Testing Crimestoppers' claims about protecting anonymity


POSTED: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 - 9:57pm

UPDATED: Friday, May 3, 2013 - 10:33pm

While the police try different things to reduce crime, Crimestoppers gives the public a way to involve itself in law enforcement.

It promises to protect the identities of its tipsters, but there are still a lot of people who are afraid to call in, because they worry the criminals will find out and retaliate.

So I went inside Crimestoppers to find out how it works.

"We know it's a good program," said Don Stone, coordinator of the local Crimestoppers program, "because just about every major offense that occurs in this eight-parish area; whether it be some guy walking out of a Walmart with a big-screen TV that you see pictured in the newspaper or on one of the TV stations; or whether it be a homicide that happened, we're gonna get a call on it." 

Nearly 2,000 people called Crimestoppers last year. Their tips led to 347 arrests on 369 felonies, and $746,080 in seized property and illegal drugs. In return, Crimestoppers paid $83,650 in cash rewards.

Stone frequently goes to schools and other community outreach events to convince people of the system's benefits.

"But that's their biggest fear once you explain it to them," he said. "They're like, 'oh, yeah, I don't want them to know that I called.' Well the only way that someone's going to know that you called the Crimestoppers program is if you tell them."

I met with Stone and his assistant coordinator, Heidi Dunnam, at their office inside the Louisiana State Police headquarters. I had never called Crimestoppers before, so there was no way for them to have my phone number or know how to block it. When I dialed 343-STOP, all that appeared on their caller ID was the word "ringing."

"We tell the people that when they call in here. 'I don't want my name put out.' I don't know your name," Stone said. "I'm not gonna ask your name."

Crimestoppers, which is an international organization, uses military-style encryption to hide your phone number, the technical aspects of which Stone admits he does not understand. Stone and Dunnam give callers a code number to use instead of their name, so they can reference tipsters' files.

It also takes advantage of international laws to keep people hidden.

After business hours, "we use this call center in Canada just in case someone chose to subpoena our records, or something like that," Stone said. "It is a felony offense in Canada to release that type of information."

I also sent Crimestoppers a text, which anyone can do by typing CS225 and a message, and sending it to CRIMES (274637). (I also wrote my name in the message to help me track it, which is not recommended.) The texts come in through a computer program, so my number never appeared on their phones, and it did not show up on Stone's computer screen, either.

People may also fill out a form on Crimestoppers' website in which they can write about what they saw. They can also add pictures, to help describe a suspect or a crime scene, which is an advantage texting and email have over phone calls. But that is not the only reason Crimestoppers likes them.

"The texting and the email has the advantage of being able to converse back and forth with the caller," Stone noted, "where the calling doesn't."

Of course, old fashioned phone calls have their benefits, as well.

"If it's an email or a phone call, you're gonna get a bigger amount of information, to take that information to investigate quicker," Dunnam said. "Whereas a text may have two or three words, and then you respond back and you have to ask a lot of questions, and it ends up, maybe 10, 12, 20 texts before you get all the information you need to actually work the case."

If Stone and Dunnam do follow up with a text message user, the entire process takes place within the confines of the computer program.

Stone and Dunnam will often work with detectives in the field to help solve cases.

"If the detectives have questions, they'll give them to us, and yes, we are the middle man," Stone stated. "We will communicate with the caller."

On occasion, the caller will ask to speak directly to the detective. But if anonymity is a concern, Stone will advise the caller not to do so.

"We would rather stay the middle man to protect their identity," he mentioned. "Let us relay the message, the information to the detective. That way, we can pay them the reward and there's no concern that their identity was released."

Crimestoppers began in the capitol area in 1982, and Stone says not once has someone's identity been leaked. It has helped solve more than 11,000 felony crimes, with tipsters receiving more than $1.6 million in rewards. Protecting the names of callers is just as important as solving the crime.

"All it takes is one time for, somehow, for someone's identity to get released through the program and we've got 30 years of an untarnished program going down the drain," Stone said.

In part because of its mission to preserve anonymity, anyone may call Crimestoppers, and if they provided information that leads to an arrest, collect a reward. Its number is often free for prisoners, so Stone assumes convicts have gotten cash for tips in the past, so long as they had someone else pick up the money for them.

"We don't ask for the age of the person," he said. "We don't ask for the race, we don't ask for the gender. We take their information and thank them and send it to the law enforcement agency that's investigating it."

Stone said his colleagues in law enforcement joke that he does not make any arrests from behind the desk at Crimestoppers. He counters that he and Dunnam make hundreds of arrests a year.

"Whenever we get a call from an agency in here and they say, 'hey, this is Detective So-and-So with this agency. The tip y'all sent me last week was good information, we made an arrest, that case is solved.' We look at each other and we smile," he said. "We're like we scored a touchdown." 

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