Patrick Johnson, The Republican
December 6, 2009
SPRINGFIELD—In the three months since local law enforcement launched a text-messaging system for anonymous tips, the system has shown it can be an effective tool to fight crime.
Officials say the challenge now is to persuade the public to use that tool more often.
Text-A-Tip, a joint operation of the Hampden district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department and the Springfield and Holyoke police, allows people to send in anonymous tips via the text-message function on their cell phones.
Officials say that in its first three months, Text-A-Tip has generated about 50 legitimate tips. That works out to an average of about four per week.
“They come in spurts,” said Sgt. John M. Delaney, aide to Police Commissioner William J. Fitchet.
When a high-profile crime is in the news, the flow of tips is pretty steady, but when times are quiet, the flow drops off to a trickle, he said. “It’s not on people’s minds.”
Raymond F. Feyre, director of operations for Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett, said that technically and logistically, Text-A-Tip has lived up to its promise.
“It is a very effective tool for law enforcement,” he said.
The biggest challenge has been spreading the word among the general public about what Text-A-Tip is and how it works, he said.
“The long-term goal is to have it marketed so that it is a fixture in everyday life, so the general public becomes really aware of its function and use,” Feyre said.
Text-A-Tip allows people to send text messages via their cell phones to police. The prime selling point is the tipster can remain anonymous, the police cannot trace the message back to the sender, and there is no fear of anyone finding out.
In an age where “no snitching” is the code on the street, Text-A-Tip allows people to do the right thing without sticking their necks out.
Delaney said police routinely go through the crowd at crime scenes looking for witnesses, and just as routinely the majority of people in the crowd will say they did not see anything.
“People don’t help us not because they don’t want to, but because they fear retribution or being labeled a rat,” Delaney said.
“With Text-A-Tip, someone could be in the crowd texting us and no one is the wiser because it is so commonplace to see young people texting each other,” he said.
Sheriff Michael J. Ashe said Text-A-Tip is not only a good example of collaboration between his department and police, it is also a simple and effective way for the public to take back neighborhoods from lawbreakers.
Text-A-Tip was first promoted by Bennett’s office last winter. It cost $2,600 to launch and another $400 per year to run. The system is in use by 600 law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada.
originating in Springfield or Holyoke are sent to a site in Canada where the tipster’s
identity is scrambled. It is then routed to the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow, where a corrections officer will read it and
forward it to Springfield, Holyoke or state police.
“Once you send it, they see it in seconds,” said Tony Bryant, director of information systems and technology at the jail.
Once the tipster’s identity is scrambled in Canada, it cannot be unscrambled, according to John Kenney, assistant superintendent of special operations for the sheriff’s department. “The anonymity is everything,” he said.
A call to 911 may be faster, but those calls are easily traced, Kenney said.
The long-term goal is to find funding to market Text-A-Tip, according to Feyre. But in the era of budget cuts, reduced resources and possible layoffs, marketing is not on the front burner, he said.
Kenney said he’d like to see Text-A-Tip advertised on the sides of PVTA buses or on billboards, but he concedes the money to do that may not be available.
For now, it is being publicized by word of mouth, in presentations at schools or neighborhood watch meetings.
There are plans to reach out to area high schools to promote Text-A-Tip, Delaney said. “That’s our age group that is going to be texting the most,” he said. “We’re trying to get the word out to them.”
How it works:
Text-A-Tip allows people to send anonymous tips to police over any cell phone that allows text messaging.
Here’s how it works:
· To send a text, messages should be addressed to “Crimes” or 274637, and should begin with the word “Solve”. This guarantees it will be routed to the Hampden County House of Correction in Ludlow and forwarded to the local police department.
· When sending in a tip, the sender should include the name of the community where the tip is relevant.
· Police recommend that people store the Text-A-Tip number in their cell phone contacts to keep it handy in the event it is needed.
· For now, only Springfield, Holyoke and the state police are participating, but Text-A-Tip is open for expansion to include other communities.