One of the greatest challenges currently facing the city of New Orleans is widespread crime that impacts both citizens’ daily lives and the city’s economy on the whole (largely regarding tourism revenues). For that reason, I decided to investigate Crimestoppers Inc. of the Greater New Orleans area (CS) and the ways in which this organization uses ICTs to achieve its goals. The overarching goal of CS is to positively impact crime rates. The organization seeks to accomplish this by facilitating the flow of information between citizens who witness crimes and police officials using assurances of anonymity and reward. During the process of communication and tip management, CS uses both communication technologies (land lines, cell phones, and web services) and backroom software (TipSoft) to gather and organize their information which is then relayed to law enforcement individuals. While I will discuss the basic organization and functioning of the ICTs in CS, the most interesting aspects of the program are the failures of the newest technology (texting tips) and its inability to be replicated in many developing cities.
Since 1982, the Crimestoppers Inc of the Greater New Orleans Area has received tens of thousands of tips that have lead to thousands of arrests. Over the years, CS has been able to incorporate increasing amounts of communication technologies and avenues into their programs. CS initially relied on tips from land lines, but as cell phones became more prevalent, they adapted their programs to receive tips from these new devices as well. Similarly, with the advent of the internet, CS has begun to receive web-based tips from an electronic form on their website. The most recent addition to the ICT features of CS has been text message-based tips, which I will discuss further later on. Additionally, since 2002, CS has been using a back office program called TipSoft to manage tips. This software, which has both phone based and remote repair support, allows CS offices across the country to securely manage their information. So far, the trend has been that increased avenues of communication means increased flow of information. In 2010, CS received 2,629 phone tips, 665 web tips, and 29 text tips. The information relayed in these tips led to dozens of arrests and confiscations, including a raid on 7 June 2011 in which police discovered five guns, $38,753 in cash, and one ounce of cocaine.
As evidenced by this example seizure, many people benefit from the CS organization. The citizens of New Orleans get to play an active role in protecting their community. The members of law enforcement benefit from the increased flow of information. Finally, the business community benefits from actively supporting CS (which improves their public image) and potentially from decreased crime rates which would have a positive impact on local businesses. As the members of CS like to note, the organization benefits everyone except for criminals. This share-holder buy-in is particularly important since CS relies on fundraising and grants. Each year, CS hosts two main fundraisers, which indicate the sustainability of the program since donors continue to believe in and help fund the program as long as they see benefits for the community.
While CS has traditionally been a thriving organization that has consistently benefitted from new technologies, a recent campaign to report tips by text has illustrated that not every ICT is equally well suited for reporting tips. The text messages are limited to younger generations which are less likely to report crimes. Also, the text tips that do come in are generally not as useful to CS and law enforcement since they are short, use often incomprehensible abbreviations, and only contain the information that the tipster chooses to provide. With phone and web communications, CS workers can use forms or ask specific questions to ensure that they have all the pertinent information. Accordingly, CS illustrates that the newest technologies are not always the best or most appropriate. As for an international context, while Crimestoppers does exist internationally, it is unlikely that the program could ever succeed in the most crime-ridden areas. In Mexican border cities such as Ciudad Juarez, for example, law enforcement tends to be so corrupt that they could not be trusted to preserve the anonymity of tipsters. Additionally, in many of these most dangerous cities, there is not an active climate of citizen participation in the judicial system as most residents would rather look the other way than become involved and face a certainly brutal death. The domestic applications of Crimestoppers, however, have proven successful. While it would be exceedingly difficult to prove CS’s impacts on crime rates, it is easy to see that the organization, using various ICTs, has been able to facilitate the safe flow of information from citizens to law enforcement.