All security eyes will be on casino's test run for charities

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The first patrons of the Rivers Casino will be part of an invitation-only chance to benefit local charities by losing money at slot machines today, and they will be watched carefully while doing so.

Many in the casino's 93-member security force will be on duty, along with state police and Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board agents who have regular shifts inside. Off-duty city police will be hired to assist in traffic control outside. Some 750 surveillance cameras will record everything taking place in and around the casino.

And still, things will go wrong -- if not today, then after the 3,000-slot, North Shore casino opens to the public at noon Sunday. The two days of private tests today and Friday give the gaming board a chance to evaluate operations before approving it to welcome the public.

If the Rivers Casino is like gambling parlors elsewhere, it will eventually have thefts, intoxicated patrons, individuals younger than 21 trying to sneak in and other problems. It will attract compulsive gamblers whose addiction breeds legal, financial and family problems throughout the community.

But such issues have been so mild at the eight casinos to open already in Pennsylvania that there's been no community outcry about them.

"We don't have any gaming sites I would consider even close to a crime-ridden environment," said Capt. Tim Allue, director of the state police gaming enforcement office. "Casinos are actually a very bad place to commit crimes. Virtually the entire gaming floor and most of the entire facility are in constant surveillance."

One distinction about the Rivers Casino from others is its location in the heart of a busy, urban area. The mostly rural and suburban casinos to open thus far are less accessible and with fewer people going into them than is anticipated at the Rivers.

Such factors will have the casino's security force reminding any careless customers to monitor their belongings at all times, said Walt Tirrell, the new facility's director of security. He said the staff, who will be wearing burgundy blazers instead of law enforcement uniforms to give a softer appearance, will help customers avoid becoming victims.

"Any new property in town always attracts pickpockets or things of that nature," Mr. Tirrell said. "We'll tell careless people, 'Ma'am, please secure your pocketbook.' It sounds simple, but [risk of theft] is an everyday occurrence."

The largest theft issue for a casino, actually, comes in the form of the credits players amass on the slot machines after putting in their cash, and the bar-coded vouchers representing dollars that they transport among machines.

Authorities treat those vouchers and credits as money subject to theft arrest for anyone deliberately taking someone else's voucher or playing another patron's machine credits. Tapes from the subtle but ubiquitous overhead cameras can be used to identify those who pick up vouchers off the floor or play the credits of someone who vacated a machine.

The casino's security force tries to settle such problems among customers and otherwise deal itself with unruly patrons. When unsuccessful, it will summon state police stationed inside, usually two at a time. State police have jurisdiction on the casino floor, while city police are responsible for the periphery of the property, including the garage.

Gaming board agents are present to certify that machines are being operated as regulations require, including hookup with the state's central computer in Harrisburg and a provision that at least 85 percent of money going in is returned to players over the long haul.

The casino has the game manufacturer preset the percentage return for each machine, based on mathematical formulas. The average in Pennsylvania has been 91 percent of money being returned to players, and Rivers Casino officials say they expect to be the same.

That other 9 percent represents the players' losses to cover the casino's operating costs and any profit, plus the state's 55 percent tax on gaming. Those gambling losses are expected to be between $350 million and $400 million in the first year of the Rivers Casino, which is what has some community representatives concerned.

The Rev. Blaine Workman, an administrative pastor of the large Allegheny Center Alliance Church on the North Side, said the clergy, counselors and lay leaders of the church have increasingly discussed how to look out for gambling problems and offer assistance.

"One of the things we talk about as a church is we are going to see an increase in families coming to the church where the mother or father has spent the rent or food money at the casino, and the rest of the family doesn't know what to do," the Rev. Workman said.

Neither the church nor any other known agency in the area, however, has established in advance any special programs anticipating gambling problems.

"Everyone at this point is simply waiting to see what the effects actually are, relative to human services," said Bob Stumpp, senior policy manager for Allegheny County's Department of Human Services.

National studies have suggested that 1 to 2 percent of the public has a pathological gambling problem, but that few of those individuals seek help. While their addiction can lead to increased crime, bankruptcy, divorce and other issues, estimates of the extent their gambling causes those vary widely.

Some local agencies now have counselors certified to treat gambling addiction, which was not the case before, but it takes many months or even years for gambling problems to emerge as a personal or family crisis.

Even Gamblers Anonymous, which sponsors meetings throughout the region for addicts to support one another in recovery efforts, will wait for any new problems to materialize rather than plan for any growth.

"It's discussed a lot, the awareness there are going to be more people coming because of problems, but it doesn't really pay to open a new meeting and wait for people to come," said Norm B., regional spokesman for GA.

The two test runs today and Friday will benefit the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, the Allegheny County World War II Memorial, and Allegheny General Hospital.

In all, 10,000 people, including donors to the charities, elected officials and vendors, have been invited to each of the two pre-opening events. All casino winnings, minus the state's 55-percent cut for taxes, will be split among the charities.

Gary Rotstein can be reached at or 412-263-1255.


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