Tipsters who want to share information with authorities now can type their clues to Crime Stoppers using a cell phone.
The program guarantees anonymity by encoding information; police can respond to tips without ever seeing the sender's personal information.
"I was dancing around when we got this," said Carla Castro, a community services officer with the Modesto Police Department who coordinates Crime Stoppers for the county.
The program took effect in late July, and Castro said she's still waiting to receive her first texted tip.
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Crime Stoppers has been around locally for three years and has led to 105 arrests, including three in homicide investigations, she said. When Crime Stoppers started here, the Modesto Police Department was its sole participant. Now, she said, the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, the Modesto office of the California Highway Patrol and police departments in Turlock, Ceres, Oakdale and Newman are on board.
Castro said Crime Stoppers, which is a nonprofit, is an economical tool for law enforcement. The organization's costs are covered by fund raising and donations. Operating costs are minimal, she said. The organization has given more than $16,000 in rewards.
Castro said she gets about a dozen telephone calls from tipsters each day and six to 12 e-mails. People already were able to send e-mails, but Castro said it's now more user-friendly and secure.
The text messaging piece of the program was devised through a collaboration between a company called mBlox and one named Anderson Software, which creates law enforcement tip management software. Partnering with cell phone carriers, mBlox provides access to mobile phone networks so crime tips get to law enforcement officers anonymously, according to the company.
According to Anderson, Modesto is one of the first places in the country to use the text messaging technology, called TipSoft SMS. TipSoft has about 80 participating areas in the United States listed on its Web site. It costs Modesto's Crime Stoppers program about $25 a month to use the service.
Tips first go to Texas computer
Electronic tips first go to a server in Texas where they're encrypted, Castro said. If a tip appears to be an emergency, staff members in Texas call 911. Otherwise, tips are forwarded to Castro within a few seconds. If necessary, tips can be translated from Spanish or French before being sent to Modesto.
When users text Crime Stoppers they receive an alias and a unique ID, which allow them to claim a reward if the Crime Stoppers decides they are eligible. Rewards generally go to people whose tip leads to arrests or the identification of suspects. Crime Stoppers takes many factors into account when deciding how much money to dole out, including how risky it was for the tipster to provide the information.
The text messaging program can be used by anyone, Castro said, but she's especially hopeful it will take off with teenagers. She's gotten approval to publicize the program in Modesto City Schools.
Rolling out the program, Castro said, will ensure local schools are able to get students involved in the fall.
The program has proven effective in other areas, she said. According to Castro, teens on the East Coast have texted law enforcement tips about planned school shootings. When officers responded, she said, the suspects were found with weapons.
"It's definitely a tool we want for our school systems," she said.
Modesto City Schools officials were not available for comment.
Myrle Carner, the director of law enforcement services for Crime Stoppers of Puget Sound, in Seattle, said his organization started text messaging for crime tips in April.
"When we launched, we had a full media blitz, with billboards, radio, television and posters around the city," he said.
All kinds of crimes reported
He said the agency has received tips of all kinds: hit-and-run accidents, drunken drivers, gunshots in an alley, loud parties and car prowling.
"We want to go after the youth movement, where they could give us a call via text messaging," he said. "The gangbangers, they love to rat each other out. We want to give them a tool. A lot of these tips have come in and some are pretty good."
Carner said people have been responsive about sending in tips. But the key, he said, is to keep the text messaging option in the public eye.
He said what's impressed him most about the computer program that manages e-mails and text messages is that it's anonymous, which he hopes makes people feel more secure about sending tips.
The user's identity is protected because identifying information is scrubbed by computers, so it can't be linked to the sender.
"That's the key thing with the public," he said. "If you want people to call you with information, you have to back it up that they won't be known. It's a trust factor."
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2235.