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Source: McGrath Power   Meribah Knight/MEDILL


Anonymous text tip line needs more face time

by Meribah Knight
Feb 05, 2009


Meribah Knight/MEDILL

 To text a tip, Text CPD plus your message to CRIMES (274637) on your cell phone or mobile device.

How it works

Using a text-enabled phone, tipsters type in the word “tip” to the tip line number.

Messages sent to the tip line are then scrambled by two different servers, one that encrypts the number and another applies a unique code to it.

The information is then sent on to police investigators. To maintain complete anonymity, tipsters receive a six-digit code and use that code during all discussions with investigators.

Investigators can then text the tipster back, using a random code that connects to the tipster’s phone, enabling interactive communication.

This software is called TipSoft SMS program and was developed by Anderson Software.

It’s the code of the streets: Stop snitchin'. It is emblazoned on t-shirts, DVDs and endorsed by rappers like Cam’ron and Busta Rhymes.

Nobody talks to the police, or else they face a different authority.

“It’s the biggest problem in my community, especially with the young men,” said Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, a nonprofit located in Altgeld Gardens housing development on Chicago’s South Side.

In attempt to combat this issue, which police say has hindered many cases from being solved, the Chicago Police Department is trying a different approach.

Text-a-Tip, developed by Crime Stoppers, is an anonymous text message tip line aimed at youngsters who might otherwise be afraid to come forward with information.

Be discrete, text-a-tip and help solve a crime.

That’s the theory. But only 36 messages have been received since its inception in September.
Officials say fighting the mentality of silence has been to blame, but others say poor marketing is a big factor in the light response: Few people are even aware that the service exists.

Exhibit A is Nate Brown, 20, a mechanical engineering student at DeVry University. He identified himself as once being part of the problem, said this week he had no idea the tip line even existed, but added, “it is a great way to encourage kids to talk.”

Exhibit B is the Boston Police Department’s Crime Stoppers program. A text tip service was instituted in 2007. Boston was the first department in the U.S. to allow anonymous tipsters to send text messages.

Boston’s crime rate is significantly lower that that of Chicago’s, but its texting hotline received 694 messages in its first year alone. Experts attribute the difference in volume to a more aggressive marketing campaign in Boston.

J.R. Davis, director for the Chicago Crime Commission said the Chicago service could be more beneficial if were marketed more vigorously. “There is a connection between marketing and volume,” he said.

Boston launched an extensive advertising campaign to inform residents about the new service, with posters stating, “You are not right to remain silent.”
In Chicago, “the promotion was only limited to a press conference,” and then announcements were made at 10 public high schools, said George McDade, chairman of Cook County Crime Stoppers.

McDade said there are no other plans to extend awareness about the service. Calls to the Chicago Police Department regarding the future of the campaign were not returned.

Considering Chicago’s murder rate is nearly two times that of Boston’s, getting the word out about its new service is paramount, advocates said.
Within the first few months of its implementation, Boston’s hotline helped solved two homicides, the Boston Herald reported.

While Cook County Crime Stoppers does not share stories of arrests made from tips, McDade did say that so far one recent text tip had placed a wanted individual in custody at a Chicago airport.

Once people were informed of the text tip service’s existence, many Chicagoans reacted positively.
Jessica Winston, a mother of three from Englewood, said it would be “good for those who are too afraid to speak up. There should be more emphasis that this is available to them.”

Brown, the DeVry student, acknowledged that when he was involved in criminal circles he would not have used the service if it had existed. “I have been there before and haven’t said anything—it’s the code,” he said.

He did think the new service would encourage many people not directly involved in criminal activities to become potential texting tipsters.

“When something happens in the neighborhood, everyone knows,” he said. “Most people who are doing these things are not well-liked in the community.”

The police reported on Jan. 16 that in 39 percent of 2008 homicides there was a mutual acquaintance between victims and offenders. Tapping into a community’s network with an anonymous tip line could increase conviction rates.

According to a study by Dr. Rick Frei, a professor of psychology at the Community College of Philadelphia, “the more the situation [tipping] requires the person to take initiative, the more likely it is to be viewed as snitching.”
Because an anonymous texting line is discreet, silent and does not require speaking to an officer, tipsters are less likely to worry that their actions will cause repercussions.

Davis said that fear of being known as a snitch is a big problem in Chicago.
“Retaliation is a fact of life today,” he said. “Anonymity is crucial.”