The problem in Boston was not the number of violent crimes (which had indeed been rising), but the “code of silence and lack of cooperation” from the community, according to Boston Police Department (BPD) spokesperson Elaine Driscoll. Boston has had a Crime Stoppers tip line in place for a decade, but use had dwindled and a new commissioner—Ed Davis, who took the helm in December 2006—needed ideas.
Area advertising agency Hill Holliday took an interest and created, along with VeriSign Inc. and the BPD, the Crime Stoppers Mobile Program, which launched on June 15 and allows people to anonymously send text messages with information about a crime to the police. The line—the first of its kind in the country—was developed with the hope that community members are more likely to provide information if there is no chance of being linked to that information.
“We had initially thought that the target audience would be business and real-estate owners. Yet what we heard from the homicide investigators is that they may know something, and will speak up if they can, but the group that really knows something is the kids,” explains Will Keyser, SVP of public affairs for Hill Holliday. “Texting was embedded in this community and [officers] were seeing kids showing up at crime scenes and texting to each other who had been shot, who had not been shot,” and other details of the crime scene, which reaffirmed for Keyser and his team that texting was the avenue to pursue.
“We began drafting a program flow and ultimately defined it working hand in glove with homicide detectives and the Crime Stoppers unit. It’s difficult because you only have 160 characters per text, but we think we came up with something that works,” says Keyser. A tipster sends the word “TIP” to 27463 (CRIME); they receive a prompt that explains an emergency situation warrants a call to 911, then gives the tipster a six-digit code, which they are to use for all future correspondence. The tipster is then asked about the type of crime, using a multiple choice prompt.
“Some of the messages are automated and then, based on the responses, the operator chat begins,” says Robert Kramer, VeriSign’s director of sales for media and entertainment, which includes mobile messaging. That combination has been successfully applied by VeriSign in the past; the Crime Stoppers tool was based in part on work the company had done for clients like American Idol, for whom VeriSign created a post-show moderated chat feature.
VeriSign was careful to completely mask telephone numbers used to send tips in an effort to increase community involvement. “There is no way to trace the call to a specific number; it is routed through the carrier then masked,” according to Keyser. “The essence of the program is that people have confidence in it being anonymous, so it’s vital that the anonymity piece work.” The queue that holds call details is wiped clean regularly; Keyser likens the process to Caller ID blocking on a telephone. “The officers never see any numbers; the incoming message is identified only with a code,” confirms Kramer.
The program reminds tipsters to delete all sent and received messages from their phone, lest someone discover that they are informing the police. Tipsters can opt out at any time by texting “STOP” to CRIME, or can ask for program details by texting “HELP.” As with the traditional Crime Stoppers program, information leading to an arrest and indictment may result in a reward of up to $1,000.
Thus far, the program has been a success. “In the first week alone we received 50 tips. Prior to that, with the phone line, we had been receiving 30 to 50 a month,” says Driscoll, adding that the text line has renewed use of the phone line as well.
Driscoll says incoming tips have related to homicides and other violent crimes as well as community concerns surrounding anticipated retaliation. “It’s very difficult to quantify prevention,” admits Driscoll, but says that the department has, on at least one occasion, increased police presence in a given area based on information from a tip.
Both VeriSign and Hill Holliday see potential for similar tip lines around the country as the widespread adoption of texting and ease of implementation create a tipping point. “Obviously targeting youth is the sweet spot for mobile, but you’re seeing a trend in either direction. The pre-teenage crowd is being issued phones and older people are texting. It’s not ubiquitous, but it’s a viable communication channel,” says Kramer.
(www.cityofboston.gov/police; www.hhcc.com; www.verisign.com)