Rural Colorado sheriff’s department uses Samsung, Visual Labs, FirstNet to provide an affordable body-cam solution
Body-camera video has become an important—and sometimes expensive—tool for law-enforcement agencies in recent years, but a Colorado sheriff says he is leveraging Samsung smartphones, FirstNet connectivity and Visual Labs’ video platform to deliver an effective and affordable video solution for his rural department.
Sheriff Tom Ridnour of Kit Carson County, Colo., said that some personnel in his department—like many across the nation—initially were wary about having body cameras, but the value of the system has become apparent during the past two years. And his department’s implementation is evidence that urban agencies with large budgets are not the only public-safety entities that can leverage the video technology, he said.
“If a small agency like us can afford this, anybody can,” Ridnour said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “It’s such a huge tool and it’s so inexpensive for what it saves you, even in terms of just citizen complaints.
“If you get a complaint that you’ve got an officer or a deputy that said such-and-such. Before, there was no way for me to verify it, one way or the other. I always take my officers’ word and I back them up, but things are said sometimes at the heat of the moment. Now, I can verify that. Since we’ve had this [body-camera functionality], I don’t think I’ve had one citizen complaint, because they know that everything’s being recorded.”
Ridnour said that his agency began using the Visual Labs platform in 2017 to enable smartphones to be used as a video camera that could be worn on officers’ bodies. This year, Kit Carson County deputies and other personnel were issued Samsung Galaxy S9 smartphones—previously, they used personal devices—with FirstNet connectivity, which has greatly enhanced the video solution, he said.
“We had a lot of coverage issues with our provider before,” Ridnour said. “With FirstNet, we don’t seem to have any dead spots in our county, so it solves our issues of us not having cell-phone coverage.”
Ridnour said that all department vehicles are equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots and FirstNet connectivity, which he said costs less than the service provided by the department’s previous commercial broadband provider. FirstNet service also includes a key bandwidth feature, he said.
“Before, it would work good until you got so much data downloaded, and the carrier would throttle you back,” Ridnour said. “FirstNet doesn’t throttle us back. It’s constantly 15 to 30 MB/s all the time, no matter how much [bandwidth] we use. That’s been huge.”
Moving to the Samsung Galaxy S9—the first smartphone certified as FirstNet Ready—meant that deputies did not have to use their personal device and improved the video quality, because of the Galaxy S9’s camera, Ridnour said. The Samsung devices were provided at no cost to the county, which helped make the option affordable for the budget-conscious department.
“My guys never had an issued cell phone, so they were having to use their own cell phones—their own time and having to pay for it on their own,” Ridnour said. “I was trying to figure out a way to kill two birds with one stone, for lack of a better word.
“So, I was able to get them body cameras, which I wanted, and then also get them a normal cell phone that they didn’t have to worry about paying for. That seemed like a good fix for me, and it was fairly reasonably priced, compared to any other body-camera system that was out there.”
In addition to serving as a body camera and mobile broadband device, the Samsung smartphones also include push-to-talk-over-LTE functionality that officers can use to augment the VHF and 800 MHz LMR system that the county uses, Ridnour said.
“We do use the push-to-talk [over LTE] quite a bit—talking deputy-to-deputy when they’re out, talking about stuff we don’t want everybody hearing over the radio,” Ridnour said. “We’ll use it for surveillance and stuff like that.”
Ridnour said that the voice quality on the push-to-LTE system is “phenomenal—it’s a night-and-day difference” compared to LMR voice.
Overall, the Kit Carson County sheriff’s department paid less than $8,000 in upfront costs for the entire body-camera video solution—one that also is used in the county jail—and the ongoing storage cost of video evidence from Visual Labs is “very inexpensive,” Ridnour said.
Visual Labs supports automatic uploading of video from the field when an officer is within broadband coverage that can be accessed quickly after the fact or even more timely situational awareness in certain circumstances, Ridnour said.
“I can do real-time streaming,” he said. “I can log in on a computer and, if they’re at an incident, they’re busy and I want to see what’s going on, I can log in and watch live footage as it’s happening.”
Ridnour said that the system is straightforward, from a user’s perspective.
“The ease of Visual Labs is huge. My guys don’t have to do anything besides push the button to turn it on,” Ridnour said. “It automatically downloads through the cellular service. So, the minute they are done recording, it downloads in minutes on [Visual Labs’] servers, so I can view it, if I want to.
“There’s nothing for them to do, other than to keep their cell phone charged. That is simply it. They have enough stuff to worry about. They don’t need to worry about driving back to the station, docking and downloading the footage. They don’t have to worry about any of that.”
Reg Jones, Samsung America’s director of public-sector sales, said the ease of use is attributable to officers’ personal familiarity with the devices—“they know how to use smartphones. It’s not like I gave you a new tool that I now need to train you how to use”—and the Samsung Knox device-management solution.
“Samsung Knox is a customization platform that allows our software partners and agencies to customize the physical buttons on the phone to make the buttons have specific purposes other than their out-of-the-box, intended functions,” Jones said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “In the case of Kit Carson County, the external volume buttons on the phone can be used to activate the video camera.”
Jones noted the Visual Labs platform also can be integrated with Samsung’s smart watches and is optimized for the Samsung DeX mobile-desktop platform, although these capabilities have not been implemented by the Kit Carson County sheriff’s department at this time.
Jones applauded Kit Carson County sheriff’s department for its deployment of the body-camera system.
“This is the perfect example of a smaller department that is very conscientious of the way they deploy their budget,” Jones said. “They’re looking for solutions that provide them with the ability to create officer safety, be budget conscious and to future-proof themselves.”