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Police turning to “Text Tipsters”

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

CRIME: LAPD may seek help from youths using cell technology.

By Rachel Uranga, Staff Writer

For years, the LAPD has received crime tips from nervous callers hoping to remain anonymous as they fumble through intimidating questions with police tip-takers.

But in a bid to get more young people to come forward with information to help snare criminals, the department could join a growing number of law enforcement agencies who are encouraging people to text message tips via cell phones.

“It’s a good deal because the younger generation is very text-savvy,” said Lt. Mathew St. Pierre, head of the LAPD’s investigative analysis section.

St. Pierre, whose unit determines what technologies are best suited for the department, said the Los Angeles Police Department is considering setting up a text and online tip service, but there are no immediate plans to do so. Last year the department began working with a company to develop a 911
system that would accept cell-phone pictures from witnesses.

Meanwhile, dozens of other police agencies – from Boston to San Diego – already are taking anonymous tips online and via text message.

The very first day Boston police started accepting text messaging, a tip led to the arrest of a New Hampshire homicide suspect. In Ventura County, cops have nabbed wanted felons through text and online tips. And beginning this fall in San Diego, high school student IDs will include their cell-phone

“It’s the future,” said Cmdr. Michael Charbonnier, the Boston Police Department’s contact for Crime Stoppers, an international program dedicated to rewarding anonymous tipsters for information leading to arrests and convictions.

Since the department implemented its text program last year, tips have doubled, with nearly half coming in from text messaging. This year, the department logged 720 phone tips and 698 text-messaging tips.

“Sometimes it’s the only info and sometimes it’s the piece of the puzzle that led to the arrest,” Charbonnier said. “But it’s a reality in policing. Some people just aren’t comfortable with calling 911.”

At least 70 law enforcement agencies have added text messaging to their tip lines and 100 others are in the process of adopting a text-messaging system, said Kevin Anderson, the CEO of Anderson Software LLC, a Texas-based company that provides the service for $50 a month.

In the South Bay, however, no police departments or the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have such a system.

“It sounds innovative,” Hermosa Beach police Sgt. Paul Wolcott said.

Torrance police and sheriff’s officials say they are working on a text message-based tip system.

“Currently our system is not able to accept text messages from the outside,” Torrance police Officer Dave Crespin said. “We are in the process of seeing how we can change our system to accept that.”

Hawthorne police do not have a system to accept text messages, but they do receive tips online.

“The closest thing we have is from e-mail,” Hawthorne police Lt. Mike Ishii said. “We do get them on our Website.”

El Camino College is installing a new system that will allow text messages to be sent to students to inform them of an emergency. The system, however, will not accept tips.

In Boston, here’s how the system works: After text messaging CRIME via a cell phone, a confirmation pops back. “Thx. We’ll ask U a few questions. Remember, ur tip is 100% anonymous. If this is an emergency, hang up & dial 911. Txt HELP 4 info/STOP 2 end. Std rates apply.”

A few seconds later another text comes in.

“CS: Your tip best fits into which category? A. Violent crime; B. Drugs; C. Gang activity; D. Other. Reply with A, B, C or D to continue.” On the other end sit four sworn officers who field the calls and text
message back and forth to determine if they warrant investigation or are the rare prank.

The technology is especially appealing for a generation that relies on instant messaging and texting and who often consider the cell phone an appendage.

“Kids don’t make phone calls, they text,” said Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, specializing in how people interact with technology.

“This comes up everywhere. It even comes up with how you notify about potential danger,” he said, noting the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, where officials e-mailed students but failed to text message them. The result, he said, was a lot of unaware students.

Still, the LAPD’s St. Pierre says there really is no substitute to one-on-one interviewing of a witness.

“You really want to talk to those witnesses,” he said. “(Texting) is a useful tool, but as an investigator you always want a chance to talk to the witness because there are things you can gain from conversation that you just can’t get from words.”
Article Last Updated: 06/30/2008 11:51:40 PM PDT