New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

When Locks Are Not Enough

Our bags were gone.

My fiancé, Mike, and I had come home after having dinner at my parents’ house. While he was parking, I took a few bags of groceries upstairs to our sixth-floor walk-up apartment and left a suitcase and another bag of groceries in the lobby for Mike to bring up when he came in.

But by the time he arrived – only a brief 10 minutes later – the bags had disappeared. After knocking on a few doors and finding that no one had seen or heard anything, we realized that our bags had been stolen – from our locked lobby!

Our building, in Morningside Heights on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is a cooperative with only 21 units. Almost everyone knows each other. Aside from one rental unit, all the shareholders have been here for years, some for decades. The lobby entrance has two locked doors, and I had left our bags safe and secure behind the innermost one. Or so I had thought. Living on the sixth floor, we’d left our belongings in the lobby countless times before as we made multiple trips up the stairs. So, we were stunned that this had happened.

Mike, a board member, immediately e-mailed the rest of the board and our manager about the incident. I called the police and was told to either call 911 or to file a report at any police station.

“911!” I exclaimed. “Surely, this doesn’t warrant a 911 call?”

“Call 911 when you require any police assistance, even after the fact,” the dispatcher replied.

Restless, Mike and I decided to take a walk around the block to see if our bags had been abandoned nearby. On a sudden whim before we headed out, I walked up the stairs to our roof-door landing.

I got there and stopped short. There was a man lying in the stairwell.

I ran down the stairs, pushed Mike into our apartment and called 911. The police were on their way. But before they could arrive, we watched helplessly through our peephole as the man quietly made his way past our door and down the stairs. The police finally came, but the guy was long gone. Our bags were on the roof-door landing. The officers suggested that the man had come in with another tenant or had buzzed until someone had let him in. Our incident had a happy ending, but it was clear: we had a security problem.

Security

We all want to feel safe in our own homes, and in a small co-op or condo, “home” doesn’t just mean our individual units, especially in single-family buildings that were converted for multiple-occupant use: they look like home, which can lead to a potentially dangerous feeling that nothing bad could happen.

However, an incident – anything from theft of a bicycle kept in the storage room to a personal confrontation – can cause a major shift in perspective. For smaller to mid-size buildings without doorman service, the first reaction is often to look at your security system, which encompasses front- and roof-door locks, intercoms, exterior lighting, keeping sight lines clear by trimming trees that could conceal someone lurking near the entrance, and moving mailboxes (assuming you can) to the front of the building, where security is generally concentrated.

It’s always tempting to tech up: who wouldn’t be awed by the programmable telephone entry and access system DoorKing 1834, a variation on the old Cyberdoorman, which has been around since the early 2000s and involved off-site surveillance?

“You don’t have to rewire to install the DoorKing system,” explains Josh Koppel, president of HSC Management. “You connect it through the phone line, and if someone buzzes from downstairs, the resident can ring them in from anywhere, not just inside the apartment. You could be in Miami and you can ring them in.”

But there are plenty of options between installing a decent front-door lock (which is not to disparage the value of a good lock) and posting Robocop’s heavily armed (and painfully malfunction-prone) ED-109 security robot in the lobby. Sometimes simple is highly effective.

“I’m into cameras,” says Matthew Arnold, president of Academy Mailbox. They are valuable as much for their deterrent effect as anything else: a lot of crime is opportunistic, so common sense dictates making yourself a less attractive potential victim than the next building – which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worth it to save some serious money by using dummy cameras, Arnold cautions. He cites the case of a girl who was sexually assaulted in a Manhattan elevator and whose family won a lawsuit that hinged on the sense of false security that dummy cameras confer.

Arnold has noticed an upswing in smaller buildings installing video intercom systems. “They used to be maybe 7 to 10 percent of our business,” he estimates, “and now they’re about 50 percent.” With these systems, there’s a unit with a video screen in each apartment that replaces the old voice-only intercom, and another at the front door.

“The unit isn’t running constantly,” he explains. “It turns on when someone rings,” which addresses the personal privacy concerns that make some owners and shareholders resistant to the idea of 24/7 surveillance. “Only one apartment can be [buzzed] at a time,” he adds, which slows down would-be malfeasance by preventing intruders from playing the odds that if they buzz a dozen units in rapid succession, someone will let them in blindly.

“The camera will take a sequence of six snapshots of the person who’s ringing the bell. Those are stored in the apartment unit” – not in some central location where people other than the owner/shareholder can view them – “and the unit can store up to 40 sequences.” At a cost of roughly $750 per apartment, that’s a significant security upgrade that doesn’t require a sky’s-the-limit budget.

New Keys Needed

In my building incident, a camera came in handy. When we reviewed our lobby’s surveillance video the morning after our strange encounter, we were shocked to discover that the man who had taken our bags had let himself into the building with a key. This was even more alarming. The building’s locks would have to be changed now.

In situations like this, experts say it might be a good time to consider upgrading the key system. One possibility is to use Mul-T-Lock keys; to get copies of them made, you have to present a special card with an electronic security strip, which prevents unauthorized duplications. Or you can try electronic key fobs. Those are “less expensive than video systems, and they’re more controllable than keys,” explains Daniel Girdusky, vice president of business development at Rydan Security, because they offer a sophisticated range of functions that allows occupants to customize the access they permit.

“Let’s say you have a dog walker or a cleaning person who comes in at certain hours when nobody’s home,” Arnold says. “You can give them a key fob that’s programmed to work during a set time range, one that’s easy to change when circumstances do.” In addition, key fobs are physical objects – there’s no not noticing that one has gone missing, whereas a keypad password can be shared without the homeowner ever knowing it.

Looking to the future, Girdusky sees biometric systems, which identify a legitimate user by a unique physical attribute like a fingerprint, as an “option to explore” for small co-ops and condos. Although they sound science-fictional, the systems already exist; what’s changed, he says, “is that they’re rapidly decreasing in price.”

The Ultimate Security

But any security system is as strong as its weakest link: the people. “Our best security is trying to have everybody in the building know each other,” says Chris Cooper, board president at a 10-unit condo in the East Village. “I’m always saying, ‘If you see someone you don’t know on the stoop, ask them to move on. Be polite, but say something.’”

That’s a sentiment echoed by everyone from managing agents to security-company employees. After all, you can buy the most expensive tech out there, but without owners and shareholders watching each other’s backs, it’s not enough. No camera or key fob system can work if people in the property don’t participate.

“We had a building in Prospect Park Southwest where intruders rang the buzzer and were buzzed in by a resident,” recounts Wilfredo Ortiz, president and CEO of Advance Security & Intercoms. “Once they were inside, they went from floor to floor, trying apartment doors. It’s amazing how often that happens – people just let someone in without even asking, ‘What’s the name on the package?’ or ‘Exactly who did you say you’re looking for?’”

And sure enough, the breakdown in our building had come about through human error. Curious about where our intruder got his key, our super did some investigating. He found that our neighbor across the hall not only knew the perpetrator, a homeless former convict who had recently served jail time, but had allowed him to room with him until he began to steal things. Apparently, our neighbor didn’t realize that he had stolen a key. Our management company soon posted a sign (with a photo of the man) warning the residents not to allow him or any strangers into the building.

While we waited for the locks to be changed, the key-wielding ex-convict entered again one night and damaged property, broke into a storage closet and our basement, and stole supplies from the building. This time, the super called the police. They came and took DNA samples, photos, and statements.

Eventually, our locks were changed, albeit some six days later. The newly elected board thanked Mike and me for being so proactive. In retrospect, if I could do everything over again, I would have insisted that our locks be changed earlier and that a memo be sent to everyone in the building right away. Going forward, we’ll ask the current board to remind residents to keep tabs on their keys, to immediately report if one is lost or stolen, and to make sure they never let anyone they don’t know into the building. I have no problem telling strangers that I can’t admit them unless someone specifically buzzes them in. I only hope the other residents do the same.

A coda to our story: two weeks after the incident, I saw the intruder standing on the corner outside our building, leaning against a lamppost. I would recognize him anywhere. I’d seen him up close, on the surveillance tapes, and in the photo our management company had posted. I watched him standing there for a few minutes until he slowly sauntered off. I realized then that security can never be ignored and will always be an issue. You can never stop being vigilant – and making sure that your fellow neighbors are, too.

 

Maitland McDonagh contributed additional reporting and writing to this story.

 

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