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Boston Police Turn to Text Messages to Fight Crime

Boston Police Turn to Text Messages to Fight Crime

In a recent announcement, the city unveiled the new initiative, which officials hope will revitalize the longstanding program so it's used by more citizens to report violent crimes

Text a message and help solve a crime.

That's the message the US Boston Police Department is sending out with the start of its first-ever program that now lets mobile phone users send anonymous text message crime tips to the city's Crime Stoppers anonymous tip line.

In a recent announcement, the city unveiled the new initiative, which officials hope will revitalize the longstanding program so it's used by more citizens to report violent crimes. With Crime Stoppers, citizens can anonymously call in — or now send text messages about — crime tips that can help police solve violent crimes.

"We were finding at crime scenes that while we were setting up investigations, we were seeing more young people who were texting each other" on mobile phones, telling their friends what they were seeing, said Boston Police Officer Cecil Jones, the commander of the Crime Stoppers unit. "We just felt that if that's something that they're going to be doing, we felt it would be a good resource. If they felt safe doing that at crime scenes, maybe it could put more information into police hands."

Getting young people involved in reporting crime is seen as a key to improving crime-fighting efforts, he said. While the Crime Stoppers telephone hotline has been around for some 10 years in Boston, it is primarily used by residents over 30. "I really believe that we need to get to the younger generation," Jones said. "They're out there [where crime is happening]. They're part of the problem and part of the solution. We feel we need to get to these younger adults who have to live with this war of gang violence."

Boston officials say they believe the city's Crime Stoppers texting ability is the first such program in the nation.

According to the CTIA, a US-based wireless communications trade group, mobile users sent 18.7 billion text messages in the month of December 2006, up 92 percent from 9.7 billion messages in December 2005. Text messaging is the preferred channel for many teens and those in 18-24 age demographic, according to the group. More than 70 percent of young adults in that age group and almost 60 percent of teens send text messages every month, according to US-based M:Metrics, a mobile audience data measurement business.

Since the texting tip line program began in Boston, about 35 text messages had been received in just one morning, Jones said. Some reported drug sales activity, including information on one drug delivery suspect that detailed the vehicle he drives, licence plate numbers and even the location of a Dunkin Donuts store where the suspect regularly stops to eat.

One early Crime Stoppers text message came in the first day to report an assault and murder which was forwarded to police, Jones said. "Within six hours of the announcement, we got information on [the] homicide through a text message," he said. "This information puts police on the right path." Reports to Crime Stoppers often come in with details about crimes in other jurisdictions, he said, and they are passed on to the appropriate police departments. "With the increased awareness of the tip line and the added option of sending a tip by text message, we hope that those who have always wanted to do the right thing, but have not spoken up for fear of reprisal, will help us," Boston Police Commission Ed Davis said in a statement. "We need information. We need help."

The department had to deploy handheld Research in Motion LLC Blackberries to Crime Stoppers staff members so they could get incoming text messages — even if they are away from their desks, Davis said. The effort is expected to cost about $US600,000 for the first six months, but about $US500,000 of that includes airtime donated in kind by radio and television stations for public service ads and ad campaign work being donated by US-based ad agency Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos.

Calls and text messages to Crime Stoppers go to a third party that forwards the crime information to police while protecting the identity of the person who sends the information in, Jones said. The number of tips that come in annually varies, he said, with an average of 100 incoming tips a day, including duplicate reports of crimes. The number of tips peak in the summer, when crime volume is highest, he said.

Several other police departments that have Crime Stoppers programs, including two in Rhode Island, have already contacted Boston police asking for specifics about how to add text message capabilities to their own programs, Jones said.

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