Talking to tipsters

     For years, an officer answered the phone at his desk and wrote crime tips by hand. Today, telephone answering services record tips and electronically forward them where they need to go. While landline telephone technology has advanced over time, other technologies useful for gathering tips have been gaining popularity.

     About half of the 200 to 250 anonymous crime tips coming into Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay Inc. each month are sent by someone using the Internet.

     "A lot of people like Web tipping because they don't have to talk to anyone and no one hears their voice," says Det. Lisa Haber, program coordinator for Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay Inc.

     Their voices aren't recorded and can't be identified by a voice recognition system.

     For the same reasons, anonymous text message tips from cell phones are becoming popular, too. Schools and law enforcement agencies around the world, including the Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City police departments, are now making Web tips and SMS text tipping available in their communities.

     Technologies that allow tipsters to communicate with officers via the Internet or text messages benefit tipsters and law enforcement.

     Haber describes law enforcement's ability to have ongoing anonymous two-way communication in one word: "priceless."

     On the phone, officers rarely have the opportunity to ask more questions. An informant may call once and never again, leaving many unanswered questions as the investigation unfolds.

     Larry Wieda, executive director of the Northern Colorado Crime Stoppers and past president of Crime Stoppers International Inc., says informants feel more comfortable with ongoing communications through the Web or text messages with no fear of their identities being compromised.

Keeping tipsters anonymous

     They don't need to be concerned either, at least not with TipSoft tip management software from Anderson Software LLC. When police officers use the TipSoft system, no one can obtain a tipster's IP address or, in the case of text messaging, an originating cell phone number. The TipSoft system is made secure and anonymous using a system of encrypted aliases, explains Anderson Software President Kevin Anderson.

Using TipSoft WebTips and TipSoft SMS

     TipSoft WebTips, released in 2005, is the Web-based component of TipSoft. To submit a tip in the Tampa Bay area, for example, people can go to www.crimestopperstb.com. Here they can click on a button to submit tips, and a form will come up on the screen for them to fill out. After they've submitted the form, they receive an automatic response with their tip number. They can also set up a password to log back into the system and have a two-way dialog.

     Within a few seconds of an informant submitting a tip, the tip is received in the TipSoft application and notifications can be sent to officers via e-mail. If they want more information, they can quickly reply back to the tipster through the online tip management application or even remotely through a secure application via their PDA. If tipsters are not immediately available, they often check back. Haber says tipsters who provide information using the Web or text messages are usually good about checking to see if she has sent them a message in reply. And if she asks for additional information, she says they are good about providing it.

     A dialog can last minutes, hours or even days. In one example, a lengthy text tip exchange led to the arrest of a fugitive felon.

     Tampa Bay receives many tips that lead to arrests on fugitive warrants, but the majority of the tips that come in are narcotics-related.

     When tips report the location of a fugitive, protocols are set up to notify dispatch centers. Tip lines, Web tips or text tips, however, should not be used for emergency communications and agencies need to remind the public of that.

     "If someone witnesses a crime in progress or someone is hurt or needs law enforcement assistance right away, that should always be a 911 call," Haber says.

Photos: a favorite feature

     A favorite Web tipping feature among law enforcement is the ability to receive photos. Haber received one tip in which the person went to a perpetrator's MySpace page to get pictures of him committing a crime and uploaded them to Crime Stoppers with a tip.

     In Boulder, Colorado, Crime Stoppers was sent photos not only of a suspect but the vehicle being used to transport drugs across county and state lines. In all, Anderson says the TipSoft system has received thousands of photos via the Web. Currently, Anderson Software is working with multiple wireless carriers and its aggregator to be able to accept images and video from cell phones hopefully in the near future.

Texting in schools

     The number of text tips through TipSoft SMS (Short Message Service) is expected to increase after people learn more about text tipping. Champaign, Illinois, plans to do more advertising (on billboards) and spread the word about text tipping in the schools.

     "Kids text all the time," says Deputy Chief Troy Daniels of the Champaign Police Department, who is the coordinator for Champaign County Crime Stoppers. "They will text each other even if they are sitting right next to each other.

     "We want to provide a method for kids to communicate with us and keep their identity safe," Daniels adds.

     When students were interviewed after the Columbine incident and others, Wieda says they said if they were given a program that allowed them to stay anonymous — and they didn't have to worry about retaliation or retribution — they would use it.

     "People want to help but often they're afraid of being identified," he says.

The value of anonymity

     An informant's identity does not need to be known for the intelligence to be valuable. Crime Stoppers has proven the value of anonymous tips over 32 years with almost 470,000 arrests, almost 800,000 cases cleared, more than $1 billion in stolen property recovered, and more than $3 billion in drugs seized.

     A command investigations officer, Daniels points out agencies can spend thousands of dollars investigating an unsolved serious felony. "One tip from the public can cut the amount of time we spend on a case tremendously, without question," he says.

     It can mean the difference between a long, drawn-out and costly investigation and a quick and clean resolution requiring minimal efforts, Anderson adds. "Good police work will always be required and essential to prove up any tip," he emphasizes, "but when a tip can serve as a corroborating piece of the investigative puzzle, it can save an agency a tremendous amount of time, effort and money, and possibly prevent future crimes by removing an offender from the population more quickly."

     The annual TipSoft subscription is saved many times over every year because of the cases solved and the criminals taken off the street, Daniels says, noting agencies may not have to foot the bill. Crime Stoppers, with a grant from State Farm Insurance, pays for officers to use TipSoft in Champaign, Illinois.

     The amount of funding necessary to implement the TipSoft system is minimal compared to the return a community sees on its investment, Wieda says. When tips were being taken by phone and written on paper, Wieda estimated one tip could save an officer about 100 hours. With information now moving at computer speed, he says investigators can save even more time.

Integrated tip management

     Some agencies have had their in-house IT staff or a contractor work on a tip software system for them. To those who have or who are thinking about doing so, Anderson warns security and anonymity do not come easily or with a quick fix. A tip management program needs to be well structured and completely integrated, he says.

     Also, simply receiving and replying to tips is not nearly the same as being able to manage hundreds or thousands of tips in a single database application that provides easy dissemination, queries, reporting and disposition tracking of each tip, he says.

     TipSoft allows e-mailing or faxing directly from the database, and helps officers keep a complete and accurate log of where the tips are sent and when they are received. When an officer has hundreds of tips or more, Daniels says the ability to query tips is very helpful. Champaign County receives more than 500 tips each year. Four to five months after a tip has come in, he says the drug unit might come back and ask if a tip came in with a specific address or name. Without the ability to query tips, finding something like that is difficult. TipSoft allows officers to make queries based on the words in the narrative so officers can find what they're looking for in a matter of seconds.

The surface of human intel

     Champaign County began using TipSoft about three years ago and started accepting Web tips in December 2007. Since then, more than 150 tips have been received through the Internet. Many of them led to an arrest. Daniels says the most substantial tip included digital photos of the suspect that led to the arrest of seven burglars, the recovery of a stolen shotgun, a stolen rifle and a stolen vehicle.

     "There was a lot of fear in the neighborhood because of the number of residential burglaries that were occurring, and this tipster was able to take the entire group of burglars out of commission," Daniels says.

     In Champaign County, more than 1,000 arrests have been made based on tips. While this is good news, he says it barely scratches the surface of human intelligence.

     "We have to market to people, we have to explain to people that there are different ways to contact us anonymously," he says.

     Haber foresees a time when fewer and fewer calls are made to tip lines, and more are made through texting and the Internet. "We have to focus on the Internet and texting — that's how people are communicating today," she says. "They're moving away from making phone calls. Web tipping and text tipping are 24/7 and allow people to immediately do what they want to do."

     From a Crime Stoppers' perspective — and even from a community policing perspective, she says, "It's all about empowering your community to take an active part in policing themselves and these are great tools for that."

     Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at kanable@charter.net.

Reporting aggressive drivers

     When teenagers dangerously sped past Alvin Butler Sr. on his way to church, he thought there ought to be a way to report aggressive driving, especially among teens. Thinking about his own 15-year-old daughter, who had sent 11,000 text messages in a month, he came up with a way. Butler, president and CEO of Text Them In Inc., worked with wire2air to create a nationwide system.

     Text Them In allows cell phone users to anonymously report a dangerous driver by texting the license plate, state, color and location information along with what happened to TEXTIN (839846). (Example: abcd123 md speeding passing on shoulder 197 bowie state.) If the vehicle's license plate and owner are registered at the Web site (www.textthemin.com), a text message or e-mail immediately is sent to the owner notifying him or her of the incident. The system can be useful not only for parents of teen drivers, but for businesses and fleet managers who need to make sure their drivers are driving safely.

     While reports also can be made from www.textthemin.com, drivers are encouraged to pull over to the side of the road to report aggressive motorists. Text messaging is more effective and quicker, and when someone reports a teen driver, for example, the teen's parent receives a text message or e-mail within 2 minutes, Butler explains. "That allows for immediate, corrective action," he says.

     Butler realized the program could be very powerful when a close friend, who admitted he was an aggressive driver, said he didn't like the program encouraging millions of additional eyes to be on the look out for aggressive drivers.

     "He told me, 'Right now all I have to do is look out for police,' " he says. "'With this, anyone can report me.'"

     Butler wants to change the mindset of aggressive drivers and he'll get them in the pocketbook, if needed, by building a system comparable to credit reporting. An insurance company looking to insure a driver would be able to enter a license plate number and receive a report on the driver of that vehicle.

     With 30,000 to 100,000 text messages coming per month, Butler says the system also could help law enforcement locate stolen vehicles and vehicles involved in crimes by putting the license plates on a watch list and notifying law enforcement when they are reported.

Revealing student identities

     AnComm's "Talk About It," an online messaging and emergency notification service for schools, allows students to remain anonymous — unless a faculty or staff member asks AnComm for a student identification. Students understand their identities will not be revealed whimsically but will be revealed immediately when necessary.

     AnComm President Carter Myers tells students, "If you threaten your life, the life of another or an entity, you will have your ID compromised." Already at the start of the current school year, a school responded to a suicide threat made using the messaging service.

     Looking at the approximately 24,000 reports made by students in 150 schools last school year, AnComm revealed the identity of students about 60 times. (Today AnComm serves more than 220 elementary, middle and high schools.)

     During the same time, about 20 percent of the students opted to include their names, according to AnComm.

     "To me, that reinforces that children are crying out for help," Myers says.

     While the messaging service can be accessed through a school's Web site or by texting, he says text messaging is more popular because it's their chief means of communication, even if the use of cell phones isn't permitted in the schools.

     To use the "Talk About It" service online, students use an ID and a password, provided by AnComm, to log in. The service differs from e-mail because the messages are sent anonymously and students must select from drop-down menus a topic to describe their problem (whether it relates to security issues, personal problems or school problems) and a person with whom they want to build a dialog and make a connection with (someone who knows the school's environment: faculty, staff, school resource officer). The service is designed to automatically blind copy law enforcement when messages include words, such as bomb or weapons, that could signify a serious threat.

     "It really just takes one message to understand the value," Myers says.

     If students send false reports, they lose their privileges after one warning. Last school year, seven out of 150,000 students were deactivated.

     Common problems reported by students last year include drugs and cutting or self injury. Using "Talk About It," schools can generate reports to show the number of messages per topic and determine where they need to reinforce prevention and education efforts. Reports can be broken down by grade level.

     When students first log in, they are required to participate in a school climate survey. Students are asked to fill out the same survey at the end of the year. Faculty and staff then can see how students perceive the safety of their school.

     Schools also can use the online service to send out an emergency alert to the entire school community or to send out a notice to a specific group of individuals to let them know there's a last-minute meeting.

Loading