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An Eye on Casino Surveillance14 March 2006
When police in Las Vegas recently had to rappel down the outside of the Harrah's Las Vegas hotel, window to window, to catch a gunman, my mind took a slight detour.
Though the incident occurred 20 floors above casino level, I found myself thinking about casino surveillance, trying to spot purse snatchers and roulette cheats. It's a different world than trying to catch an armed killer, but for me the connection is natural. It was at Harrah's Las Vegas in the mid-1990s that I got my first behind-the-scenes look at casino surveillance.
I'd been invited to take part in a class that Harrah's used as a crash course in casino operations for young up-and-comers in non-casino portions of its business. One of those up-and-comers was Rhonda Anderson, then working in food and beverage at Harrah's Joliet. On the day of arrival, before the first class session, she was playing a slot machine, set her purse on the floor --- and it was stolen.
A few days later, we were into the security and surveillance portion of the class, and the security director took us into the surveillance room for a look at the monitors, VCRs and everything a surveillance operator sees. There, we were shown a tape. It was a sweep arrangement, with feeds from several cameras showing different areas of the casinos: A couple of seconds in one area, then switch to another, then another, and back to the first.
On that tape, we saw the incident. We saw a man pause at the end of the row of slots. A few second later, we saw him on his hands and knees, down the aisle. And we saw him getting away with Anderson's purse.
It took time for the operators to find the theft on tape. There was considerable winding and rewinding, keeping eyes peeled for a quick peek at a thief who knew what he was after. They couldn't stop the theft, but they could isolate a still picture from the tape to distribute to the police and other casinos. A somewhat fuzzy picture, but useful nonetheless.
In earlier times, that would not have been possible. The eye in the sky was once literally a human eye. At the time of our class, Harrah's still had in place catwalks above the casino floor, where surveillance officers would peer down at the gaming tables. We were taken through the catwalks, too, and came away mightily impressed at the difficulty of surveillance of yore.
It's been about a decade since I took that class, and casino surveillance has made another quantum leap. It may not be quite as revolutionary as the march from catwalks to video tape, but the equipment in the surveillance room makes it faster and easier than ever to track incidents in the casino.
Cameras with ever-higher resolution are part of the package. And casinos are making a steady shift from video tape to digital recording. Part of that is simply availability --- DVD players and recorders are taking more and more shelf space in stores, with VHS recorders taking less and less. Several months ago, working on a story for the trade publication International Gaming and Wagering Business, I spoke with Douglas Florence, gaming segment manager at Verint Video Solutions and a veteran of casino surveillance rooms.
"When you walk into Target, Wal-Mart or K-Mart, it's a lot easier to buy a DVD player than a VCR," Florence said. "The consumer market drives what we end up having to use in the casino market. A large property uses 600 or 1,000 VCRs. What if they wear out and you can't buy 1,000 VCRs? Then what do you do?"
But beyond simple availability, digital recording gives casino operators instant access to any point of time on the recording, without winding and rewinding tape. That's something that would have made a big difference in spotting Anderson's purse snatcher. With digital recording, an image of the thief's face would have been available much faster, and distribution could have been instant via e-mail, increasing the chances of catching the crook.
Along with the instant access capability, the digital age brings image enhancement software --- the fuzzy image we saw nowadays could be cleaned up to provide a better picture of the perpetrator. Add in facial recognition software, and if the suspect had already been in a database available to member casinos and law enforcement agencies, an easy identification could have been made. Companies such as Biometrica (facial recognition software, database), DVTel (video management system integrating a video multiplexer with networked digital video recorders), Verint (software to manage video input and produce what it calls "Actionable Intelligence") are working to bring casino surveillance up to date.
It's several miles beyond where casino surveillance stood when I got my first look at Harrah's Las Vegas all those years ago, and light years beyond the old catwalk days. Short supply of VHS recorders may be making change necessary, but necessity sometimes is also opportunity to do something better.
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