By LYNDA COHEN
Witnesses to crimes who want to provide information to the Atlantic City Police Department but fear retribution will soon be able to do so anonymously via text message.
Tip411 is the first expenditure from a $3.5 million Casino Reinvestment Development Authority grant City Council accepted two months ago. For about $17,000, the department will be provided a Web-based system and the training that will allow police to receive tips, as well as put out citywide or specified alerts.
“We acknowledge there’s a very real fear that exists for people that if they speak out, there will be retaliation against them,” said Capt. Bill Mazur, who has championed the effort. “Allowing anonymous tips really focuses on that one specific problem. This is a core function of community policing.”
The program, developed by St. Paul, Minn.-based Citizen Observer, also allows alerts to go out to either the entire city or specified subgroups, which could include casino security, Boardwalk Ambassadors or certain neighborhoods where a crime may have occurred. It also can provide weather alerts or notification of traffic problems and detours.
“People read crime stories in the paper all the time and sort of become numb to it,” Mazur said. “But if you receive a tip that’s localized and focused on your neighborhood, you’re going to think about it. It’s real-time information and it really engages the community.”
The system also will allow the department to finally enter social media, including setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts, through which the administrator can put out an alert through multiple venues at once, explained Dan Zell, marketing director for Citizen Observer.
Atlantic City’s system is expected to be running by the end of summer, after training sessions for administrators and at least two informational meetings for residents. Decisions are still being made, including who will administer the account and what keyword the department will use.
Information texted to Tip411 requires a keyword that indicates where the tip is meant to go. For example, tips to the Vineland Police Department — whose program went live in June — begin with VPDTIP. The program strips all identifying information from the text, so that police are unable to access where the text originated, Zell explained.
“We don’t have access to that data, nor do we want it,” Mazur said. “That’s the feature we want to leverage to the community: It doesn’t show who you are, and we don’t want to know who you are.”
But, unlike anonymous messages, police will be able to have text conversations with tipsters, asking follow-up questions or for more information, such as pictures.
Zell said the program has been available for about six years, with agencies up to the federal level using it and “there has never been a breach of any kind.”
Along with Vineland, the system is being used locally by the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office and Bridgeton Police Department. Pleasantville police are aware of the program but have not yet looked into implementing it, acting Chief Jose Ruiz said.
“We have to explore all avenues and options,” Ruiz said. “(We need to) be creative in ways to get the public to engage with law enforcement to make our communities safer.”
Zell said the current programs have shown success but that he is especially excited about Atlantic City.
“What’s great about Atlantic City is the opportunity to connect with neighborhoods,” he said. “It looks like it’s going to be a very proactive effort, which is key to making it successful.
“It’s a great tie-in with the campaign they have going on creating a safer city and cleaner city,” he added.
The multiple venues, including social media, were part of the reason Atlantic City went with Citizen Observer, Mazur said. Often people are learning of crimes through Facebook and Twitter, but with their own pages, the department will be able to make sure that information is accurate.
“The inaccuracy fuels uncertainty and uncertainty instills fear in people,” he said. “We’re getting with the times, as they say. It’s not a cure-all, but it certainly is a step in the right direction.”
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