Tight Budgets Spur AV Uptake

Courtrooms turn to technology to help serve justice.
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When the Minnesota Supreme Court decided to upgrade its courtrooms, Minneapolis-based audiovisual integrator MSpace was tapped to integrate Vaddio camera systems into Courtroom 300. Courtroom 300 is the larger of two courtrooms used for video recording and streaming of all sessions via the Internet and local public television station KTCA-TV in St. Paul. MSpace upgraded the court’s video system with the Vaddio ProductionVIEW FX switcher and three WallVIEW PRO 300 PTZ camera systems.
It’s not surprising that courthouses are struggling to achieve more, or at least, stay on top of things, with fewer resources. Over the last couple of years, courts have undergone considerable cost-cutting measures, especially when it comes to personnel.

By Carolyn Heinze

Larry Heilman, president of Topeka, Kan.-based systems integration firm Smith Audio Visual, recounts that some states have cut their court budgets by as much as 20 percent to 30 percent, targeting clerks, assistants, and court reporters. “In many cases, the court reporters are retiring, and they’re not getting people to replace them,” he says. Court construction is down both at the federal and state levels, and many facilities close their doors for one business day a week to control expenses. Heilman says this is particularly common in the civil arena.

Smith Audio Visual manufactures its own digital recording system, 1Touch Digital, and Heilman says courts are looking to that sort of technology to offset staff reductions. “If they can’t have a court reporter, they’ve got to record somehow, some way,” he says. “A lot of courts either buy a court reporting system, or they’re going to close their courthouse.”

Video systems also respond to the need to drive cases through with fewer employees. For example, it’s much more cost-effective if a defendant’s first courtroom appearance is conducted via videoconference. “They can put them into a room with an officer, and that officer does not have to transport them,” Heilman says.

This is especially practical when the distance between the detention center and the court is great. “In many cases, they will have to drive up to an hour-and-a-half, one way, from the housing and back, a three-hour round trip just to get the defendant in front of the judge for a five-minute appearance,” says Heilman. “We ask: ‘What are your costs for man hours and expenses related to travel?’”

Oftentimes, he adds, the return on investment on a basic desktop videoconferencing system is achieved in the equivalent of three trips.

Multitrack Audio

In the audio realm, courts are now requiring that the sound from each microphone in the room be recorded to a separate channel. “There is a big increase in the request for multitrack recording in courtrooms rather than just a big MP3 file, for example,” said Barry Luz, systems applications specialist at Bosch Communications Systems. With a large MP3 file, transcription is tedious: When one wants to zero in on, say, just the judge’s microphone, it’s sometimes necessary to listen to an hour of audio between each time the judge speaks. With multitrack recording systems that feature coding to let users know which audio is assigned to which microphone, users can go back and listen to any single microphone.

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At Johnson County Courts in Olathe, Kan., the judges have a video conferencing monitor and an AMX touchscreen connected to a customized 1Touch Digital eight-channel audio recording system and AV control system. Photo Courtesy Steve Wilde, Smith Audio Visual

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Working from blueprints penned by Spectrum Engineers of Salt Lake City, Utah, Michael Bartee (pictured), audiovideo systems engineer for Huntsville, Ala.-based Quantum Technologies, was involved with the installation, configuration and programming of Lectrosonics Aspen Series SPN1624 digital matrix mixer, SPN16i input expander and SPNConference interface units for 14 courtrooms at a major Western U.S. Federal Courthouse.
Part of keeping costs under control is specifying products that are easy for systems integrators to install.

Mike Updaw, eastern regional sales manager at Ashly Audio, highlights pêma (Protea equipped media amplifier), the manufacturer’s “courtroom-in-a-box,” a self-contained auto-mixing DSP housed in a four or eight-zoned amplifier. “This allows for discreet zone routing as well as a discreet recording outputs standard,” he explains. “It doesn’t get much easier than that.”

With respect to courtroom security, Luz, who works with Bosch’s mass notification and Voice EVAC systems, noted an increase in demand for panic buttons. “There have been recent incidents where alleged criminals are brought into court, and they have been able to obtain a weapon of some kind, and then they are able to hurt people that are in the courtroom,” he says.

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Traditionally, courtrooms have been equipped with one or two panic buttons, at most, that are routed to the facility’s security desk. “We have seen a huge increase in the request that there be more panic buttons in the courtroom, which is an unfortunate reality.”

AV–IT Convergence

Whether it’s courtrooms or other government facilities, the convergence of AV and IT is continuing.

“The latest technologies in IT that interface with networked audio and video are always in demand, be it for advanced Armed Forces simulators or training facilities to something as simple as a conference room or classroom, or multiple classrooms, for that matter,” says Updaw.

“It is easy to take advantage of the vast information that is now available on a piece of Cat-5 or fiber networked cable. It is truly amazing how far the industry has advanced in such a short time regarding networking.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.


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