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DOS PALOS, Calif.—The streets of this agricultural town in Merced County almost feel like a John Steinbeck novel.
The day Ars was in Dos Palos was hot, bright, and quiet. Walking downtown on a weekday, the only people out looked like high schoolers milling around on their lunch break.
Banners on the street proclaimed support for the “Broncos,” the school’s football team. Other signs tried to hype up the annual “Cotton Festival,” named after the primary crop in the area.
Dos Palos is one of a handful of communities nationwide testing the future of police body cameras.
This town of 5,000 people, about two hours southeast of San Francisco, has a police department of just seven sworn officers, who have six body cameras between them.
But what’s different here is that these body cameras are just Android phones with specialized software.
In addition to shooting video on the body camera software, a cop’s superiors can also remotely activate a phone’s GPS and privately livestream footage back to headquarters. Plus, thanks to Verizon’s law enforcement program, all law enforcement nationwide can get free phones, with service plans offered at what Verizon dubs “aggressive discounts.”
By comparison, the major body camera vendors, including Taser and smaller rivals like VieVu or Digital Ally, make actual specialized cameras.
The body camera software for Android being tested in Dos Palos is made by Visual Labs, a two-year-old Silicon Valley startup with just a dozen employees—making it a larger entity than the entire Dos Palos PD. (Taser, a company of 549 full-time employees, told Bloomberg Businessweek earlier this year that the company is set to release a livestreaming feature in 2017.)
In short, Visual Labs is a body camera company that doesn’t actually sell, much less make, body cameras.
Couldn’t be easier
The advantage of using a phone with its own data capability is clear.
A phone is simpler to use than a dedicated, larger device that needs to be plugged in to a dock every night not only to charge, but to offload the camera’s footage to a server.
“VieVu, you would wear it your whole shift, record several aspects of what you were doing, come into the office, plug it in, and then it would download,” Officer Johnny Mathis of the Dos Palos Police Department, told Ars.
“The problems that we had [with a dedicated body camera] was that some officers wouldn’t plug it in, or the connection wasn’t real good, or when you went to use the camera, it was full.
This one, as soon as you turn the camera off, it uploads it into the cloud, no problems with being full or anything like that.”
Mathis added that while there hasn’t yet been a need to activate the livestream feature in the few months that the DPPD has used Visual Labs’ system, he can easily e-mail relevant footage to neighboring law enforcement agencies directly from the phone.
A body camera requires returning to headquarters for docking.
The Merced County native, himself a 20-year veteran of law enforcement, also pointed out that with the Visual Labs system, because each phone has accurate timekeeping, the videos can easily be synced, and multiple videos can be watched simultaneously as part of an investigation.
The DPPD is one of around a dozen law enforcement agencies nationwide that have signed contracts with Visual Labs.
That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 12,000 law enforcement agencies currently operating in the United States. Of the 25 most populous American cities that Ars was able to contact, Taser is the clear favorite body camera vendor—the company has a longstanding relationship with many law enforcement agencies through selling its non-lethal stun gun.
In recent years, Taser’s bottom line has jumped, largely on the backs of its body camera sales and related cloud storage.
As Ars reported previously, by the end of 2013, sales of its Axon body-worn camera and the company’s related cloud-storage service, Evidence.com, more than doubled from $2.4 million to $5.1 million.
In 2013, corporate profits jumped 23 percent from $14.7 million to $18.2 million. (In 2014, that figure rose even higher, to $19.91 million, and in 2015 profits edged up to $19.93 million.)
In its most recent annual report from April 2016, Taser noted: “our focus is on increasing bookings and brand awareness for Evidence.com and Axon cameras. We have expanded our Axon sales team from 16 at the end of 2014 to 27 full-time salespeople at the end of 2015. We expect the additional salesforce to generate increased bookings in 2016.”
Visual Labs, as a private company, has declined to provide financial details and hasn’t made public which police departments it works with, beyond the DPPD.
It also partners with private security for various events at the nearby Levi’s Stadium (home of the San Francisco 49ers).
But the Menlo Park-based startup is clearly gunning for Taser’s and VieVu’s business—especially as demand for body cameras has skyrocketed in the last two years.
In August 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot and killed by a local cop.
Crucially, the Ferguson Police Department did not have body cameras at the time. No definitive recording of the event exists.
In the wake of Ferguson and the increased scrutiny the shooting inspired nationwide, the White House announced a three-year $263 million grant program for local law enforcement body cameras on December 1, 2014.
“There’s been a lot of talk about body cameras as a silver bullet or a solution,” said President Barack Obama in March 2015. “I think the task force concluded that there is a role for technology to play in building additional trust and accountability, but it’s not a panacea.”
In record time
Earlier this year, Visual Labs managed to convince DPPD Chief Barry Mann to switch from VieVu after giving him a quick demo at a law enforcement trade show in March 2016.
In a recent interview at the company headquarters in a small office just across the street from the Menlo Park Caltrain station, Visual Labs CEO Alex Popof told Ars about meeting Chief Mann.
“We sent e-mails out before the California Police Chiefs Association conference in March,” he said. “The trade show opened at 11:00am.
At 11:05am, the chief in Dos Palos came by and said ‘I love it, show me what it is.’”
After a quick demo, Popof recalled Mann saying: “‘This is great, I want a proposal for six or eight devices, would you e-mail it?’ We did, we had him installed 30 days later.”
The young CEO told Ars that he has a quick argument for getting the attention of top brass.
“The major flaw that we see with [traditional body cameras], is that when you go on an extended pursuit away from your vehicle, you’re not carrying around your router,” he said, highlighting how the footage may be most useful during or shortly after an incident, not hours or days later.
Popof explained how, just like Taser and the other larger players, the video files created by his software are encrypted, have digital fingerprints, and are time- and geo-coded, making for a complete forensically sound audit trail.
Plus, Visual Labs is cheaper, to boot.
“We charge a per-device, per-month fee, competitive to Taser—well under $79 a month,” he said.
Chief Mann, who has been Dos Palos’ top cop since 2004, told Ars that his department pays just $3,000 per year for the taxes on the phones, their data plans, and the fee to Visual Labs for its software and storage.
“We lost a lot of body cam footage during a power outage which burned up one of my SATA arrays,” he said. “We knew we had to come up with a solution that offered all the functionality and offers automatically upload and offsite storage.
For an agency like ours, and the limited tax base, Visual Labs was our only option.”
Listing image by Chris Schodt