By Carly Wanna
PHILADELPHIA, PA, July 23, 2019 (Philadelphia Inquirer) – Several times a week, the Camden County Police Department asks the public for help. Police post on social media requesting tips on a missing person, fugitive, or suspect in a crime.
Citizens can report what they know about criminal activity in the city of Camden via a variety of platforms –– the department tipline, a phone call, and, now, texts from a smartphone.
On April 18, Camden’s police force became the second department in New Jersey to contract with STOPit Solutions, which provides an app that allows users to anonymously send crime tips to law enforcement through messages, photos, and videos. The Camden County department paid $4,500 to use the app for a year, and has the right to renew it, according to county spokesperson Dan Keashen.
Anonymous tips are far from new in Camden, but the app encapsulates the benefits — and, to some, the potential pitfalls — of crime reporting in the digital age.
“We look for different ways to interface with the people that we serve,” said Lt. Zsakhiem James, a community commander in Camden. “There’s some strength in anonymity. We’re building our relationship with the public.”
Since the launch of the app, James said, the department has received nearly 500 criminal incident reports, and 600 people have signed up to use it.
Once a user downloads the free app, STOPit prompts the user to enter an access code — in this case, “camdennj” — to connect with the proper channel. Centering the home screen is a large megaphone with “REPORT” written below it. Click the icon, and the app displays a text box with options to add photos and video.
The application does not replace 911, which James said residents should still call for emergencies.
James said he could not share specifics about the tips people submit on the app because many involve ongoing criminal investigations. Still, he said, people report “all kinds of things” — prostitution, drug complaints, information on homicides, and more. Many of these tips have been helpful, he said.
STOPit also has a feature that allows police departments to make announcements. James said they have yet to use this feature, sticking to their Twitter and Facebook accounts instead.
The Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office in Central New Jersey was the first law enforcement agency in the nation to use the app in October 2017. Somerset has received 350 anonymous reports on a variety of incidents, including fugitives, narcotics, and information on homicides, according to Detective Jeanne Trillhaase, the public information officer for the Prosecutor’s Office.
“STOPit is a powerful tool that allows citizens to provide information to law enforcement anonymously, without fear of reprisal,” Somerset County Prosecutor Michael Robertson said in a statement. “Law enforcement cannot be everywhere, so citizens are often our best source of information.”
In 2013, STOPit Solutions, based in Holmdel, N.J., rolled out an app to prevent bullying in schools, offering students the option to anonymously report harassment to administrators. Since then, STOPit has diversified its products and now serves 4,000 networks, including police departments, schools, and workplaces. More than 80,000 incident reports have been filed on the app worldwide since its debut, the company said.
Camden residents have long been able to call in tips anonymously through the police hotline. But apps used to send unnamed tips are new, and criminology researchers do not have firm data on the impacts of these technologies.
Nathan Link, an assistant professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at Rutgers-Camden, said researchers must rely on anecdotal evidence to evaluate unproven apps like STOPit, which Link says has its pros and cons. The anonymity of the app could encourage otherwise reluctant citizens to report crime, he said, but there is a danger that overzealous reporting could target specific individuals or communities, particularly communities of color.
“When you put these sort of powers in people’s hands, it can bring out the racism from some people,” he said.
Link said he’s not sure how effective STOPit will be in Camden, where residents have long hesitated to engage with law enforcement.
Miguel Arriaga, owner of Miguel’s Pharmacy in East Camden and a Camden community leader, was more optimistic. He said the app fits in well with today’s digital world, and residents are using it.