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Police tap texting for tips

Capt. Chad La Lor checks his cell phone for a test text message sent through the Superior Police Department's new anonymous text tipping system, TIP411. The system allows citizens to send untraceable tips about crimes, but shouldn't be used to report a crime in progress. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The Superior Police Department is tapping into another technological tool to give the public opportunities to communicate crime tips anonymously.

Just whip out your cell phone, smart phone or hop on the Internet to text police information you may know that could help solve a crime. Officers with the Superior Police Department can now receive text messages that police cannot trace back to the sender.

The way the system works Citizen Observer, the city's vendor for the service, filters the message, stripping it of identifying information and sends it to designated officers with a randomly generated code. The random code allows officers to communicate with the tipster until the original sender stops the communication, but it doesn't allow police to know with whom they are communicating.

When the sender cuts off communication with police, the information that allows police to communicate through the code, the system purges identifying information - the phone number of the sender, said Superior Police Capt. Chad La Lor, one of four officers designated to receive the messages.

"The younger generation - anyone who has kids 10-years-old and up it seems - their primary means of communication is texting," he said. "I myself text far more often than actually using my cell phone [for calls] ... so essentially we wanted to put it out there as an additional service to our community."

While the police department has had a telephone tip line since 2002, La Lor said this gives the police department another way to communicate with the public.

To send a tip by cell phone, people just dial 847411 (TIP411). Then type SPDTIP and your tip information. SPDTIP directs the message to four designated officers in the Superior Police Department. Officers received the message instantaneously with a randomly generated code.

"Particularly with the younger generation ... they have information, but they don't want to look like a snitch," La Lor said. He said the technology allows people to communicate with police to help in an investigation or avert a tragedy when they're not comfortable coming forward.

"There's just an added layer of anonymity to it," said Sgt. Nick Alexander, who leads the department's efforts in technology forensics. He said while someone could call 911 - used for nonemergency and emergency communication with law enforcement in Douglas County - he said it doesn't alleviate the fear some have that they could be located or identified.

"It might create an environment more conducive to providing a tip," he said.

To minimize the risk of someone discovering the tip on the phone, La Lor recommends people delete the tip and any related correspondence.

"This is not meant to be used if there is a crisis or emergency happening right now," La Lor said. "It's not meant to be used when there is a danger of great bodily harm or death."

In those kinds of emergencies - crimes in progress or threats of harm - people should call 911 to get an immediate response from police to report a crime in progress or file a police report. Texting won't generate a radio call or summon police to your location. It's set up for investigative information only.

"Because there's a chance it may not be seen right away, we definitely do not want people to use this for an emergency," La Lor said. "If someone's life is in danger right now, we definitely want them to call 911."

The program is free but messaging rates may apply. Check your mobile plan for details.

However, if your mobile plan charges fees, you can still submit anonymous tips over the Internet at www.ci.superior.wi.us/spdtips. Click on "Anonymous Web Tips" and it works similarly to sending a text by phone with one added option.

Tips submitted over the Internet allow the user to submit photographs to police, something that police cannot receive from a cell phone.

In addition to providing information to police, police can provide information to the public with text or e-mail alerts with the new system. Users can click on "Police Department Alerts" to sign up for messages focused on public safety to citizens of Superior or requests for information concerning critical incidents such as Amber Alerts, robberies or violent assaults.

The alerts also appear on the Superior Police Department's Facebook site, www.facebook.com/SuperiorPD that also provides links to public safety information such as the state's sex offender registry and Wisconsin Circuit Court Access.

"We don't plan to overuse alerts," La Lor said. However, he said it would allow police to alert the community about suspects sought in violent crimes or provide information about Amber Alerts for missing people.

Superior Police Chief Floyd Peters said the technology helps the department keep with its mission to reduce crime and victimization. He said the service provides a new way to reach out to the youth of our community.

"If our community will communicate with us, this is another way for us to receive communication that will help us solve crime and also prevent crime hopefully, Peters said. "To me, that's the most important reason to be involved in this. That's why our department is going this direction. It's another tool to accomplish our mission and purpose."