The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down most aspects of life in 2020 and even impacted criminal activity as there were fewer people on the verge of committing crimes.
But fewer people meant fewer potential witnesses for the crimes that occurred. As a result, there were fewer tips at Owensboro Crime Stoppers.
This was also true for 2021, when the world was still in this half-open, half-closed phase of the pandemic. But Crime Stoppers board chairman Chris Brown said calls to the anonymous tips service have increased this year.
“The pandemic has hurt us a bit. I think we lost 10-15% of our tips” in 2020, Brown said earlier this week. In 2020, the Stop Line received 466 tips. In 2021, the number was 467.
“Our pre-pandemic average was around 600,” Brown said. Now, “we’re pushing 400 (tips) for the first four months of this year.”
Crime Stoppers prides itself on being anonymous, so people who have information about, say, a drug dealer don’t end up being seen talking to police officers or testifying in court. That anonymity is kept pretty strictly, largely because the service is in Canada, whose privacy laws won’t be much impressed by a subpoena from an enterprising defense attorney.
The tipping service also pays out cash rewards when a lead results in an arrest. But board member Sam Byrd said a good number of those awards end up going unclaimed.
“Every meeting we have two or three (awards) declined” because they weren’t claimed within the 60-day window, Byrd said. Although a person can receive their reward after 60 days, money isn’t the motive for a number of people who tip, Byrd said.
“A lot (of people), like me, just like to see the bad guys in the streets,” Byrd said.
The system works in several ways. Since Crime Stoppers began as a call service, people with information about the Owensboro crime can call 270-687-8484.
There’s also a link to send tips on the Owensboro Police Department website, and there’s even a phone app for the real tech-savvy.
Here’s what happens. The call (or message) is sent to Crime Stoppers Canada. Basic information is taken; the message is stripped of any details that would identify the tipster, and the tip is sent back to Owensboro, where it is shared with OPD or the Sheriff’s Department.
Once a tip is received from Crime Stoppers, it is analyzed by investigators, just like any other tip would be, Brown said.
“There should never be an arrest on a Crime Stoppers tip” without a detective first checking to see if the information is correct, Brown said.
Canadian privacy laws are stricter than those in the United States. U.S. courts cannot force a Canadian-based company like Crime Stoppers to provide tipster information, said OPD public information officer Andrew Boggess.
OPD also doesn’t have a way to contact a tipster directly, Brown said. If more information is needed, Crime Stoppers Canada may send the tipster a follow-up message, Brown said.
As with all advice OPD receives, there are more failures than successes.
It is not people who are dishonest: witnesses can be wrong and mistakes can be made.
For example, during an investigation into a fatal hit-and-run that killed a teenager in Daviess County, detectives released a general description of the vehicle involved. There was plenty of advice from the public, but many pointed to a man who owned a similar vehicle but was not involved in the incident.
A Crime Stoppers tip helped direct detectives to the right person, and he was later convicted of reckless homicide and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
But even advice that doesn’t point to the right person is still useful information, Brown said.
“Eliminating (potential suspects) is equally important,” he said.
Crime Stoppers helped bolster the case against a suspect in a homicide investigation last year, Brown said. But not all tips are for such high-profile cases as homicides.
“The majority of our advice is medication advice,” Brown said. In theory, a tip could be one drug dealer calling the police for another – but if the end result is one less drug dealer on the street, does the caller’s motive matter? Not really.”
People are paid for their tips, if a tip proves useful.
Like the tipping system, collecting a reward is also done with respect for privacy: the tipster receives a code which he brings to a certain bank. They receive an envelope with their reward and continue on their way, without exchanging names and asking questions.
A tip can earn up to $1,000. But really, not everyone who is eligible for a reward collects it.
“I would say the majority of people who call Crime Stoppers aren’t in it for the money,” Brown said. “They are there to clean up the neighborhood and help the community.”
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, [email protected], Twitter: @JamesMayse