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Volume 21 No. 34
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Smartphones on front lines

Body cameras / Visual labs

New technology using smartphones as body-worn cameras helps big league teams keep their fans safe, early adopters on the West Coast say.

Visual Labs, a 3-year-old Silicon Valley firm, developed a web-based software program customized for Android devices, which are mounted on the chest of crowd management staff at sports venues. Staff members can press a button on the device to record video of an incident, and those images are delivered in real time to the facility’s security command center.

The technology, similar to the body cameras worn by some law enforcement, gives facility operators a clearer picture of the incident so they can make a better decision to resolve it.

Major League Soccer is one example. In a sport that draws large groups of hardcore supporters for both the home and visiting teams, the Visual Labs system has been a deterrent for reckless behavior, said Dave Kaval, president of the Oakland A’s and former president of the San Jose Earthquakes.

To date, the vendor has deals with the San Francisco 49ers and Portland Timbers, as well as the Earthquakes, the firm’s first client.

Separately, Visual Labs has deals, pending signed contracts, with MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Jets and Giants, plus the A’s, who are in talks with Visual Labs to use the system in a pilot program next season, Kaval said.

The cost, depending on the number of events at the facility and the number of devices in use, runs from $25,000 to $50,000 a year, said Alexander Popof, Visual Labs’ chief operating officer.

For the teams, there’s value in the technology, because now they have a point-blank video document providing them with liability protection.

“There’s accountability and transparency,” Popof said. “It shows they have nothing to hide.”

That’s been the case in San Jose, where the Quakes first used the system in May 2015. The video recording aspect helps keep a line of separation between rival supporters groups. It’s an affordable system and a smart option to collect additional feedback from the first line of defense, Kaval said.

“It’s been fantastic … a godsend,” he said. “Fans see the body cameras and know they can’t pull a fast one and talk their way out of it.”

The 49ers saw the system at Avaya Stadium and tested it at Levi’s Stadium in 2016 before expanding to 100 units for the 2017 season.

In one incident this season, the 49ers asked a drunk and unruly fan to leave the game. The fan was on the ground, yelling that security officials were hurting him, when in fact they weren’t even touching him, Popof said.

“You could see on the body camera that he was just sitting there,” he said. “At one point, one of the security guys told him, ‘Sir, you’re embarrassing yourself.’ It was kind of funny.”

Elsewhere, the technology was tested at the 2015 MLS Cup at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus. Last summer, Visual Labs also conducted a test at the U2 concert at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins. The Redskins have not signed a deal to use the devices, Popof said.

The tech firm has had conversations with Cathy Lanier, the NFL’s head of security, about the body camera technology becoming part of the league’s best practices in security, Popof said. At this point, no decision has been made.