Cellphone app changing the way Janesville police solve crimes
JANESVILLE—A Parker High School student sent a photo of a gun via Snapchat last spring with the message: “Don't come to school tomorrow.”
Janesville police found out about it because of a new phone app that allows people to send crime tips instantly and anonymously. It seems young people are leaders in embracing the new technology and changing the way police solve crimes.
Tips to Janesville Area CrimeStoppers are coming in faster than ever before since the P3 Tips app was adopted in 2015. Officer Chad Sullivan believes it will help police prevent and solve more crimes.
Police have promoted the app in middle and high schools. It allows anyone to send a photo or screen shot, and that's what happened in the Parker case: Someone forwarded the photo of the weapon in the student's hand.
The threat was an empty one, but if it had been serious, the tip would have allowed police to avert a disaster.
Police later caught the student, who said it was a joke, Sullivan said, and the gun turned out to be a BB gun.
The same app delivered a photo of a knife with a brass-knuckles handle, with a message that a Milton High School student had it in a backpack, Sullivan said.
School officials searched but did not find the knife.
In a third incident, a student sent a message through the P3 Tips app that another student was saying strange things and acting despondent after a girl declined to go to a dance with him, Sullivan said.
Police alerted school officials. And although nothing came of it, the incident shows that the app can alert officials in the case of a student who had never been in trouble with the law—like many who committed school shootings, Sullivan said.
Parents also could be alerted, leading to the discovery of weapons before anything happens, Sullivan speculated.
“We're going to prevent a school shooting in Rock County because somebody used the technology,” he said.
Sullivan believes there's something about being able to send a tip anonymously, and not having to talk to anyone, that makes people comfortable about supplying information.
The numbers seem to back him up.
The app went live in September 2015, replacing an earlier texting app. The number of Janesville Area CrimeStoppers tips increased from 310 that year to 495 in 2016 to 822 so far this year.
Janesville was one of the first in the country to use the app because Sullivan met a developer at a conference and persuaded the company to give it a try here.
Another case resolved through a P3 tip was the theft of $8,369 from the TAASBAG tavern in Janesville last week, one day after police publicized a photo of a suspect.
“Even the most trivial of crimes we're solving because people are using the technology. ... That allows us to solve crimes we might normally not be able to solve,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the app is not just a computerized tip line. Among its capabilities:
-- It allows the tipster to send a photo, video or screen shot along with the tip.
-- All law enforcement agencies in the county except Beloit receive the tips. Beloit is just starting its own P3 tips line, Sullivan said.
-- Sullivan can forward a tip to school officials in the case of a student who needs counseling, for example.
-- Sullivan can start a conversation with the tipster via text messaging, gathering more information while maintaining the anonymity.
But it's not just about crime, he said. If someone is worried that a friend might be suicidal, an anonymous tip could result in the friend getting help.
Sullivan said the recent training Janesville officers received in crisis intervention pairs up nicely with the app's capabilities.
“We have the ability to help somebody in crisis, which is awesome. We just have to get to them before they lose their mind or do something horrible,” Sullivan said.
“We need just one person to say something. That allows us to get out there and do something,” he added.
The app is paired with a call center that used the longstanding Janesville Area CrimeStoppers number. Call-takers send all the voice tips through P3 Tips, so they are relayed to police quickly.
The local CrimeStoppers, a nonprofit organization, uses the donations it receives to pay for the app, at $1,500 a month, and the call center, at $1,200 a month, Sullivan said.
Rewards for arrests also have gone up, from $1,600 in 2015 to $4,550 in 2016 and $3,950 so far this year.
Sullivan believes the numbers will continue to grow as more people start using the app.
Sullivan said people involved in criminal activity actually like to report crimes. For some, it's the rewards. Others, he believes, feel empowered to use an app that gets results without a lot of hassle.
The app recently became available on the tablets Rock County Jail inmates use. With a little promotion, Sullivan thinks tips from inmates soon will be coming in.