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July 10, 2007
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San Diego police explore new tipster technology

By Joe Hughes
San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO, Calif. San Diego law enforcement officials are considering a text-messaging system for anonymous crime tips that was unveiled by Boston-area police last month.

If successful, the effort could combine a popular communications method with familiar police tip lines to help solve violent crimes.

Nationally, tip calls are down mainly because the systems have relied heavily on pay-phone use to keep a caller anonymous and pay phones are becoming increasingly harder to find. At the same time, text messaging on cell phones has become a popular method of communication, especially for young people. Call numbers from most phones, including cell phones, are traceable, which makes anonymity difficult.

The new system seems to have overcome that problem. Boston police Officer James Kenneally said the system recorded 50 cell phone tips in its first week.

San Diego police officers say they haven't seen the drop in crime tips that has rippled across the nation, but they want to make sure those tips keep coming as technology changes. Tips have helped solve scores of homicides and even helped police catch Ralph Steven Garbarini, who shot two diners in Extraordinary Desserts near Hillcrest in March. Garbarini pleaded guilty June 25 to charges of murder and attempted murder.

San Diego police homicide Lt. Kevin Rooney said a key to receiving tips is assuring that tipsters will remain anonymous.

“When their comfort level drops, our tips will drop,” Rooney said.

Reaction to the messaging system was mixed among young people texting at the Honey Bee Cafe across from San Diego City College.

“It seems like a sweet idea; I'm for anything that helps the cops,” said Dole Leahy, 21.

Carla Tester, 19, also a student, said texting information to police is not an option for her.

“I'm no snitch,” Tester said.

Thousands of tips to San Diego police and Crime Stoppers come in every year, the vast majority from phones. San Diego County Crime Stoppers averages about 700 calls a month. Many tipsters call Crime Stoppers rather than police because the nonprofit organization gives rewards for tips that solve crimes. Since 1984, tips to the Crime Stoppers line have helped solve 3,600 cases, including 94 homicides.

Officer Jim Johnson, who is assigned to Crime Stoppers, said the number of tips this year from school campuses, a relatively new program, is already higher than last year. Campus tips in 2007 led police to recover a BB gun styled to look like a Glock handgun; arrest a student on suspicion of making terrorist threats; and solve four cases of school computer theft.

Johnson said Crime Stoppers also has embraced the Internet, using the YouTube Web site to display video of various crimes so prospective tipsters may contribute information about the identity of the perpetrators.

He expects the ability to anonymously text-message tips will further increase law enforcement's ability to solve crimes. Boston police Officer Kenneally declined to reveal how many crimes had been solved so far there but said authorities are happy with initial results.

Boston police say the privacy system should be popular, especially with young people who are more apt to use text messaging than phone calls.

When a text-message tip is sent to a Boston tip line, it is assigned a six-digit code for reference purposes. The phone-service provider blocks the sender's phone number.

Officials with the International Association of Chiefs of Police are watching what happens in Boston.

“Text messaging is the new technology when it comes to tip lines and 911 calls,” said Wendy Balazik, spokeswoman for the Alexandria, Va.,-based nonprofit organization. “We are all well aware pay phones are disappearing and cell phones are not.”

Copyright 2007 San Diego Union-Tribune

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