Resort in a Security Blanket

Surveillance System, Staffing Intended to Smother Crime at National Harbor

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

If not for the flat-screen televisions on the wall, the room would be nondescript. One screen shows the sculpture "The Awakening" in its new beachfront location. Another gives a clear shot of a nearly deserted parking garage across the street from the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. And another offers a view of the marina.

This is the command center at National Harbor, the spot where private security officers keep round-the-clock watch on the little city being built along the banks of the Potomac River. Next door to the command center is an office for Prince George's County police officers assigned to the sprawling retail, residential, entertainment and office complex.

The law enforcement presence was designed to maintain order at the $4 billion development -- the linchpin of efforts to strengthen the county's economy and its public image -- and to protect it from the kinds of crime that have plagued other parts of Prince George's.

"We want people to know that it is a safe place to come and let people know who might commit crime that it will not be tolerated," said Maj. Gary Cunningham of the county police.

If a boat capsizes, a child goes missing or a person is mugged, the command center is where a supervisor can use Global Positioning System technology to locate the closest security officers and dispatch them and county police to the scene. This is also where officers can check on any suspicious person who has been stopped and determine whether that person is wanted for any crimes.

The surveillance system at the Oxon Hill development is complemented by security guards on foot, motorized tricycles and all-terrain vehicles and by Prince George's County police officers in cars and boats.

"I don't know of any mall or development that has a system this elaborate," said Bill Dunston, director of security at National Harbor.

With more than a million visitors a year expected at National Harbor, the safety plan for the 300-acre development has multiple layers and involves nearly a half-dozen law enforcement agencies.

Kent S. Digby, vice president of operations at National Harbor, said the private security team, which has 30 officers and will grow to about 100, is working closely with the Maryland State Police, Maryland Natural Resources Police, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Police and Forest Heights town police, as well as county police.

The "first line of defense" is the security officers, many of whom have military or law enforcement backgrounds, Dunston said. They are responsible for National Harbor's common areas. Digby said Gaylord has hired its own security, and several other businesses, including nightclubs and jewelry stores, might have their own officers.

National Harbor has asked the county to borrow money to help pay for capital costs, including security infrastructure. The legislation, which is stuck in a County Council committee, would allow the county to float a $35 million bond and then levy a 5 percent tax on hotel rooms at National Harbor to pay off the debt.

The bond money could be used for "public facilities and improvements," including streets and sidewalks, a plaza, entrance features, security, piers on the river and public art. The money for security could be used only for infrastructure, such as cameras and other high-tech equipment.

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