TAMPA, Fla. – Police in the 1970s urged citizens to "drop a dime" in a pay phone to report crimes anonymously. Now in an increasing number of cities, tipsters are being invited to use their thumbs - to identify criminals using text messages.
Police hope the idea helps recruit teens and 20-somethings who wouldn't normally dial a Crime Stoppers hot line to share information with authorities.
"If somebody hears Johnny is going to bring a gun to school, hopefully they'll text that in," said Sgt. Brian Bernardi of the Louisville, Ky., Metro Police Department, which rolled out its text-message tip line in June.
Departments in Boston and Cincinnati started accepting anonymous text tips about a year ago. Since then, more than 100 communities have taken similar steps or plan to do so. The Internet-based systems route messages through a server that encrypts cell phone numbers before they get to police, making tips virtually impossible to track.
In Louisville earlier this week, Bernardi's computer displayed a text message from a person identified only as "Tip563." It read: "someone has vandalized the school van at valor school on bardstown rd in fern creek." The note also reported illegal dumping in a trash container and in the woods.
"It's obvious that the future of communication is texting," said officer Michael Charbonnier, commander of the Boston Police Department's Crime Stoppers unit. "You look at these kids today and that's all they're doing. You see five kids standing on the corner, and they're texting instead of having a conversation with each other."
When Boston adopted the system last year, the first text tip yielded an arrest in a New Hampshire slaying. In the 12 months that ended June 15, Boston police logged 678 text tips, nearly matching the 727 phone tips during the same period.
Earlier this year, a text tip led to the arrest of a notorious suspect in a drug case.
"We've gotten some great drug information, specific times, dates, names of suspects, locations, pickup times, license plate numbers," Charbonnier said. In another instance, a hearing-impaired man who could not call 911 used a text message to report a domestic violence incident.
Since the beginning of the year, cities such as Tampa, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Detroit have started their own text-based tip systems, according to Texas-based Anderson Software, a leading providers of the technology. Many cities are adding the text messages to a system that already accepted anonymous tips through a Web site.
Lisa Haber, a sheriff's detective who heads the Tampa-area Crime Stoppers unit, recently spent an hour exchanging 21 text messages with a tipster about a possible stolen car. It didn't yield an arrest, but Haber said it allowed her to glimpse the potential of being able to communicate in real time with texters. A marketing blitz will help get the word out when students return to school later this summer.
"It's got a lot of potential," said Cincinnati police Lt. David Fink, whose agency has collected about five text tips a month since adopting the system in May 2007. "Just like when we started Crime Stoppers 27 years ago, it took some time for it to catch on."
Sarah Coss, an 18-year-old incoming freshman at the University of Tampa, typically logs around 6,000 text messages a month chatting to her friends. She thinks people who use text messaging every day will be more likely to report crimes that way, and the impersonal nature of text messaging will give more people her age the confidence to share information with authorities.
"It might take a while for people to know about it and get more comfortable with it, and for people to know it's really anonymous, and they're not going to get in trouble," she said.
Just like callers to a crime hot line, text tipsters can collect rewards for significant information. It's done with the cooperation of banks that hand over the cash - no questions asked - to people who present a code issued by police.
Officers acknowledge it may take time to get used to the text shorthand favored by younger people, who tend to LOL at the relative technological cluelessness of their parents' generation.
"We were kind of nervous about that, having to learn a new code language," Bernardi chuckled.