Talking to tipsters

Web sites and text messages allow valuable, anonymous communication


     "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.

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