Forgive me while I have a pipe and slippers moment and reminisce about decades past.
In the 1980s I was in the USA visiting the San Francisco and Berkeley area of California and was surprised at the high numbers of street people eking out an existence on the margins of the cities. It was a marked contrast to my home city back in dear old Blighty, where one only occasionally saw the old rough sleeper and the ‘gentleman’ tramp, sometimes even with the twine belt around his overcoat.
How things have changed. As a parking manager, it now seems that I am increasingly spending time dealing with issues relating to anti-social behaviour (ASB), vagrancy, drug usage and associated criminality.
I suspect that there is not a parking team in the UK running a multi-storey car park that has not, to some degree or other, dealt with similar problems. The parking world does not operate in a sealed vacuum away from the social ills of British life in 2019.
One thing for sure is that customers are put off by signs of vagrancy and anti-social behaviour, which reinforces widely held views that multi-storey car parks, particularly stairwells and lifts, are best avoided. It is very hard to restore consumer confidence once a site’s reputation has been trashed. As the old adage goes, it only takes one bad experience to ruin a reputation that had taken years to build up.
Homelessness and vagrancy are a society-wide problem, as evidenced by the rough sleeping and begging in all large, and many not so large, urban centres. The causes are complex: things like family breakdown, trauma, addictions, unemployment, and mental health, as well as a lack of resources and hope are just some of the factors that spring to my mind.
So, what to do, bar the usual hand-wringing? Coming up with solutions to these problems is inevitably challenging, but there are things that parking operators can do to mitigate the impact of vagrancy and anti-social behaviour on their sites.
As ever, it is the frontline car park staff and civil enforcement officers (CEOs) who have to tackle this head on. Occasionally encountering the marginalised in car parks leads some employees to think this is not the job that they want to do or signed up for; so staff retention is adversely affected. (Thankfully, few of my team have opted to leave because of this issue.)
Frontline staff have to be supported by an understanding supervisory team and there needs to be regular management presence on site. My council has trained CEOs in conflict management, the removal of sharps (knives and syringes) and dealing with biohazards. Our CEOs report all incidents on to a database system to provide us with valuable data on trends and individuals. We are greatly upgrading our CCTV coverage and have begun trialling bodycams to give frontline staff added peace-of-mind.
Our CEOs also know that the council will act when problems are reported. Our authority’s ASB team supports legal actions against perpetrators, including behaviour orders and injunctions. We have also brought in an SIA-accredited security guard to rove between sites to assist CEOs. This is intended to be a temporary tactic.
We have one flagship multi-storey that is patrolled and protected by staff 24 hours a day. Without this human presence, we know that individuals would start to use the site for sleeping and drug abuse.
There are also physical changes that can be made. We considered making our car parks more of a fortress, with access control and shuttered entrance and exits. However, due to the old design of the sites, we have not gone down this route, though we are keeping it under review. Instead, we are designing out ASB by making the car parks brighter, with more lighting and the deployment of rapid graffiti removal now being seriously considered.
The parking operation is linked to the council’s CCTV and ASB team, as well as a new short-term intervention team that is seeking to channel individuals to support agencies. The parking team also has a good relationship with the police. We primarily contact the police via the non-emergency 101, use 999 for the rare emergency. The local police have recently deployed a city centre task force that has made a significant impact, in particular on the drugs trade.
Thankfully, in my last 15 years, we have only had one assault on a CEO, who was not physically injured and used the emergency radio callsign to call for help, meaning the assailant was rapidly arrested at the scene. We followed up this incident with support for the CEO and an injunction against the assailant.
In the main, most people found loitering in car parks move on when asked to do so. Relatively few encounters escalate to a point requiring the deployment of more CEOs to provide assistance or the threat of the police arriving to get the person to move on.
However, speaking to an agency dealing with these problems, I learned that some individuals can become aggressive due to the cocktail of drugs being taken, especially when coming round from ingesting Spice or Mamba-type substances. Just recently, outside our new multi-storey, a CEO observed a woman coming round from intoxication attacking the paramedics whom had been called to check her. This required the rapid arrival of the police to carry out an arrest.
To be honest, these problems are not going to evaporate in the short-term. It is thus clear that we need a consistent, pro-active, multi-agency approach to the problem. The sharing of good practice from the parking universe and other public access operations on what works would be extremely useful.
Finally, should we consider blaring out, say, classical music in the stairwells to encourage persons to move on?
The Secret Parking Manager runs a parking team in a town in England.
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