A real-time video chat program has made getting in touch with police a lot more convenient in Redwood City, Calif.
Instead of going through the hassle of finding the phone number or email of a particular law enforcement division, residents can now log onto the Redwood City Police Department website and start a video or text chat right from the home page. The department has been providing the service since June.
Communication takes place using Live Guide, a chat software platform developed by Netop, a provider of remote engagement tools. Chris Cesena, a captain with Redwood City PD who commands the department’s Administrative Services Division, said the idea was to provide a simple Web-based application that could improve the interaction between citizens and officers.
“We wanted somebody to go on the website without having to necessarily download any software, click on a link and boom, your choices are right in front of you,” Cesena said. “Here’s a button if you want to talk on video, here’s a button if you just want to text, those types of things.”
Cesena explained that the city’s IT department presented him with a few different video chat options, including Skype and Cisco’s WebEX. But both video conferencing tools were “a little bit too much” for what the department was looking for, Cesena added.
The real-time chat function is available Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. PST. Officers on modified duty — those rehabbing an injury, for example — primarily handle the chat duties. When an officer is not available, non-sworn personnel working for the department fill in the coverage gaps.
Residents don’t have to use the video capability of the chat system, however. Users will always see the officer they are taking to on the screen, but they can choose whether to enable the return video feed, or do a simple text exchange. Cesena added that video chatting isn’t a replacement for 9-1-1. The service is simply another communication channel for people to get answers to questions they may have.
“We’re not forcing anyone to do anything,” Cesena said. “We’re not tracking or doing anything like that. We want to make it as comfortable for the user as possible.”
The jury is still out on how successful the video chats have been. Over the past six months, the department has received steady stream of six or seven chat requests each day. Questions range from how to complete a police report online to other more general and service-oriented issues such as parking tickets and reporting abandoned vehicles.
Usage of the system may not seem very high, but Cesena believes it’s still too early to tell whether the service has been a success or not. Because the chats are only available four days a week at times when many people are at work, he felt the availability needs to be expanded to give the program a fair shot and truly evaluate whether citizens are finding it useful.
Expanding online hours, along with enabling officers to do chats from mobile devices and laptops, is a goal for the department in 2013.
“[If] you come from work and have something to ask the police department … and get online at 7 p.m., 8 p.m. or 4 p.m. on a Saturday, whatever, we will be there — that’s what we want to explore,” Cesena said.