High-Stakes Monitoring
High-Stakes Monitoring

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM
by Kate Henry

Chumash Casino Resort, Santa Ynez, Calif., has the casino business cornered in its verdant niche of the Santa Ynez Valley, about 35 miles north of Santa Barbara in the rolling hills of central California. Governed by the Chumash Nation, the casino has grown from a modest trio of small buildings housing slots and table games, to a spanking new 200,000-square-foot casino complex in less than a decade. Later this year, it will further expand with the addition of a 100-room hotel offering spa amenities ! and the enviable words 'Hotel and Spa' to the casino's moniker.

Throughout its evolution, a mainstay of Chumash Casino's security has been its necessary emphasis on dedicated and seamless surveillance. A key function of the surveillance department is helping to ensure the well-being and life safety of casino patrons, but more specifically, surveillance watches the money ! both literally in the form of cash transactions on the floor, in the cages and in the 'back of the house' ! and indirectly, by mitigating financial loss to the casino resulting from various circumstances.
Smooth operations

Director of Surveillance Jimmy Johnson has been with Chumash Casino since its inception nearly a decade ago. As head of the surveillance operation, he reports directly to the Tribal Gaming authority for Chumash Casino, which is made up of five elected tribal members who handle the casino's regulatory issues.

"It has been quite an experience growing with the casino," notes Johnson, who this year oversaw the surveillance aspect of the most recent and major facility expansion to date. Though the challenges his team of 15 faces are varied, their mission and function is clear-cut and dedicated: "Our job is strictly to observe and report, and in a casino, that is more than a full-time occupation," Johnson says. "We do everything out of the surveillance room. We do not interact with employees or the public in any way," he explains.

Johnson says when he began his tenure with the casino, there were five people on staff in a small 15〜15-foot room, monitoring some 25 cameras. With the opening of the current facility last year, Johnson's department is now responsible for monitoring nearly 700 cameras from a 1,500-square-foot monitoring center. It is an around-the-clock operation trained on the goings-on at the casino. With 2,000 slot machines of all types, about 40 table games such as blackjack and poker, a host of in-casino dining services, and occasional special events such as boxing matches broadcast on premium cable channels and concerts by major artists, there is a lot going on.

Johnson's responsibilities include all facets of staff training and management, maintaining internal control standards and surveillance equipment administration, operation and maintenance ! and that's a full-time job in and of itself, he notes. Surveillance is responsible for reporting any types of procedural violation or crime to the gaming commission and also for coordinating on matters of policy and procedure with the casino's separate security department, which deploys manpower on the floor, conducts investigations and administers systems such as access control and intrusion detection.

Johnson notes that, like many casinos, one of Chumash Casino's greatest risks is internal theft. "We are one of the largest employers in Santa Barbara County, with more than 1,100 employees on site ! some of whom handle quite a bit of money on a daily basis," he says. "Our team is trained to vigilantly monitor all cash transactions for variances, overages, shortages and the like. The staff is further trained in all the gaming protocols, so they become experts in what to look for."

Other risks the casino commonly faces include petty thefts among customers, such as pickpocketing or the stealing of tickets or tokens from slot machines, Johnson says. In one recent instance, a patron decided to help himself to a cash collection the casino had taken up to assist the sick family member of one of its employees. Johnson says the new digital surveillance system reported the incident so quickly that security investigators caught the perpetrator before he could leave.

Johnson adds that his team is also perpetually alert to people out to make a quick buck ! the 'slip and fall people' who feign personal injury in order to file a lawsuit and collect compensation. "This happens more frequently than you might think," Johnson says, citing a recent incident in which a man staked out the top of the escalator on the gaming floor, calmly sat himself down on it, and then cried "injury," demanding EMT and hospital services and threatening to sue. "We were able to instantly produce video of the incident and turn it over to the investigators, who, with proof in hand, could then handle the incident as the fraud it was."

Facilitating that sort of quick response and risk mitigation is a complete suite of new color cameras, matrix switchers and digital recorders from Bosch Electronics (formerly Philips).
Streamlined systems

The surveillance operations' scope is broad, Johnson notes. The nearly 700 color and black-and-white cameras are trained on key locations throughout the interior and exterior of Chumash Casino, scrutinizing everything from entrances and exits, corridors and restroom vestibules, to tabletop games, dealers' hands and banks of slots, to the parking structure. "In the parking structure alone, we have had a fair amount of theft, burglary and vandalism," Johnson says. "But thanks to the systems, this week alone we had two people arrested for theft and vandalism who were caught on camera."

Johnson points out that, by design, there is nothing covert about camera placement: "The cameras are all out in the open for everyone to see," he says. Certainly camera visibility is a deterrent, he says, but cameras should never take the place of personal vigilance. "The cameras are comprehensive and they do an excellent job, but we'll still have instances where people will leave their valuables at their seat while they go to the restroom, for instance. They presume because the cameras are watching, that's OK, but that's not a reasonable assumption."

The cameras and digital recorders present a high level of functionality, Johnson says. Images feeding into the dedicated monitoring center can be enhanced on demand and recalled instantly. "With the old technology, incident analysis was prohibitively time-consuming; by the time an operator looked for the right VCR, found the tape in question, fast forwarded and rewound, a perpetrator in question could be long gone," Johnson says.

On a typical day, members of the surveillance team scan the monitoring room's towering bank of screens for things as overt as disturbances in the parking structure, to things as seemingly innocuous as a spill in the cash cage, to things as covert as potential procedural violations in a five-hour blackjack game, Johnson says by way of example. Any questionable incidents can be immediately retrieved and examined, thanks to the digital technology. Staff training ! on systems administration, maintenance and troubleshooting, as well as on policy and procedural aspects of gaming ! is ongoing, he adds.

Surveillance capabilities also interface with the casino's intrusion alarm and access control systems, activating specific security measures. Global Surveillance Associates of Las Vegas installed the systems.

Johnson says the cameras and monitoring capabilities will be used at the casino's new hotel and spa and accompanying parking structure, set to open its doors in summer 2004.

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