As San Francisco's murder rate hit a 10-year high in 2005, police and prosecutors often pleaded for more witnesses to come forward to help solve numerous stabbings and shootings. But in many neighborhoods, witnesses’ fear of retaliation against themselves or their families often make them reluctant to go to the police with information.
Police and prosecutors cite the problem as one of the main reasons arrests were made in only 43 of the 184 murders in 2004 and 2005, according to District Attorney Kamala Harris. But San Francisco lacks a basic program that local and national law enforcement agencies say has become an effective tool in enticing reluctant witnesses to provide tips about murders, rapes and robberies — Crimestoppers. The 29-year old program is used in about 1,200 communities nationwide and around the world and now some officials want to bring it to The City.
City officials said it might have been effective in helping bring forward witnesses in a 2003 murder in the Lower Haight. In the case of Kevin Coleman, reported in The Examiner recently, his father investigated the murder and found a witness to the crime after the District Attorney’s Office said it did not have enough information to prosecute the killer.
“When our biggest problem is getting information about perpetrators of crime — this is one program that works well,” said Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, who has been an advocate for Crimestoppers. The Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice is looking at the possibility of establishing a program here.
The idea is simple: set up an anonymous 24-hour tip line that allows witnesses to provide information about crimes without having to publicly reveal their identity. The tip line is staffed by police officers or trained volunteers, who turn over useful information to investigators. If a tip leads to an arrest and an indictment, the tipster is given an award of up to $1,000. The tipster maintains his or her anonymity because he or she is identified by a numerical code that is used by the tip line and the bank where the reward is collected.
The program often involves participation by local media and a car that drives around neighborhoods where crimes occur, broadcasting the number for the Crimestoppers tip line. In most communities, the program is entirely funded by corporate or private donations. Tony Fasanella, CEO of the First Responder Foundation, is working to set up San Francisco's Crimestoppers program. He estimates it would cost around $60,000 to get Crimestoppers up and running.
There is some evidence the program can be effective. A 2003 study by a trio of British researchers found the United Kingdom's Crimestoppers program appeared “to play a small, but significant part in the fight against crime.” The study attributed more than 5,400 arrests and convictions in the U.K. in 2000 to tips provided to the Crimestoppers hotline.
Currently, San Francisco police have an anonymous tip line, but rewards are only offered on a case-by-case basis. Police said the tip line has produced 24 calls since the beginning of the year, but would not disclose if any helped solve crimes.