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New app could become a neighborhood watch on steroids

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SOMERVILLE - Somerset County is the first in the nation to launch an app that allows users to anonymously send in crime tips and text with detectives.

The free app was launched Wednesday morning in the Apple Store and Google Play. It allows users to report crimes and threats, and upload images and video. The messenger service lets users and law enforcement anonymously talk to each other.

"We are the first law enforcement agency in the United State to use an app this way," Somerset County Prosecutor Michael H. Robertson said during Wednesday's roll out. "This could be a neighborhood watch on steroids. ... We all have cell phones, and in particular smart phones."

Robertson said the anonymous aspect of the app will be appealing to users who may have a had a bad experience with police or fear retaliation.

"We expect this (app) will take off," Robertson said, particularly in high-crime areas. He said he plans to discuss the app at an upcoming meeting of prosecutors from across New Jersey.

To get the app, download STOPit in the Apple Store or Google Play and enter the code "SOMERSETNJ" within the app after it is downloaded.

The app can also be used by police to share information, such as when information is sought about an ongoing investigation. The app, also available in Spanish, will include educational material on issues like drug use, domestic violence and help for victims of sexual assault.

It was created by Bedminster-based STOPit, developer of an anti-bullying app now used by over 3 million people around the world. Its development was funding by the prosecutor's office.

Todd Schobel, CEO and president of STOPit, said the partnership, being called Somerset Strong, is a natural progression of the company's original product, aimed at giving youth a way to report bullying.

The new app was developed partly in response to the opioid epidemic, Robertson said, explaining he and Schobel first discussed ways to adapt STOPit for use as a crime-reporting tool several months ago.

"The community is instrumental in helping law enforcement combat crime," Robertson said. "Technology is everything in this world. Why not use that technology to our advantage?"

A user, for example, could use the app to report drug use, Robertson said, with police being able to investigate before someone overdoses. He added the app will not replace traditional police work.

"We are not taking a text message from someone and using that to bust into a house," Robertson said, describing it as another "investigative tool" for police to use.

Other ways of alerting the community, such as Nixle, and ways to report crimes, like Crime Stoppers of Somerset County, will not be replaced by the app. It should not be used as an alternative to calling 9-1-1 in an emergency, Somerset County Prosecutor's Office Chief of County Detectives John W. Fodor said.

Fodor said detectives can block users who abuse the app by repeatedly sending in bad tips.

If someone uses the app to report about police misconduct, that information will be forwarded to the prosecutor office's internal affairs department, Fodor said.

Schobel said the power of the app as a crime-fighting tool is its "document it" tool that allows detectives to organize and cross-reference tips.

The app does not collect the app user's IP address or phone identification, Robertson said. Rather, the only identification collected is a "license plate" that confirms the user is in Somerset County when they are sending a tip in.

The app will be promoted through the prosecutor's office's Facebook page, posters and wristbands.

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