Police urge texting tips in bid to solve homicides

By Ben Wolford
Globe Correspondent / July 15, 2011

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Hoping to crack a recent rash of unsolved homicides, the Boston Police Department is launching a new ad campaign, blanketing the city with brochures and transit posters to advertise and promote its anonymous text message tip line.

The department says the program has bolstered investigations since it began four years ago, but incoming tips have plateaued and police want this to be “a shot in the arm,’’ said police spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll.

The new ad campaign, to be launched today, by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, follows a spasm of violence in the city since late last month, particularly in Dorchester, where a 4-year-old boy, known as A.J., was shot in the back and where seven of Boston’s last eight homicides have taken place.

“The fact is that if people speak to the police, that in many ways can come back to haunt them,’’ said Davida Andelman, a Dorchester resident and community activist. “People are already very fearful about being identified and recognized as being the squealer.’’

That, police said, is the advantage of the text message tip line, which allows tipsters to text police with their phone numbers concealed even to the officers. Since its June 2007 inception, Boston’s Crime Stoppers Unit has received 1,888 tips by text message, Driscoll said.

Between July 4 and July 7, five men were shot to death, and no one has been arrested.

“We’ve made some great progress in some of those cases from anonymous tips,’’ Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said by phone yesterday.

He said he could not comment further about the investigations, but said some of the tips are very specific.

Violent crimes can be tough to investigate, he said, because they “involve people who don’t cooperate with the criminal justice system. . . . We’re talking about gang members and people involved in drug distribution.’’

A week ago, Davis vowed to ramp up patrols around parks and playgrounds at peak crime hours and to target gangs. He said the department had been planning the ad campaign since early this year.

The campaign costs the city nothing. Several organizations, including AT&T, donated services or ad space, worth an estimated $750,000, said Mike Sheehan, chief executive of the advertising firm Hill Holliday, which heads the marketing effort.

Posters pointing out the anonymity of the texting system will be at bus stops and inside subway cars. Officers will hand out 5,000 brochures, and Fenway Park will display public service announcements before Red Sox games until the season’s end.

“We’ve got to try what we can try to stop this madness,’’ said Emmett Folgert, executive director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative. “As residents we’ve got a responsibility to do what we can to stop the violence. They cannot keep this place safe without community cooperation.’’

In a statement, Menino lauded what he called the city’s continuing strategies “to pioneer crime fighting,’’ which he said would ultimately improve life in the city’s neighborhoods.

Attempts to conduct interviews at the scene of a crime can be fruitless because of the fear of retribution, Andelman said.

She said she called 911 recently to report shots fired. Soon a cruiser showed up at her house, and the dispatcher called back to ask if she could go out and speak to the officer.

“By seeing that cruiser there, you’re targeting me and my family as having called,’’ Andelman said. “That’s a lot of the criticism that people thrust at the Police Department.’’

The texting tips are 100 percent anonymous, police said. The word tip sent to CRIME (27463) arrives at the Police Department with no information about the sender.

The conversations are destroyed, and a reminder is sent to the tipster to delete the text thread.

Police did not know how many of the nearly 4,000 calls and texts they have received since June 2007 have led to arrests or convictions.

But Driscoll said all the tips are investigated, and she pointed to a few success stories: an 8-year-old who was discovered by an anonymous tip to have been shot with his older brother’s firearm and not by home invaders and a woman who was stopped from committing suicide.

The department touted the novelty of the program in 2007, but more departments nationwide are using text messaging as a way to harness information.

“We’re starting to see more and more agencies using that technology,’’ said Nancy Kolb, senior program manager at the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Ben Wolford can be reached at