Should he tell someone what he’s seen?
Can he make himself tell what he’s seen?
Those thoughts chase themselves around in his head while he walks from class to class. Then he spots the gold and red and blue and black of a poster on the wall: Amherst Police Tip Line.
He can tell. Without getting up the nerve to speak to someone he knows.
Launched on Aug. 19, 2013, the day before classes began at Marion L. Steele High School, Amherst Junior High School and Walter G. Nord Middle School, the Amherst Police Tip Line accepts text messages from students and community residents, then converts them into written messages appearing on dispatch center computers. Dispatchers may be busy with emergency calls, but will read and respond to non-emergency tips and questions as soon as workload permits, usually within a few minutes.
Although not exclusively for use by the nearly 3,000 students enrolled at the three schools, the Amherst (Ohio) Police Department has promoted the Tip Line extensively in the town’s three secondary schools, with a poster campaign and messages on the schools’ Facebook pages. The posters encourage students to text the Tip Line if they have information on drug activity, alcohol activity, known underage drinking parties, planned fights, recent crimes, bullying, concealed weapons or concerns about others.
Police Chief Joseph Kucirek, a veteran of the detective bureau where he often reviewed cell phones as evidence, says “it just seems like kids and society in general text a lot of things they would never say. To give a juvenile, a student, the ability to text someone who can do something about a problem while the student remains in the background, can be a powerful thing. We want students to feel comfortable with telling us, “Johnny’s selling drugs, Bobby brought a knife to school.”
And in the first few weeks of Tip Line use, Kucirek says his department already received one tip related to drug dealing that led to an arrest by a neighboring jurisdiction.
“We were looking at this way before Sandy Hook, and we worked on it through trial and error over the course of about two years,” Kucirek says. “We knew we wanted a system where the dispatcher did not have to answer the phone to reply, because that could take them away from handling an emergency call. We looked at a lot of different options before we found one that let us do what we wanted.”
What Amherst wanted to do was use a cellular phone line to receive the text messages, which the dispatchers could then answer using their terminal and keyboard rather than needing to answer the cellular phone and use it to respond to the text. If emergency calls prohibit an immediate response to pending text messages, the dispatchers get reminders every sixty seconds until text messages are answered.
“There are a lot of anonymous pay-for services out there where you have to text a five-digit number, which seemed very confusing. We also didn’t want to have to deal with prank calls made by students who know they’re anonymous. With this, just like when texting another cell phone, the numbers do show up. We can go back and find out who sent in the tip if we need to, but we would refrain from disclosing that information to other students,” Kucirek says
“We did want to make it clear to the school, to the students, that pranksters or practical jokers could easily lose their cell phones as evidence. But even with the number showing up, I still think the students will tell us things that they normally wouldn’t.”
Kucirek says some of the 41 Amherst staff members helped with internal testing on the software for several months before the public launch, which included press releases on the department’s website and Facebook page, Facebook publicity from the schools and elected officials, and extensive local media coverage.
“We launched it the day before school started to give students and their parents advance knowledge,” Kucirek says. “Then, in addition to putting up the posters in the high school and junior high, we also spread the word to the elementary school staff, because they have cell phones even though most of the children don’t.”
Although the Amherst Police Tip Line generally should not be used in emergency situations, it could be used by hearing/speech impaired persons or by someone who is in a situation where talking could present a danger. Adults as well as students can use it provide tips, and the Tip Line can also be used to ask non-emergency questions such as “What night is trick or treat night?" Also, in this town of about 13,000 residents located some 30 miles from Cleveland, dispatch handles after-hours calls about problems with utilities, which can tie up phone lines. Residents sending a text message about an outage instead of calling could help alleviate that problem, Kucirek says.