With Iowa City CrimeStoppers on pace for a low year, officials discuss marketing [The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa]
(Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 20--In June 2007, shortly after an Iowa City woman was brutally sexually assaulted in her home, police chief Sam Hargadine convened an emergency meeting of the CrimeStoppers board of directors and launched the anonymous tip line immediately.
The hotline -- which offers cash rewards up to $1,000 for tips leading to arrests -- didn't lead to an arrest in that case, but in September 2007, it was vital in helping police nab a Coralville bank robber, Hargadine said.
"That guy was picked up in Indiana," Hargadine said. "We would never have picked that one up without CrimeStoppers. How would we have known to look in Indiana?"
Since then, community support for the CrimeStoppers in Iowa City has been sporadic. In its first year of existence, the tip line resulted in two arrests. In recent years, the hotline has averaged 80-90 tips a year.
Some of the tips have been significant. Police credit a CrimeStoppers tip for helping to get an arrest in the October 2009 murder of landlord John Versypt, who was gunned down at the Broadway condominiums.
However, according to statistics from the Iowa City Police Department, which collects all of the tips -- including those meant for the Coralville Police Department, Johnson County Sheriff's Office and University of Iowa Department of Public Safety -- the tip line has not resulted in a payout for an arrest since 2011.
Furthermore, the hotline is on pace to receive the fewest number of tips since its inception. As of mid-August, the hotline has received 38 tips this year.
CrimeStoppers supporters have a number of theories as to why the number of tips and payouts have begun to bottom out.
A positive notion is that the police department's investigative unit has not had to rely on tips to close the book on open cases.
"Not only are the number of serious crimes going down, it's also situation where, when a serious crime happens, law enforcement either has a suspect immediately or within a day they know who they are looking for or have them in custody," said Starr Jones, chair of Iowa City Area CrimeStoppers board of directors. "It's kind of a situation where there's not a lot of time for people to call in."
Hargadine also noted the CrimeStoppers board of directors has seen turnover in recent years -- Jones is entering her second year with the board, for instance -- and is still getting a feel for how to best publicize the tip line.
"They're retooling and getting momentum again," Hargadine said. "We have a few charter board members that are still on it. Some of the key positions, they've changed over. People move on."
There's also a cultural factor that police have yet to break in some circles, Hargadine said. While he believes the tip line has held up its promise to keep calls anonymous, there are still some who won't speak to the police under any circumstances.
"There is an element that tries to promote 'no snitching,'?" he said. "We know that's there, that's always been there."
Now, Hargadine and the board are kicking around ideas on how to further promote CrimeStoppers. The organization has a website and the hotline number can be found on the back of squad cars, on police department news releases and in the windows of some businesses that support the organization.
Jones said CrimeStoppers is trying to strengthen its presence on social media and make the website more user-friendly. They hosted an inaugural golf tournament fundraiser earlier this summer.
Hargadine said officials are also toying with the idea of CrimeStoppers purchasing a car from one of the department's annual abandoned car auction and emblazoning it with the CrimeStoppers logo.Data for the Cedar Rapids Crime Stoppers tip line was not available. The Cedar Rapids Police Department said in January that a Crime Stoppers tip helped authorities arrest 21-year-old Alexis Dixon for making fraudulent credit card purchases on Thanksgiving in 2012.
County sheriff usage
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said his department -- which joined Linn County Crime Stoppers in 2009 -- should rely more on the hotline.
"We probably don't utilize it as much as we could," Gardner said. "It's a good tool. I think part of the problem is we're just not used to it as an agency."
Still, Gardner credits the hotline.
"It's good for us because it provides the community with an anonymous means to either report crimes or give us tips on crimes that either have been or will be committed," he said.
Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said his office uses CrimeStoppers a "fair bit," but also noted his department sees a fraction of the cases as the Iowa City Police Department. While the sheriff's office previously had an anonymous tip line, CrimeStoppers gives people a financial incentive to offer tips.
While the Iowa City Area CrimeStoppers appears to be struggling, Cedar Valley Crime Stoppers -- based in Black Hawk County -- has been a huge success, said Waterloo Police investigator Brice Lippert. Lippert helped launch the hotline a year ago and manages the law enforcement aspects of the tip line.
"It's been tremendous," Lippert said. "We started in June. It was late August when we got our first arrest. After that, it started taking off."
Lippert estimates the tip line has received 460 tips since its inception. From June 2012 to through last week, those tips have resulted in 91 arrests.
Cedar Valley Crime Stoppers announced on Monday it was adding the capability for people to text and email tips. Iowa City Area CrimeStoppers is exploring adding a text message component to their program.
A large volume of the Cedar Valley Crime Stoppers tips relate to the July 2012 disappearance of Elizabeth Collins and Lyric Cook, Lippert said. New developments in the case have consistently spurred a deluge of tips, including recently when investigators said they were looking for the driver of an SUV spotted near the lake where the girls were seen before their disappearance. The hotline still gets about one call a week about the disappearance.
Lippert said he relies heavily on social media to promote Crime Stoppers. When investigators have passed a surveillance photo around the office with no positive identification, Lippert throws the photo on the Crime Stoppers Facebook page.
The current record is three minutes between posting and getting a positive identification.
"You just need the right person to see it," Lippert said. "It's this great new tool. Taking advantage of social media has been really helpful."
The decline in Iowa City tips could be an anomaly. The hotline received 96 tips in 2012, up from 87 the year before. Either way, Hargadine said CrimeStoppers isn't going anywhere.
"It's an institution," he said. "It's here to stay."
(c)2013 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
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