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Casino Surveillance at Mohegan Sun: Two of a Kind

Oct 01, 200316 mins
DLP SoftwarePhysical Security

In the wee hours of a Monday morning, four guys sit down at a mini-baccarat table at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. They are unremarkable in their appearance, demeanor and play. But their luck is anything but ordinary. In a matter of a couple hours, they ride their cards to a six-figure payout.

It could be chalked up to staggering good fortune. But in an industry where the odds are heavily stacked in favor of the house, and the schemes and scams vary from the legendary to the ludicrous, Dave Todd and Jim Friel have learned to be skeptical when Lady Luck pays an extended call. “Luck is always an intricate variable when trying to figure out if someone is cheating, and we evaluate their play to make that determination,” says Todd, who is vice president of security and surveillance for the casino. “But sometimes we watch extremely lucky people, and they really are just that. Lucky.”

In the case of the mini-bac players, there was reason to believe that they had more than just a well-worn rabbit’s foot working in their favor. “Some people were of the opinion that these guys were lucky, but I knew something was wrong,” says Friel, Mohegan’s director of surveillance. A couple of details stood out for Todd and Friel when they arrived Monday and learned about the previous night’s big payout. First, the win had occurred during a graveyard shift, the casino’s 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift, when would-be cheaters assume there’s a light surveillance staff. Second, the players had refused the free Player’s Club cards that allow gamblers to rack up points toward food, merchandise and entertainment but that also require a valid I.D. for enrollment. Still, the dealer, floor person and pit manager noticed nothing unusual about the way the men played. Perhaps they were no-frills guys out for a late-night gamble and didn’t feel like getting bogged down in paperwork and comps.

Friel didn’t buy it. He suspected that if anything untoward had happened, it was likely to have occurred during the shuffle. In mini-bac, eight decks of cards are used at a time, and while eight decks are in play, another eight decks are shuffled in a large glass-enclosed machine to the side of the dealer. Friel examined the casino surveillance video.

What couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, Friel could see unmistakably through the camera’s filtered lens. He noticed a small infrared beam emanating from the wrist of a gentleman sitting next to the shuffle machine, illuminating the cards as they were shuffled. The man--who to the casual observer was simply a player--was, in fact, a techno-savvy grifter, recording the cards with a high-speed camera tucked up his sleeve. After the shuffle, he left the casino floor to review the film and give the sequence of cards to the playershis four accompliceswho then played the next round knowing whether the banker’s or the player’s hand would win.

For Friel and Todd, playing detective and piecing together all the aspects of a scam is usually gratifying, but doing so almost 12 hours after the perps have decamped with their winnings is far from ideal.

Then again, that’s the daily challenge for the Mohegan Sun security and surveillance team. The technology, procedures and training are all crafted with a single ambitious goal: Don’t just catch the cheatscatch them while they’re still on the floor.

Both Todd and Friel earned their security stripes in the fast lanefirst as Philadelphia cops and later on the casino floors of Atlantic City. Swindlers and cheaters bank on the knowledge that if they’re fingered by casino security, it’s a quick sprint to the doors where they can be lost in the bustle of the boardwalk or the crowds of another casino. “It was more of a big city atmosphere where people intentionally tried to commit thefts and were more resistant to security,” says Todd, comparing Atlantic City’s clientele with that of a rural Connecticut setting. Mohegan Sun attracts few hardened criminal types. The opportunity to escape from the authorities is minimalunless paddling away on the nearby river Thames can be considered an optionand Mohegan’s tribal police have the authority to close down reservation roads if necessary.

Todd started at Harrah’s and moved to Harrah’s at Trump Plaza casino when it opened in 1984. He became a director of security and a personal bodyguard for Donald Trump, coordinating executive protection details for The Donald and the numerous stars, dignitaries and tycoons who drifted in and out of his orbit. Todd also managed security for the Trump Plaza casino and for big arena events such as Mike Tyson’s heavyweight bouts and Rolling Stones concerts.

Friel worked in surveillance down the strip at Claridge and then moved to the Playboy casino and finally over to Trump Plaza, where he joined Todd as the director of surveillance.

After 16 years in Atlantic City, Todd couldn’t pass up the opportunity to manage security and surveillance for Mohegan Sun when it opened in 1996, and he brought Friel with him to continue their partnership. Both men realized from the outset that the challenges of running security at the sprawling 240-acre casino and resort would be very different from their previous assignments. Aside from the different environment, Mohegan Sun is also the second-largest casino in the world with 300,000 square feet of gaming space (only its Connecticut neighbor Foxwoods Casino is larger with an additional 20,000 square feet). The sheer sprawl of the casino necessitates an enormous surveillance system with more than 3,000 cameras and a sizeable security staff, including 450 full-time security officers working three, eight-hour shifts plus 10 part-timers and an additional 60 officers on call.

side from the scale of the challenge, Mohegan Sun also requires a different approach to its customers. Todd takes issue with the clich? that casinos are magnets for unsavory individuals. It might get its share of cardsharps and pickpockets, but most crimes that occur at Mohegan Sun are what he refers to as “thefts of opportunity.” One patron steals the coins that another patron inadvertently leaves at a slot machine. It’s criminal behavior, but as larcenies go, it’s hardly egregious.

Gambling can be an emotional roller coasterthe exhilaration of being up $2,000 often followed by the pain of losing it all back to the house. When patrons are greeted with a smile, it’s good marketing, and it’s also a form of preventive security. If gamblers feel put off or ignored, and it’s combined with a loss on the casino floor or a little too much alcohol, it can create a problem. “When security folks make eye contact [with customers] and treat them nicely,” says Todd, “it sets the mood for the day and makes people come back because it’s a friendly and safe place.”

Atlantic City’s quasi-police force approach wouldn’t work with Mohegan Sun’s family-oriented setting. Todd wanted a kinder, gentler security force that would still maintain a strong presence. The result is the blue-blazered officers that stand at every door to greet the 210,000 visitors that come through the casino each week. They make eye contact with everybody and stay watchful for known troublemakers and minors, but they’re also quick to provide directions or to wish a patron luck on the casino floor. It’s an approach that Todd compares with the uber-bouncer role in the movie Road House. Todd instructs his security officers, “I want you to be nice, until it’s time to not be nice.”

Training Mohegan’s security staff to recognize the growing list of scams is yet another challenge to which Todd and Friel give constant attention. Security and surveillance need to be vigilant for everything from old-fashioned distract-and-grab teams that prey on gamblers to more sophisticated cheats that work solo at the slots, pushing mini-fiber-optic lights up the machine to blind the counting optics so that they release more coins.

But because security pays less than gaming, Todd struggles to hold on to his staff. Often young people start out in security, where they receive a company orientation and a week of security training. After six months, they move on to one of the gaming departments. While it’s frustrating to have the constant turnover, it is conducive to building security awareness throughout the organization as employees with security backgrounds disperse among the casino’s various departments.

In Friel’s group, the pay is better and a basic knowledge of cameras and surveillance is preferred. New surveillance staff also receive more training, attending six months of gaming schooling where they learn all the games on the casino floor. The goal is that they should know each game as wellor betterthan the dealers and the players in order to detect inappropriate behavior. Once they begin work, they also have a surveillance coach who works with them, sharing their experience and teaching them the intricacies of detecting a scam underway. Surveillance staff can never transfer to another position within the casino, because they know too much about where all the cameras are located and the “tells” that surveillance staff look for.

The security stats suggest that considering the casino’s level of risk, Todd’s approach has been effective. As of August 2003, Mohegan Sun has had 576 total arrests since it opened. The most common reasons were trespassing by banned individuals (180), breach of the peace (136) and larceny (118). The casino has had only one case of a person being robbed.

Todd credits some of that success to the fact that security and surveillance work hand-in-hand at his casinoa situation that he says is not the norm at most establishments. Todd describes the relationship that often exists between the two departments in other casinos as being hampered by “a CIA mentality,” where information-sharing between departments is poor because everyone wants to be the hero who gets credit for busting up a scam or handling a security problem. Todd’s position uniquely places him over both security and surveillance, and his office and Friel’s are close enough that hollering out a question makes more sense than picking up a phone. “Up here, we get tremendous benefit from working together,” says Todd. “Surveillance calls security right away, and they keep in constant contact. Nobody stands out more than anyone else, and we rise and fall as one team.”

On the resort, there are three different security forces that must all work side-by-side: the casino security team, the tribal police and the state police. Todd has mandated that his security staff cannot touch a patron, except in self-defense, but there are always two or three state troopers on hand to deal with any arrests or violent security problems. The hotel and grounds at the resort are handled by tribal security. They have the authority to stop a person’s forward progress and to detain an individual, but they also must hand them over to state police for an official arrest.

But Todd’s team also extends beyond the borders of the Mohegan Sun reservation. The casino security community is a small, tight-knit one, and with so many criminals working the same ploys at one casino after the next, information-sharing across security departments is critical to catching them in the act.

Networking among the casinos is not done through any formal system; rather it’s through e-mails and phone calls among “the guys” who have worked together in various venues during the years and who now watch each other’s backs. Friel and Todd both have numerous contacts in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and they’ll frequently get a phone call from a contact alerting them to a new scam or notifying them that a well-known crook was spotted at the Philadelphia airport and may be working his way up the East Coast. “You have to keep an open line of communication,” says Todd, “because you’re only as good as the information that you get. People come in disguises; they come in from all over and you’re not going to know them. So when you have the chance, you give somebody a heads up so they’re prepared for it, and if it’s relayed to you, then you’re prepared.”

hile many CSOs struggle with with the issue of employee monitoringdebating how much of it to do and how to do itTodd and Friel have no such qualms. Constant monitoring on the casino floor, and in sensitive areas in the back of house, are a fact of life for the casino business. “[Security officers] understand that because we’re constantly moving money from one area to another we have to monitor them,” says Todd.

All casino employees must be licensed in order to work at the resort. When they first submit their applications, the Casino Licensing and Operations Unit performs an extensive background check; a 70-page document that examines the applicant’s time in school, family, relatives and finances.

Employee behavior on the casino floor is strictly controlled with set procedures, and any deviation from that will draw surveillance attention. For example, when a dealer gets tapped by another to take over the table, he shows his palms with fingers extended and claps his hands to show that he hasn’t palmed any chips off the table. Any movements that he makes toward his bodya yawn, a cough, a scratch on the back of the neckare all cause for suspicion. “I’ve had [dealers] put chips down their back, palm them under a thumb, put them in their mouth while yawning or coughing,” says Friel. The same procedures help identify instances where a dealer and player may be in cahoots to defraud the casino. In roulette, a dealer waves his hand across the table to indicate that the ball is about to drop and no more bets can be placed. If the dealer doesn’t wave off or a player slides his chips over to the winning number after the ball dropsa scam technique called past-postingand the dealer pays out, those are obvious indicators of fraud. “In the last couple months, we’ve had a couple of dealers get arrested, one with their spouse and another with a relative for paying too much money,” says Friel. “One gave [a player] $200 right out of the rack. We just review, record, observe and report, and if it makes the papers that’s a good deterrent.”

casino’s security depends largely on the security staff’s ability to manage people and situations. As much as Todd might wish that each patron coming through the doors is there to have a good time, that’s sometimes not the case. Since it opened, the casino has had more than 4,000 ejectionspeople asked to leave for various reasons (such as being drunk or disorderly).

Overstuffed binders with information about undesirables line the walls of the security department for reference. Prior to ejection, the security staff takes each patron’s picture and records her personal information. They also require the individual to sign a form that acknowledges she will be arrested for trespassing if she returns.

Ejections from the casino are permanent, but if an unsavory character wants to return to the casino after being kicked out, he can write a letter to Todd explaining and apologizing for his behavior anddepending on the severity of the caseTodd may lift the ban. If ejectees try to sneak into the casino, security staffers with a good memory for faces often will identify them and turn them away. In other cases, ejectees who have returned and hit a jackpot get identified because, for tax purposes, the casino has to record a Social Security number for any winnings of $10,000 or more. The security group always runs those numbers against the ejected-patron database, and their winnings are confiscated and they are shown the door again.

While the casino with its lush decor and high-end boutiques and restaurants is clearly not built on losing money, Todd and his staff do have some compassion for the people who go overboard with gambling. “If we see someone who’s really upset about losing, he or she may have a problem” he says. “We’re not in this business to hurt people or to take their money to a point they have to remortgage their homes.” Patrons with gambling problems will often request to be banned from the casino, and at Mohegan Sun, that kind of ban can never be lifted.

If you think corporate security is rife with bureaucracy, then imagine how absolutely everyone has their eye on how security performs in the gaming industry.

Todd devises the policies and procedures for the casino’s security, but they must be approved by the Casino Licensing and Operations Unit, which has a staff that surveys and audits the casino to make sure it is abiding by the rules and regulations set out by the compactthe agreement made between the state and tribe that permits gambling. There is also a National Indian Gaming Commission that comes in to audit the policies and procedures that Todd puts in place to make sure that all the tribes are doing things the same way. The Indian commission ensures that if security has mandated that dealing will be done in a particular manner, then that’s what’s happening on the casino floor. Because the state of Connecticut gets 25 cents for every dollar Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods make on their slot machines (so far, more than $1 billion has been generated for the state), it also keeps a watchful eye on security. State employees have video monitors in their offices that allow them to watch what’s happening in the counting rooms, and they check all the security logs. “You have the dealer watching the patron, the floor personnel watching the dealer, the pit manager watching him, the shift manager watching the pit manager, then the casino manager, then the director, then the VP,” says Friel elucidating the chain of observation within the casino. And with all the scrutiny that security has put in place, they, in turn, are surveilled just as closely. At Mohegan Sun, nothing is taken for granted. “We watch all of them, and the commissions are watching us,” says Friel. “We are audited every which way but loose, and nobody trusts nobody.”