Police Use Texting for Crime Tips

Anonymous crime tips, long a staple of police investigations, are increasingly coming in by text message.

The Louisville police department became the latest this month to join the growing number of cities using text messaging in an attempt to build on the success of phone tip lines and connect to a generation of texters.

The Boston Police Department became the first to use and extensively promote texting to get tips through its Crime Stoppers unit beginning June 15 of last year, said Officer Mike Charbonnier, who oversees Boston's unit.

In the year that has followed, the department has received nearly as many text tips (678) as phone calls (727), he said.

Cities including Seattle, Fresno, San Diego, Tampa and Kansas City, have begun using text messaging in the past three months, according to Kevin Anderson, owner of Anderson Software, which designed the technology being used by many departments.

There are about 100 other communities considering it and making plans to use it, Anderson said. Before school starts again in September, Anderson said he expects San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and Pittsburgh to be on board. The cost for the software is about $50 a month for an unlimited number of messages, he said.

Jim Pasco, Executive Director of the National Fraternal Order of Police said police departments across the country are trying to keep pace with communications technology and maximize the ways people can provide them with "potentially valuable public safety information."

"What I have heard is that these systems are very highly thought of," Pasco said.

The first tip the Boston system got led to an arrest in a homicide case from New Hampshire, Charbonnier said.

"A lot of the information is relevant," Charbonnier said. The systems protect the tipster's identity by sending the original message through a third-party service that scrambles the phone number and then sends the message on to the police, Anderson said. Police can text back the tipster if they choose, because the original message is given a random code that connects to the sender's phone, he said.

Text messaging has some benefits that traditional phone lines don't, said Terry Halsch, president of Citizen Observer, the company Louisville uses to handle the text messaging and to provide e-mail crime alerts.

Text messaging can be done silently, Halsch said. It also requires less battery power than a phone call, which may mean that a text message works when no phone signal does or the phone's battery is low, he added.

Halladay reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville.