Fighting crime with texts

BY ABE TEKIPPE | JUNE 10, 2009 7:28 AM

In an effort to reach out to the younger, more tech-savvy generations, law enforcement agencies across the United States, including some in Iowa, are embracing text messaging to fight crime.

Black Hawk County will become the first in the nation to allow people to text 911 as soon as July. And across the state, authorities are using texts for tips, hoping to connect with younger individuals involved in crime.

Osceola County authorities began using the texting technology in mid-2008, and have since have received more than 20 text tips.

County Sheriff Doug Weber said since texting is something younger generations grew up with, they trust it. “I just think they feel more comfortable texting a tip,” he said. “We’re getting a lot more tips this way than we did when someone would call in.”

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said, “Texting is all the rage right now.”

But the technology has not been employed in Iowa City, where tipsters rely on traditional means of communication — such as letters or phone calls that might identify informants.

The text message technology — which a company called Anderson Software developed in 2008 as an add-on to its existing TipSoft software package — allows informants to send anonymous text tips to participating law enforcement agencies.

Although authorities can communicate back and forth with the tipster using either a computer or a cell phone with Internet access, they have no way of knowing who the informant is.

This means more tips, according to authorities throughout Iowa.

“It’s a widely adopted system, and it’s becoming more widely adopted all the time,” Anderson Software CEO Kevin Anderson said. Nearly half of his company’s 675 clients have taken advantage of the text message add-on, he said.

Iowa City and Coralville police have yet to implement the new system, largely because of budget constraints, officials said.

Iowa City police were recently forced to cut $100,000 from their fiscal year 2010 budget, though they are waiting to hear about nearly $200,000 in federal grant money.

For a city with fewer than 500,000 residents — such as Iowa City — using the TipSoft program costs law enforcement $1,800 each year, in addition to a $400 setup fee, Anderson said.

While the software may be too expensive right now, local authorities haven’t ruled it out.

“We’re lucky in that our chief is pretty open to new ideas and taking advantage of technology, so [purchasing the software] is possible,” said Officer Meleah Droll of the Coralville police.

The question is: Would anyone use it?

Individuals younger than 44 prefer text messages over phone calls, according to the Nielsen Telecom Practice Group.

Yet UI students had mixed views as to whether they would rather submit anonymous tips through text messages or phone calls.

“Texting is for when you’re not available. It’s not supposed to replace picking up the phone and calling someone,” UI junior Pamela Wilhoite said. “Who texts the police?”

But UI senior Michelle Dolin disagreed.

“Text would be easier,” she said. “I don’t like talking to people on the phone, so I could text it and it wouldn’t be a big deal.”

That’s why some law-enforcement agencies — such as Polk County and Webster County Crime Stoppers in Iowa — made the investment.

Webster County authorities said they just started using it last month and have already received a handful of text tips.

In Illinois’ Champaign County, which uses the technology, text tips helped authorities solve two homicide cases in 2008, saving them “thousands of thousands of dollars” in labor, said Champaign Police Deputy Chief Troy Daniels.

“We save many times over what it costs us every year,” he said.

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