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  • Willy Allison

Does Surveillance Suffer from an Identity Crisis?

Updated: Oct 8, 2019

A quick quiz. What does surveillance do? Does it: a) video-record the casino operation; b) catch cheats and thieves; c) monitor the casino to ensure compliance of laws, regulations, and internal controls; d) assist gaming management with customer disputes; or e) all of the above?

Alright, I’m going to assume you guessed E. Not bad. You’ve had a chance to do your homework and read your casino’s internal controls (written back in the ‘80s or ‘90s) or at least seen an episode of Las Vegas. Now if you are a SNAG (surveillance new age guy) you are probably thinking, “if only my job was that simple.”

Lately I have been hearing an increased use of the phrase “Las Vegas model. This is not the title of a new reality show or a beautiful woman who gets paid to have her photo taken with casino high rollers or rock states. It’s simply a term used when discussing plans or jurisdictions around the world that are considering casino gaming expansion in their region.

The Las Vegas model is the shift from the view of casinos as just a place to gamble to a venue where all your entertainment, leisure, and business needs can be fulfilled. The model works. Visitation is up. Customer spending is up. Revenues are up.

But what does this shift mean for the role of casino surveillance? Years ago, life in surveillance was simple. Give guys (you trusted who knew the game and players) a pair of binoculars and send them up to the catwalk to keep an eye on the money. These were the days when the game was the undisputed bread winner in the casino household.

Back then the threats of cheating and theft in casinos were countered by a game protection chain of accountability that started with the front-line dealer and was clearly defined through multiple layers of casino supervision with a final stop in surveillance.

We all remember that memorable quote from Robert De Niro in the movie Casino, “everyone watches everyone.” As time went by and technology gave us state-of-the-art video capabilities and computers, we were able to put away our binoculars and dust off the grimy soot from those covert catwalk missions.

In the late ‘80s we welcomed the birth of the “Megacasino,” which paved the way for huge multi-attraction destinations that drew in mega customers and mega opportunities for gaming companies. Ironically, today the term megacasino is a little outdated. It seems today’s standard new casino is yesterday’s megacasino.

But true to the ancient Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang, this increased opportunity for casinos meant increased threats for casino surveillance and security. In life, some guys say, “Mo money, mo problems.” In casinos, Ive heard surveillance guys say, “Mo money, mo people, mo problems.”

The increased threats are primarily caused by three major factors: 1) A sheer increase in volume (gaming and people); 2) a shortage of experienced floor staff; and 3) a shortage of experienced surveillance experts.

Professionally-run surveillance departments recognized these issues and acted decisively. They worked closer with their human resource department to develop a recruitment strategy, specialist in-house training programs, a department organization structure, and a head count that made sure all responsibility that came from increased activity would not slip between the gaps.

To maintain an effective game protection program, surveillance managers must develop good communication with gaming and security management. I call this the “casino triangle offense.” Besides weekly meetings and report sharing, I always make sure the numbers of the managers in the triangle are programmed in my cell phone speed dial (along with my boss).

One of the biggest challenges a surveillance manager has is protecting the game, while simultaneously reaching the balance between good customer service and good security. I look back fondly on those days of compromise, and although the members of the triangle didn’t always see eye to eye, there was no questions we all had the same purpose.

Fast forward to the casino surveillance world today. Surveillance departments are increasing their customer base. Yes, that’s right. Business is booming for “Big Brother.”

I saw a trend emerge in the early ’90s. As the surveillance director for a new multipurpose property (MPP), I began to notice my popularity grow. Suddenly my number was on the speed dial list of managers throughout the complex outside my triangle.

I got regular calls from the hotel manager, the food and beverage managers, the property ops manager, the retail store manager, the loading dock manager, the valet manager, the IT manager, the purchasing manager, the wardrobe manager, the legal manager, and the HR manager (I drew the line when the candlestick maker called).

This is what I think happened. The information age arrived. To be more specific, the video age. Before the arrival of the MPP, closed circuit television was used exclusively to monitor money on the floor. That’s where all the money came from, sot hat’s where the cameras were located. As casinos evolved, new revenue streams were established that required videos security to minimize internal fraud and theft.

Management who didn’t traditionally come from the casino industry saw the power and protection that video security could provide. They like the idea of not only having 24-house recording, but the luxury of access to experts who could proactively monitor specific threats and specific times.

This capability was not readily available in previous establishments they had worked at outside the casino industry. I had some new to-the-industry managers express their delight to the responsibility of protecting their bottom line could be shared with surveillance.

In essence they are looking for the same protection the gaming operation enjoyed. In their minds they had the same threats to the bottom line. Years later, recalling my own experiences, I feel their assessment of the threats in their areas of responsibility was actually a little understated.

So subsequently over the years we have seen surveillance go form being the “casino’s eyes” to the “multipurpose property’s eyes.” As a SNAG you’ve probably gone from a one-line phone to one of those fancy commander-type phones; you know the one with all the different lines and speed dial options.

You may not have renewed your subscription to the Acme Casino Bad Guy newsletter but now receive Food and Beverage Equipment magazine every month. Remember when you could call the payout for a monster picture bet on a winning roulette number before the layout had been cleared? Now you have an easier time remembering the price of bourbon and coke at the lounge bar next to the blackjack pit. These are all signs that you are not working in a casino but in an MPP.

There is no doubt that video surveillance has become more accepter by the public as an effective tool for providing security as well as a commercially viable means for companies to protect their bottom line. In a post 9/11 age, I hear more stories about government who want to improve public safety by increasing the use of videos cameras than I hear from civil liberty groups claiming “Big Brother” is out to get us.

The security industry is booming and companies that now have a post-Enron obligation to run their operations with the utmost integrity are turning to the casino model of strict monitoring and regulation for guidance.

But as the need for video surveillance grow and the MPP continues to diversify and expand their revenue streams, I think it is time to come back to the question of, “What does surveillance do?” Are those internal control manuals form the last decade really a true representation of what surveillance is doing now?

I used to be able to answer that very question with a prompt military-like response. “Monitor and report, sir!” Now the answer requires a little more explanation, usually preceded by a thoughtful pause and a quick check of the job description.

The role of surveillance is diversifying into areas that challenge their staffs’ expertise. Look at the background of most surveillance employees and you will find they have been trained in gaming either from previous floor experience or from an in-house training program.

The combination of: hands-on experience; comprehensive game protection training; and documented and tightly enforced floor procedures, enable them to detect indicators of cheating and theft. These three factors are often missing in non-gaming areas and need to be considered before video surveillance can be effective.

The need for continuous training in surveillance has become even more apparent in a casino world expanding their horizons. As I was reminded recently by a surveillance manager, “Cameras do not catch bad people, good people catch bad people.”

To maximize the potential of surveillance, the make up of the team needs to be more diverse in expertise and backgrounds. If this cannot be achieved then a training program should be introduced to ensure a good knowledge of the newly monitored areas.

Even within gaming these days, there is an unprecedented amount of changes that warrant new comprehensive training programs to ensure effective game protection in the future. Has your surveillance staff been trained to protect new table games introduced to the floor, cashless slots, downloadable gaming, and soon-to-come mobile gaming?

Do they understand the new Digital tracking systems of RFID technology? How can you protect something you have never seen before? At least with traditional games you have decades, and in some cases centuries, of history and knowledge to draw from .

Okay, so where do you get the surveillance experts of the future to protect the new MPP? Is there a Top Gun academy located in the Mojave Desert that is training surveillance agents to leap tall chip stacks and run faster than a speeding roulette ball? Maybe there is a gaming supplier out there that has prototype of the first surveillance android. Whenever there is a new revenue stream established or a new game introduced on the floor, a new protection chip is added to its circuit board.

For me, the essence and priorities of casino surveillance should always be based on a foundation of game protection and preservations of integrity. I like the idea that casino surveillance has broadened its customer base, therefore adding more value and maximizing its potential for enhancing the organizations’ bottom line.

With the shift in revenue generation moving away from gaming only, maybe it is time for casinos to take a new approach. In my opinion, to effectively minimize threats in all these new areas, surveillance will either have to increase their present resources in terms of people and technology or diversify their expertise and priorities.

Surveillance has always been a broad term. In the old casino world it means game protection. In today’s casino world it means revenue protection. To me, surveillance is only a means to an end. Maybe in the future, surveillance personnel will be identified by what they achieve instead of what they use as a tool to achieve.


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