionally, budgetary concerns might also impact the implementation of your plan. It is critical during this step to clearly identify and assign roles, responsibilities and deliverables. It is also important to develop and communicate an implementation timeline. If everyone knows who is responsible for what and when it is expected to be done, then there is clarity and accountability.
One consideration during the
implementation step is whether or not to phase in strategies, then evaluate
their effectiveness, or to proceed with full-implementation. This will be a
decision for the board to make when evaluating implementation strategies.
Step #5: Evaluation of the Outcomes
This last step in the process requires the periodic evaluation of the implementation of the plan and any measurable outcomes, typically at predetermined intervals, to determine whether or not the plan is having the desired effect. If the answer is that the implementation has not met the expectations, then another, abbreviated, 5-step process can be utilized to review, modify and update the plan.
At this point you might be asking yourself, “How do community managers or HOA board members realistically conduct security assessments and develop security plans for their communities?” Engaging someone with expertise in conducting safety and security assessments is probably the best option. No matter who conducts the assessment, the board should be involved in developing the plan, coordinating the implementation of the plan, and evaluating the outcomes so that it best serves community needs within resource limitations.
Your plan might be very simple (e.g. a one-time expenditure of funds and implementation of internal security processes) or it might be more detailed or complex, incorporating larger scale security projects. In every case, the board should clearly identify their policy relative to the project(s), particularly when the timeline is longer than the board’s anticipated tenure. That way, the plan, and the board’s intent for the plan, will be clearly articulated for future boards to act upon.
In closing, communities must be proactive in addressing security and safety threats. Successful implementation of a comprehensive and balanced security plan deters crime, provides peace of mind and gives a community a better feeling of safety and security.