July 3, 2008

Police Recruiting Text Tipsters

Cities are now asking citizens to use their thumbs to report criminal activities, identifying bad guys using text messages.

Police hope this urges teens and 20-somethings to share information with authorities who normally wouldn't.

"If somebody hears Johnny is going to bring a gun to school, hopefully they'll text that in," said Sgt. Brian Bernardi of the Louisville, Ky., Metro Police Department, which rolled out its text-message tip line in June.

Boston and Cincinnati departments started accepting anonymous text tips about a year ago. Since then, more than 100 communities have taken similar steps. The Internet-based systems route messages through a server that encrypts cell phone numbers before they get to police, making tips virtually impossible to track.

Bernardi's computer displayed a text message from a person identified only as "Tip563" earlier this week in Louisville.  It said, "Someone has vandalized the school van at valor school on bardstown rd in fern creek." The note also reported illegal dumping in a trash container and in the woods.

"It's obvious that the future of communication is texting," said officer Michael Charbonnier, commander of the Boston Police Department's Crime Stoppers unit. "You look at these kids today and that's all they're doing. You see five kids standing on the corner, and they're texting instead of having a conversation with each other."

The first text tip Boston received when the system started, led to an arrest in a New Hampshire slaying.  In 12 months, Boston police logged 678 text tips, nearly matching the 727 phone tips during the same period.

A text tip led to the arrest of a notorious suspect in a drug case earlier this year.

"We've gotten some great drug information, specific times, dates, names of suspects, locations, pickup times, license plate numbers," Charbonnier said. In another instance, a hearing-impaired man who could not call 911 used a text message to report a domestic violence incident.

Tampa, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Detroit have started their own text-based tip systems since the beginning of this year.  The technology they are using is provided by Texas-based Anderson Software. Many cities are adding the text messages to a system that already accepted anonymous tips through a Web site.

Lisa Haber, a sheriff's detective who heads the Tampa-area Crime Stoppers unit, recently spent an hour exchanging 21 text messages with a tipster about a possible stolen car.

"It's got a lot of potential," said Cincinnati police Lt. David Fink, whose agency has collected about five text tips a month since adopting the system in May 2007. "Just like when we started Crime Stoppers 27 years ago, it took some time for it to catch on."

An 18-year-old incoming freshman at the University of Tampa, Sarah Coss, thinks people who use text messaging every day will be more likely to report crimes that way, and the impersonal nature of text messaging will give more people her age the confidence to share information with authorities.

"It might take a while for people to know about it and get more comfortable with it, and for people to know it's really anonymous, and they're not going to get in trouble," she said.

Text tipsters can collect rewards for significant information. It's done with the cooperation of banks that hand over the cash "” no questions asked "” to people who present a code issued by police.

Officers say it may take time to get used to the way younger people type in their text. 

"We were kind of nervous about that, having to learn a new code language," Bernardi chuckled.