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Going mobile is transforming law enforcement: How one sheriff’s department made it happen

27 Apr 2022 11:54 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Dale Stockton

Law enforcement agencies are increasingly embracing the concept of connected officers, made possible by smartphone technology and powerful mobile applications. With full deployment of smartphones to field personnel, agencies can effectively expand capabilities and provide officers with ready access to mission-critical voice and data, regardless of their assignment or proximity to a patrol vehicle.  

Although the sheer utility of smartphones can provide immediate operational benefits, most agencies have limited budgets and for some, it may be difficult to allocate funding for a mobile program. Recognizing this challenge, Mike Sievert, the CEO of T-Mobile, announced in 2020 the launch of an ambitious and unparalleled public-private partnership known as Connecting Heroes. The program is a ten-year commitment by T-Mobile to supply free, subsidized, and low-cost smartphone connectivity and technology assistance to state and local first responder agencies. This has allowed many agencies to cost-effectively achieve full smartphone deployment to their sworn personnel. Following is an example of one department’s experience.

Livingston County, Missouri, Sheriff’s Office

Livingston County is a rural county in northwestern Missouri with a population of approximately 15,000 and covering an area of about 540 square miles. Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox is a lifelong resident of the county and has served in law enforcement for 35 years. He oversees an agency with ten authorized deputy positions, three of which are currently vacant. With this level of staffing, Cox, who was elected sheriff in 2001, is frequently in the field serving papers or performing bailiff duties at the court.

Cox said his agency deployed smartphones as a result of starting a body-worn camera program. While at a conference, Cox heard about Visual Labs, a software company that turns a smartphone into an effective body-worn camera (BWC). Cox was intrigued and learned the company had partnered with T-Mobile to provide a cost-effective BWC solution using a smartphone that was part of the Connecting Heroes program.

“I couldn’t believe the price of it,” Cox said, “and I wanted to make sure it would fit our needs. Two deputies did some field testing with the Visual Labs unit and a body-worn camera from another vendor that had all the ‘bells and whistles.’

”The deputies preferred Visual Labs for the quality and the ease of use,” Cox said. “We talked to the county commission about funding the project and we got some help from some nice people, plus, Visual Labs worked with us to make it happen.”

Cox said the reps from T-Mobile and Visual Labs helped bring everything together, and the smartphones – Samsung A52’s with Visual Labs software - were rolled out in August of 2021. “I think it’s awesome that they can partner together,” he said. “I can’t say enough good things about them. Our whole department is happy.”

The Livingston County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) now has several months’ experience with using a smartphone as a chest-mounted BWC and the system has been well received by the deputies and the courts. Deputies can quickly categorize incidents and easily locate relevant video evidence.

“I’ve been in court when officers from another agency have had difficulty locating video that’s needed in a case. It doesn’t sit well with the jury,” Cox said. “With our system [Visual Labs], I’ve actually had defense attorneys compliment our deputies and their presentation of evidence. It’s so easy to use and sharing with the prosecutors is very straightforward.”

LCSO has realized so much operational benefit from the rollout of smartphones equipped as BWCs, the agency is planning to add in-car video cameras using Visual Labs. “They have a great system that provides two-camera capability [front-facing and rear-seat coverage]. It will feed to the same cloud system that the body-worn cameras utilize and that the deputies use to send videos to the prosecutor’s office,” Cox said. “And it’s really cost effective. Honestly, I don’t know why everyone in the state doesn’t have this.”

Equipping deputies with smartphones has significantly improved his agency’s engagement with the citizens of Livingston County, according to Cox. “Deputies regularly reach out to witnesses or victims using their smartphones for follow-up, and it saves a lot of time,” he said. “And we’ve found that people are much more likely to answer because the number isn’t blocked [i.e., deputies are not calling from the law enforcement center].”

Reasons for going mobile

Smartphones provide a high level of utility to field officers, saving time and facilitating quick communications. Tasks like contacting the parents of a runaway juvenile or checking space availability at a homeless shelter can be accomplished quickly, rather than tying up radio time and going through a dispatcher. A picture of a wanted subject or missing child can be distributed immediately among officers and a photo is significantly more effective than a description broadcast over the radio. Smartphones can also be used to gather photo or video evidence, enable report dictation, support e-citations, manage body-worn cameras, and remotely access agency-controlled CCTV devices. In short, the smartphone can effectively replace many single-purpose devices and provide officers with capabilities and information access they would not otherwise have.

Agency-owned over BYOD

Some agencies have allowed or encouraged their officers to use their personal smartphones for work purposes, but this approach is not ideal in law enforcement. Questions quickly arise regarding evidence and privacy. And if an agency plans to let officers use their own smartphones to search criminal justice databases, additional measures must be taken to achieve compliance with the security policy of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) division, as well as the rules set by the relevant state’s CJIS Systems Agency. In fact, CJIS policy discourages agencies from relying on a Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) approach, citing the costly compensating controls and the imposition of security restrictions on private devices (CJIS Policy Appendix G4).

Deploying smartphones to field personnel offers clear operational benefits, but many agency leaders assume that agency-wide deployment would be cost-prohibitive, partly due to the ongoing wireless service fees (often cited as the reason for choosing BYOD). Now, agency leaders have reason to reevaluate their position and run the numbers. With a free wireless service option and substantial savings on a wide range of devices, the Connecting Heroes program, which applies only to department-owned devices, helps to overcome budget challenges and presents a new opportunity for agencies to gain connected-officer capability.

If you would like to learn more about how other departments are using the smartphone as an effective force-multiplier, check out Connecting Law Enforcement, a case study of five agencies using the T-Mobile Connecting Heroes program. To find out more about emerging technologies that will leverage 5G wireless service to improve future public safety effectiveness, take a look at Transforming Public Safety with Wireless Technology. For more information on Visual Labs and how they’re working with T-Mobile to deliver body-worn camera functionality, check out the recent IPSA webinar, How Mobile Technology is Transforming Law Enforcement Operations.

About the Author

Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, having worked in all areas of police operations and retiring as a police captain from Carlsbad, California. He taught criminal justice classes for more than 20 years and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Law Officer Magazine and Stockton is the founder of Below 100, an award-winning officer-safety initiative designed to reduce police line-of-duty deaths and has been involved in the presentation of the program across North America. Stockton is an accomplished technology practitioner and has managed major technology projects for public safety including personnel-locate devices, license plate recognition systems, and regional deployment of smartphones.

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