Visual effects: Video monitors help courts stay in touch with the times

Court-goers scan the monitors in Genesee County Circuit Court to locate cases of interest.

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Those video monitors used to track arrivals and departures for travelers aren’t just for airports anymore.
Now, the video screens are being used in all Genesee County courts to aid parties arriving for civil matters, or to put victims in the right court when a convict departs for jail.
In fact, the electronic daily docket monitors will announce every case for each county court, and show what court, judge and building the matter is being heard.
Genesee Circuit Court Administrator Barbara A. Menear said the new electronic monitors, which previewed on August 30, accomplish many things — and also save the county dollars spent by employees who daily had to run dockets for each court, make numerous copies and then post the paper schedules at each courtroom.
“It’s just a win-win, really,” she said.
The idea to go visual has been brewing for a few years, Menear said. Rob Gifford, the Circuit Court technology coordinator, went to a tech meeting in Las Vegas for the National Center for State Courts several years back and returned with glowing reviews of how the docket monitors were being used in the Nevada court complex.
“You learn a lot of cutting-edge things (at these seminars), some of which you can afford, some of which has merit, and some of which you discard,” she said.
“I thought (the electronic monitors) would be great here…(but)…I didn‘t see any way possible to fund it,” she said.
So the idea was put on the back-burner, and the courts daily hearings continued to be posted for the public the old-fashioned way.
And not just for circuit court, but for Probate Court and the two district courts in Genesee County, the 67th and 68th.
Each day, clerks for each court would print out the dockets for the seven circuit court judges, several Probate and Family Court judges, and the nine or so Flint and out-county District Court judges.
But problems with that system were continually evident. The Circuit and Probate courts are located in one building, and the district courts in another several blocks away.
And each day, deputies, court clerks and other staff would be stopped by people, asking where the case they were associated with was being held.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people we have who come in here and don’t know what judge they’re supposed to be at,” Menear said. “They didn’t know what floor, what judge, what proceeding, because they were just not familiar with the courts.”
And that did not include the people who walked into the circuit court building but really belonged in the district court building four blocks away.
“That happened multiple times a day, and I mean many multiple times a day, that someone comes here when they belong down the street,” Menear said.
Another problem was that occasionally, the dockets would be ripped down outside the judge’s courtroom, sometimes because so many people were flipping through the pages, and sometimes because of anger over what happened earlier in the court.
So people appearing for later court proceedings could not even access the information they needed. And staff would have no way of knowing what court docket was missing.
Menear said people in wheelchairs couldn’t reach the paper dockets to read either.
“Those were the things that really drove us to look at the electronic docket system,” she said.
Steps to solve those problems began earlier this year when a one-time funding opportunity arose, and Menear was able to collaborate efforts with administrators from the Probate and district courts, and for sharing some costs with the city of Flint.
The Genesee County Board of Commissioners also gave approval for the project, and the county Purchasing Department handled the bidding process, which was awarded to Infax, a company that designs, builds and maintains electronic message display systems currently used in many airports, courts and train stations.
Menear said Infax “is a real pioneer” in applying the electronic monitors and software into other applications.
Its court system is named “Docket Call” and cost about $35,000, she said.
Once the system was approved, Menear said she and the other court administrators discussed how it could be best used after viewing a demonstration from Infax.
She said the district court administrators and their tech staff were especially helpful.
“They really saw more applications than we did because there are tenants in that building that are not court related,” Menear said.
The McCree building house not only the 67th and 68th district courts, but also several other county departments.
“They have more foot traffic in that building, so the faster you can get the court foot traffic to know where to go, the better it is all the way around.”
After a two-week period for installation and software configuration, and a training session for staff, the system was put in operation.
Four large monitors are located at entry points to each building. In addition, smaller monitors are located by each of the three 67th District Court rooms that display inf
But the other monitors, no matter the location, display all the cases for each day in every court, by last names of the party, the judge, location and time of the event.
“It’s just a lot more efficient,” Menear said.
The monitors are timed to rotate about every 12 seconds, so if the matter you are seeking has a name that starts with Z, and the monitor is on A, it will only take a minute or so to get to the information you need.
Also, the information is displayed for four hours before the court event, and for three hours after.
“And the real beauty is that now it can be accurate, and if a case is adjourned or moved to another courtroom or another time, that can be changed,” Menear said.
“People love it,” she said. “We’re a visual society, and people are used to looking at airport screens. And younger people are used to video games, cell phones and other things where a screen is a very common place to look for information.”
The system also saves on staff time running paper dockets and posting at each individual court.
“It’s all part of working smarter and more efficient“ with dwindling staff and budget constraints most government agencies are facing.
Dena Altheide, 67th District Court administrator, said the system has been “wonderful,” and the response “positive.”
Altheide, Paula J. McGlown, 68th District Court administrator, and the Probate Court Administrator, James N. Bauer, said they have each saved on staff time, and the time-consuming questions the public asked each day because court-goers were confused on where to go.
“Now it’s all right there in a readable form,” said Bauer. “And with staff reductions, they can be more productive, and every little bit helps.”
Menear said everyone wants to give the new system time to operate before new things are added, such as emergency messages at the bottom of the track, or other information the public needs to see.
“But so far, people love it,” Menear said.
She said people stop at the information desk, which is staffed by volunteers, and tell them the new system is great.
 The information desk people are not as bombarded with questions and people standing five-deep, wondering where they are supposed to go, she said.
The electronic age for arrivals and departures, as far as the Genesee County courts are concerned, is here.

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