Sending police crime-related information via text message might seem like a no-brainer to the nonstop, text-messaging public. But in reality, it's a relatively new tactic making its way across the country.
Some police departments looking to encourage citizens to share crime-related information are offering the new option. The move seems inevitable because 363 billion text messages were sent in the United States in 2007, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association.
"The text-a-tip line is new, 21st-century technology that allows us to use another tool," said Lt. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police. "Cell phones are popular among all age groups, and we have introduced them as another tool to assist us in fighting crime."
Citizens can rest assured that sending a text message tip to the police department won't compromise their anonymity. The text-a-tip programs are Internet-based, and the text messages are run through third-party companies' servers that encrypt the cell phone numbers before the messages reach the police department.
Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department encourages citizens to "give the 5-0 the 411" -- street slang for communicating with police. Hence the number is 50411 for sending text message crime tips.
When a text message is sent to 50411, it's routed through messaging company GoLive Mobile, and the phone number is encrypted. Then the message is sent to the police department as an e-mail where an officer in the department's watch center reads the tip and gives the information to the appropriate branch.
The district launched the program in spring 2008. According to Cmdr. Larry McCoy, bumper stickers displaying the text-a-tip information were put on all of the district's police cruisers to promote the program. The stickers were also distributed to construction companies to put on their vehicles.
"It's going to be huge, I think," McCoy said. "It's probably going to be to the point that we are going to have to assign additional manpower just to monitor it."
The district's program doesn't allow police to communicate with the texter and there is no follow-up.
"[It's] totally anonymous and that might be part of the reason we're getting so many tips," McCoy said. "People feel confident that it is, No. 1, anonymous and there is no voice contact whatsoever. You send your text, and it is done."
McCoy cautions other police departments that the program can expand very quickly and they should be prepared to send police officers for follow-ups. "One thing we don't want is for a tip to come in and for someone to feel that it's not being followed up," he said.
The Connecticut State Police's program works differently. It allows two-way communication between the police and the texter, while retaining anonymity.
The state's program is run by Anderson Software's TipSoft SMS, and there are three components to each text message. First, instead of a phone number, the text is sent to vanity code CRIMES -- or 274637. Second, the routing number, which is TIP###, goes in the message body; the accompanying numbers are different for each police department. Third, users enter their crime tip after the routing number.
According to Vance, after the tip is sent, the texter receives a message saying it was received and he or she is given an identification number alias, such as R123. The police use the alias to reply to the texter with follow-up questions or additional information. All messages are routed through the TipSoft server to retain encryption, and at no time are the police given identifiers as to who the person could be. There isn't direct communication with the tipster.
"The unique thing about the text-a-tip program is it's completely anonymous," Vance said. "The texter of the tip enters the information into their cell phone, and
it goes to a clearinghouse out of the United States -- actually it goes to Canada. All the identifiers are stripped off the message, and then the message is forwarded to the appropriate police department in Connecticut."
According to the TipSoft SMS Web site, the text-message submission process takes three to four seconds to go through the encryption process, and for security reasons senders should erase the messages from their cell phones.
Vance said the Connecticut State Police has troopers assigned to receive the tips 24/7, and they send it to the proper location if needed.
"We've gotten bits of information that, for example, we've passed on to a small, local police department that certainly was beneficial to them," Vance said.
The program began July 28, 2008. The next step will be placing informative posters in hospital emergency departments across Connecticut.
"We feel that is one area where many victims of crime or witnesses to crime end up," Vance said. "And we're going to provide our investigators with a small business card that has the text-a-tip information on it." Police investigators will be able to distribute the information card with their personal business card.
"We think for some people who are reluctant in getting involved in providing information to the police, it will afford them another avenue to reach us," he said.
The Washington, D.C., and Connecticut police departments said text-a-tip is a relatively inexpensive and easy-to-install program for aiding crime-fighting efforts.
Connecticut set up tip lines for its five major cities: Hartford, Bridgeport, Stamford, Waterbury and New Haven. To prepare for the rollout, Vance said the state police department met with IT personnel from these five cities to ensure they were all on the same page and that each department would be prepared to receive the tips 24/7.
"It seems like a fairly inexpensive tool that we can add to our toolbox to investigate crimes," Vance said. "We're encouraged having examined other agencies that have had this in place for awhile."
Both departments want the public to be aware that the text-message tips don't replace calling 911 during an emergency.
"What's important about the text-a-tip program is it is not a 911 service," Vance said. "It is not to report a crime, but simply provide information about one that has already occurred or one that someone knows is being planned."