Boston A mother in Boston tells police her 8-year-old boy was shot to death in their apartment by gunmen in hooded sweat shirts during a home invasion.
Officers later receive a text message from an anonymous tipster that leads them to a much different conclusion: the boy’s 7-year-old cousin accidentally shot him while the two boys were playing with a loaded 9 mm handgun.
Meanwhile, authorities in Douglas County, Colo., thwarted a threatened Columbine-style attack after an anonymous text about a student’s “kill list” led them to weapons in the child’s home.
After struggling for years with an anti-snitching culture that made witnesses too afraid to come forward, police across the country are getting help from text-a-tip programs that allow people to send anonymous, text messages from their cell phones.
In Boston, the first city to heavily promote texting for crime tips, police have received more than 1,000 tips since the program began two years ago. Police credit text tips for providing them with key leads in at least four high-profile killings, including: the accidental shooting of Liquarry Jefferson by his cousin; an arson fire that killed two children; the shooting of a Boston teenager on her 18th birthday; and the fatal stabbing of a man during a bar fight.
Officer Michael Charbonnier, who oversees the program, said people who live in high-crime neighborhoods are often afraid that if they talk to police, they could be hurt or even killed by gang members, drug dealers or other criminals.
“It’s either call 911 or live with the bad guy. And if you call, there could be repercussions,” Charbonnier said.
In the past, people feared retaliation for talking to police, but with the texting programs, police never see the tipster’s name or telephone number. The text messages are sent to a separate, third-party server, where identifying information is stripped out and they are assigned an encrypted alias before being sent to police.
Texting programs have caught on across the country. The exact number is hard to pinpoint, but Anderson Software, one of the leading providers of technology for text-a-tip programs, has at least 400 law enforcement agencies as clients, including Tucson, Ariz., Savannah, Ga., Hartford, Conn., San Diego, Seattle and Miami.
The system allows a tipster to send a text message of up to 160 characters to police, who are then able to send text messages back to the sender to ask follow-up questions.