Oakland residents now have the ability to send completely anonymous texts or E-mail tips about crimes to the city’s police department, officials announced last week.
In response to a rash of homicides, with five deaths in a span of 18 hours from Monday, October 1 through Tuesday, October 2, Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan announced in a Thursday press conference that the city was taking new measures in its attempts to fight crime: fuller and more protected citizen participation.
A service developed by San Francisco-based company, Nixle, is used by over 6,000 police departments across the nation as a platform for police to send alerts, advisories, and community news to over 1 million text and email subscribers around the country. Since January, Oakland’s department has been using Nixle’s outgoing messaging service—police to citizens, that is—to send alerts, like that of the April shooting at Oakland’s Oikos University, or tell residents about safety-oriented events like National Night Out.
Now Oakland will be the first city in the country to try out Nixle’s new “Tip Watch,” function, allowing residents to send crime-related tips to the police department—completely anonymously, if they prefer.
“Oakland reached out to us, and we were more than happy to get the service up and running as fast as possible,” said Nixle spokesman Travis Scott. “We are giving them a 60-day free trial, since the incidents that have been going on in Oakland. We wanted to get it up.”
After the 60-day free trial, the information routing service provided by Nixle is set to cost the Oakland police department approximately $3000 per year, Nixle officials said.
The Oakland Police Foundation’s “Crime Stoppers” program, a tip hotline that gives people an opportunity to report crimes by way of calling a non-emergency phone line, is still in use by the Oakland Police Department. While both services are anonymous ways for people to inform the police about crimes in their communities, Crime Stoppers offers a reward if the information leads to an arrest or the solving of a crime, Tip Watch does not.
But Tip Watch is usable for people who would rather text their information than speak over the phone, and officials said they hope residents will be likelier to participate in a system accessible this way. People who want to receive the messages sent out by the police department must first subscribe to a news alert service from the department, which they can start by going to the Nixle website and clicking the “sign up” banner at the top of the page. But anyone with a cell phone or an email account, even those who have not subscribed, will be able to send information anonymously to the police. By sending a text message reading “TipOaklandPD” to 888-777 and awaiting a response text asking for more information, or by logging onto OPD’s website, clicking the “Anonymous Tip” link and completing a form, people can keep officers updated about crime in their communities.
“We are interested in using anything that dollar-for-dollar impacts crime in an efficient and effective way,” said Oakland Police Department Sgt. Chris Bolton. “But I am also aware of the criticism.”
Bolton said one Oakland resident made it plain immediately that she distrusted the anonymity of the text and email tip notification system, announcing her worry through a message to the Oakland Police Department’s twitter account. “ I don’t believe your tip form is #Anonymous,” twitter user @marymad tweeted in reply to the department’s announcement of the Tip Watch service. “I would bet money that you are logging IP addresses.”
Bolton said he responded directly to that tweeter. “I said: ‘Bet accepted.’,” he said. “Because if that is the case- I don’t want a system that people don’t trust.”
Bolton said he urges the people of Oakland to try the system and its anonymity protections before condemning it. When tipster identification data is submitted to the Nixle database, officials said, it is “scrambled” or put into an illegible code, similar to that of an emailed response to a Craigslist post. “We don’t have access to that information as it comes in,” Scott said. “The police department doesn’t have access to that either.”
Scott said that he recognizes the importance of anonymity for people who have information about a crime. “I think one of the big things that prevents residents from submitting information is the fact that they don’t want to get too involved–they don’t want their name to be out there,” Scott said. “The ability to keep them anonymous, I think, will actually encourage a lot more residents to submit that information.”
Although the texts are anonymous to the police department and Nixle, Scott said, the tip submitter will still be responsible for clearing the text from his or her own cell phone.
“If we can reduce the fear in coming forward and providing those tips, how much good can be done?” Bolton asked. “Can we create a culture, or a movement, that tells people that it’s okay, even if it’s anonymous, to report criminal behavior?”
Bolton said that he believes technology can influence culture in Oakland, but that he is still awaiting confirmation. “To me it’s an easy question to answer,” he said. “Whether or not our community jumps on and uses this, we’ll see.”