Optimistic Futurist: Putting a stop to more crime

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 7, 2013

This is a crime story with a surprising ending. The “bad guys” can behave like “good guys,” if we give them the right tools. The result is that the cops nab more “bad guys.”
Reported crime in America has been steadily dropping for many years. Murders, burglary and car theft dropped by more than half between 1980 and 2009. Even rape went down 22 percent. This reduction is good news.
The bad news is that the “solved” rate is also falling. What the cops call the “clearance rate” (arrest has been made, case has been turned over for prosecution or bad guy is dead) has dropped from around 90 percent in the 1960s to below 65 percent in recent years. Police fail to make arrests in more than one third of all homicides. In recent years, there has been a decline in arrests for crimes against property.

Used to be we had a “neighbor against neighbor” crime pattern, where the background, historic animosity and network of multigenerational families offered law enforcement access to information and many ways to investigate. Now we have more of a “gang against gang” pattern, where the crimes are often done by strangers onto strangers, with retaliation against those who help the police.
So we need a system that increases the chances a criminal will be caught once a crime is committed. Since may offenders commit multiple crimes, catching them for one violation reduces the likelihood of their doing more.
One voluntary citizen initiative now in place to help the cops solve more crimes is called Crime Stoppers. Started in 1975, the program has two key ingredients. The first is that it pays a reward. The second is that it keeps the identity of someone who calls Crime Stoppers a secret.
Crime Stoppers posts its phone numbers around town. When someone has information about a crime, the tipster can call either a local or national phone number (the national number is 1-800-222-TIPS), report what they know and are then issued a secret identifying number. If the information is accurate and helps lead to a conviction, the tipsters contact Crime Stoppers, identify themselves by the magic secret number and receive the reward. There are now more than 1,200 local Crime Stoppers chapters.
Since its founding, Crime Stoppers tipsters have contributed information that led to more than 600,000 arrests, collected $1 million in reward money and helped achieve confiscation of drugs valued at more than $3 million. In many cases, the rewards are not accepted — the tipster tells Crime Stoppers to keep the money to get more bad guys off the street.
In Collier County, Fla., after rumors of expanding drug use in the schools began to spread, special efforts were made to let high school students know of the local Crime Stoppers phone number. In a two-week period, 18 arrests were made, half of which came from tips phoned in by students.

Now here is the clever idea about how to make this good system even better.
Some Crime Stoppers groups are working with local jail and prison systems to make it easier and safer for inmates to offer tips.
In Tallahassee, Fla., concerned citizens and law enforcement produced 100,000 decks of special playing cards. The cards were printed with regular playing card symbols of hearts, clubs, etc., on one side and details of unsolved crimes on the other, along with the Crime Stoppers contact information. The cards were made available to inmates. Tipsters furnished information solving two murders as a result.
In Tulsa, Okla., the sheriff’s office processes 32,000 people a year, with an average daily population of around 1,700. (Many of the 32,000 are in for just a day or so until bail is arranged). Crime Stoppers tip line phone numbers are included in the handbook issued to all new inmates and publicized elsewhere in the jail. Based on phone records, Tulsa corrections officials know that the Crime Stoppers phone number is being called from the phones reserved for inmates use. They also have indications that when short-term inmates hear gossip or bragging about a crime while in jail, they often call the tip in when they return home or can access a public phone.
So we have here an existing volunteer anti-crime program that is working impressively in 1,200 locations — and could be made even more effective if its marketing were expanded aggressively into other locations.

Optimistic Futurist Francis P. Koster lives in Kannapolis and is the author of “Discovering the New America: Where Local Communities Are Solving National Problems,” available from Amazon.com.