Calif. PD launches live video chat for non-emergencies

The Redwood City (Calif.) police department is at the forefront of a number of technology trends, and with this recent development may be in uncharted territory

A few months ago, I wrote about how the Redwood City (Calif.) Police Department is using Nixle (as well as other social media outlets) for real-time communications with residents.

Well, that same agency recently announced that it has begun a three-month pilot program in which residents can use live video chat to communicate with police officers and other non-sworn personnel back at the station during specifically appointed hours during the day.

Believed to be the first program in which live video chat is used by any U.S. law enforcement agency, the “Live Guide” service allows Redwood City residents to have a live, interactive conversation with an officer about anything except a life-threatening emergency.

Transactional Video Chat
The “Live Guide” service, which is offered by Denmark-based Netop and is essentially the same live, online, service you might use in an online banking or other such ‘transactional’ use of video chat (go ahead, have at it in the comments area below if you want to).

Currently operating from 0900 to 1700 hours Monday through Thursday, the officers assigned to modified duty because of injuries or other reasons — thus relegated to desk work — currently work the shifts on the video chat desk, with staff members ready to pitch in if demand for the service grows.

The Redwood City pilot program requires a person to click on a button on the PD’s website. Up pops the face of an officer sitting in front of two computers ready to answer a question. The user of the service is not required to have his or her computer camera on, the chats are not recorded, and the police can’t trace the user.

The Chief’s Perspective
The idea behind the program, which will continue if resident interest is high, is to offer “better service to the community” at a time when law enforcement agencies continue to struggle with staff and budget cuts, according to a press release. 

Upon hearing about the program, I connected with Redwood City Police Chief JR Gamez to ask for some additional information on the initiative. For example, is this program transferable elsewhere?

Having spent time with friends in Redwood City, I know that the residents are more technologically savvy than people you might find in a city of similar size elsewhere in the country.

That’s not a knock on anyone, it’s just an observable fact. Many of the people who live there are involved in one high-technology industry or another, and as a consequence the police force is always looking for ways to harness technology in its interaction with the 76,000 people they serve.

“Our community is certainly very tech savvy,” Chief Gamez agreed. “Redwood City is considered by many as the Silicon Valley of the peninsula area. Redwood City is home to many start-up companies and established high tech corporations such as Oracle, DreamWorks, and Electronic Arts. The need to readily send and receive communications is important to residents in our community.

“One of the best features of the program is the ability for a resident to readily interact with our police officers from home, work, school, even while on vacation. Our department has a very robust social media program and adding live video chat to the program seemed to be the next logical step.”

This is obviously focused on non-emergency calls for service. But having attended the APCO conference several years in a row now, I know that adding such capabilities to the 911 call taker’s work station has been discussed in the hallways and seminar sessions alike. This could prove very useful, but also has its detractors.

“I can certainly see that one day, in the not so distant future, that our dispatchers will have capabilities of having face-to-face contact via video chat with our residents. At this time I don’t think the expectation is there from the general population,” Chief Gamez said.

So Far... So Successful
The three-month pilot program was initiated to gauge community interest. If interest is high, Chief Gamez and his officers will be looking at staffing the program in the evening hours and during the weekend. Chief Gamez said plans are also in the works to cross training the PD’s records personnel and dispatchers to assist with the program depending on its success. 

By all accounts thus far, the program has been a success. Chief Gamez said he believes live video chat will drive down calls for service and allow the police department to send more officers into distressed areas of the city where they can better serve residents. In fact, that’s already begun to happen.

“In the short amount of time that the program has been running,” Chief Gamez explained, “there have been several calls that were handled by the video chat officer that would have previously resulted in sending a beat officer to handle the call.”

For example, one recent caller whose home was burglarized used the new video-chat service to tell police he discovered more items missing from his home. He gave the officer on his laptop screen a list of the additional stolen items, and the officer emailed him an updated police report. This, potentially at least, freed up a patrol officer to handle a totally different call.

“Prior to implementation of the program it was very important to us to message the program to our officers in order to get their buy-in,” Gamez explained.

My impression from everything Chief Gamez told me is that the officers of Redwood City PD fully support the program and welcome the new technology that he and his team have introduced to their community.

Good on you, Chief Gamez.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, responsible for providing police training content and expert analysis on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 900 feature articles and tactical tips. Doug is also responsible for planning and recording the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, as well as being the on-air host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug also works closely with the PoliceOne Academy to develop training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Doug regularly represents PoliceOne as a public speaker in a variety of forums and is available for media interviews — he has appeared on numerous local and national radio and television news programs, and has been quoted in a host of print publications. 

Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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