While the security camera rolls, two police officers enter a convenience store where a robbery is in progress. The officers miss the shifty movements from the first man they see and fail to cover each other when they move in to arrest another man hiding in the back. Sensing an opportunity for a getaway, the first man pulls a gun from under his T-shirt and shoots the officers. Both robbers then run out the door.
Cover your partner. Don't ignore possible threats. This 10-year-old video conveys the message better than any training room slideshow could. BLUtube, a new online video sharing platform from San Francisco-based PoliceOne.com, is helping to ensure more messages are shared among the police officers who stand to learn from them.
"It sounds horrific, but if you break it down step by step, it's actually incredibly important that it's there where officers can see it," said Robert Dippell, PoliceOne's online director. "There are a lot of videos that are useful as situational examples where something went drastically wrong."
Today the site is fostering a library of law enforcement-related videos, some for serious training and others, which are lighthearted, uploaded by a handful of especially active members. The result is a video site with a narrower focus than the most popular video sites. BLUtube saves officers from typing "police" into a video search box and wading through '80s rock music videos and popular anti-police bits like the "Don't Tase Me, Bro" video.
Instead, BLUtube hosts traditional classroom training videos alongside dashboard-camera footage, crime-related local TV news segments, and reviews and promos for new products. PoliceOne also seeds the site with original content, while building a library of survivor stories and police narratives to serve its new video audience.
"We try to see what's going on in online technology and apply that to our market," said PoliceOne CEO Alex Ford. "As YouTube launched and became the phenomenon that it was, I started to think about how we can apply that trend and match it with what law enforcement does on an everyday basis."
The law enforcement community is a particularly apt target for online video, Ford said, because of the wealth of footage available and the importance of video during training. "It's been clear all along that law enforcement officers are very much visual learners, and video is an important component of their training," Ford said. "Most incorporate video in their training presentations, and they show video at roll call."
Dippell said BLUtube development began about a month before the site went live in mid-October 2007. Working with a third-party company (that Dippell declined to name), PoliceOne developers were able to get the site running quickly. "The platform itself was pretty straightforward," Dippell said. "The main thing was solidifying the sign-in functionality."
Laying Down the Law
In applying the YouTube model to law enforcement videos, one difference became clear early on: YouTube's extreme openness - relying on users to police its content and flag inappropriate or copyright-violating videos - wouldn't suit the content BLUtube would receive. Casual "community policing" wouldn't fly among a community of actual police.
There is plenty of public content on the site, but it's just a fraction of the 1,200 videos uploaded since BLUtube launched last year. The rest is accessible for free, but only to members who've verified they are, in fact, law enforcement community members.
That verification process requires everyone signing on with BLUtube and PoliceOne - the sites share a common membership - to enter a badge number and contact number for the agency that employs them. A member of PoliceOne's staff calls and confirms the applicant is a
sworn officer before granting access to the site.
PoliceOne has already built a member registry of 220,000 officers, according to Dippell. In building the video platform, Dippell said it was important to maintain the privacy of that community, since video content might include sensitive police tactics.
In many cases, everyone benefits when information is opened to a broader audience online. But when it comes to specific police tactics - knowledge that's only effective when kept relatively private - information sharing requires a delicate balance of openness and discretion. The goal is to reach more law enforcement officials without reaching potential criminals.
While BLUtube's privacy wall helps keep sensitive content from leaking out, it also prevents certain comments from getting in. BLUtube's typical viewer has a positive opinion of law enforcement, Dippell said, and won't leave the provocative comments the YouTube melee feeds on.
"There's a certain kind of user for whom BLUtube serves as a kind of escape," Dippell said. "Historically if you search YouTube or Google Video, you're going to find stuff with comments that are anti-police - that's the kind of sensationalistic stuff out there, so it tends to rise to the top."
Dave Smith, PoliceOne's director of multimedia and seminars, a Chicago-based law enforcement trainer, is an industry expert producing original content for BLUtube. Smith has been spreading the word about BLUtube at training sessions and conferences around the country.
"The startup has been intense, and some agencies are a little bit hesitant," Smith explained. "A lot of them don't want their agencies exposed to criticism."
Smith, who began producing police training videos in the early 1980s, is working on a series of police narratives, filming officers as they recall especially tough, and instructive, moments in their careers. The stories will be shared on BLUtube and on sister site PoliceOne TV.
While some agencies are initially wary of granting access, Smith said, PoliceOne's track record and its focus on working with people who already have a presence in the police training industry is what ultimately opens many doors.
"With my name recognition, it does help because once people know me, they know where I'm coming from," he said.
Getting recognized can be tougher for Smith than other trainers, he said, until he dons a pair of aviators and enthusiastically introduces himself as his alter ego, "Buck Savage," a bumbling but helpful Arizona State Trooper whose tongue-in-cheek (a la Dukes of Hazzard) training tips have survived despite their campiness and early '80s vintage. Incidentally "Buck Savage - Spare Tire" is one of BLUtube's top featured videos.
Six months after launching BLUtube, 150 to 175 new users signed on to PoliceOne every day, Dippell said. "BLUtube really energized a lot of people," Dippell said. "There's a huge viral effect. We may have had 10 officers at a department who may have been on the site, but now there are 100."
As with YouTube, the potential to build a community of users around online video may prove to be its most notable feature. Ford sees a need to bring police officers together into a secure online community and is encouraged so far to see BLUtube doing that.
"Law enforcement really is a tight-knit community, so the training component and the community component blend," he said.
Most user-contributed videos today are "dash cam" footage of traffic stops or TV news segments. Ford wants to augment that collection with video from professional trainers and slick minidocumentaries.
"BLUtube is really a first component," said Ford. "If it's a platform for delivering video, then the next step is to create video that meets training needs, and extend BLUtube so it
becomes as much of a training tool as it can be."
PoliceOne's umbrella company, Praetorian Group, oversees a number of sites that deliver online content to other emergency workers. Since launching PoliceOne and BLUtube, Dippell said Praetorian has rolled out similar sites, including Fire Rescue 1 and EMS 1, believing there's an audience in each of those fields that would welcome an online community and a chance to share training tips.
Future projects at PoliceOne will likely be a result of the same process that brought about BLUtube: watch what Internet users respond to and adapt it to law enforcement needs. In partnership with Cisco Systems, PoliceOne recently launched an online clearinghouse for police grants, policegrantshelp.com, with guides and articles to help with funding applications.
PoliceOne also is casting its net at a younger demographic with a new Facebook group. "There are probably a few younger officers in the academy now who might be interested in our newsletter," Dippell said. "There are some officers who may not be on Facebook, or even approve of Facebook, but it's just another way to get out there."