- By Julie Sturgeon
- October 1st, 2009
In all the years the anonymous tip line has sat in John Jackson’s office, the chief of police at Babson College has never received a call. He chalks it up to two reasons:
With only 1,800 undergraduates on the Massachusetts campus, the officers get to know students on a personal basis. Jackson loves to tell the story about a graduation day several years ago when, on the only day he wears an official police uniform, the seniors were hugging him and taking their photo with him. One older lady asked, “Officer, have all those students been in trouble? You seem to know an awful lot of them.”
“This is a small college and the president likes us to interact with students, be visible, work with sports teams, etc.,” he said. “For a lot of students, if they’re going to tell us something, it’s face to face.”
Code of silence.
In that atmosphere, if someone knows something and remains quiet, it’s because the student didn’t want “to rat the guy out,” as Jackson said he consistently discovers after the dust settles. Anonymity isn’t the ticket to sway this group of students from their convictions.
His system is simple: an answering machine connected to a dedicated phone line that doesn’t have caller identification. In fact, the officers can’t even pick up the phone and talk on it; Chief Jackson himself checks it on a regular basis.
But like the Maytag repairman, he’s finding the task a bit lonely. The silence continues.
Tip Line Options
These days, anonymous reporting methods for college campuses are a bit more sophisticated than an answering machine. The Naval Postgraduate School and California State University Northridge, for example, have teamed up with the online, non-profit service We Tip to give students an avenue to call or e-mail information without revealing their identities. The service has actually been around since 1972 to allow citizens to report what they know about crimes in their communities — it staffs the phones and e-mails 24/7, 365 days a year with real-time We Tip employees who relay information on to the corresponding law enforcement they’ve contracted with.
The first sentence of their greeting specifically asks callers not to identify themselves by name, and if the caller wants to be eligible for any rewards, the We Tip employee assigns a code name and number to the information.
But while Purdue University supports the Tippecanoe County’s We Tip hotline number where the Indiana campus is located, the police department at this Big Ten school continues to operate its own reporting line. You guessed it: a phone line sans caller I.D. that rings directly into a voice mailbox.
Some officers, like Jackson at Babson College and Deputy Chief of Police Chuck Miner at the University of Minnesota, say the volume of e-mail tips are on the rise — the Golden Gophers are receiving two or three written communications a day versus zero on the phone hotline. It has yet to set up a text system, but Miner believes that will also see more traffic when they do.
“It’s hard to say why our hotline is not used more. It would be nice because the more information coming in, the better,” said Miner. Yet despite a large campus of 51,000 students and 16,000 employees, his dedicated phone line/voice mailbox is seldom used, either. The University implemented it roughly 10 years ago in response to a domestic terrorism incident when police were seeking clues on vandalism/burglary by an animal rights extremist group. They did get a fair amount of tips during that incident, and left the number in place for everyday use.
On those rare occasions it does ring (usually during high-profile crimes when the media heavily publicizes the number), “people will leave their name and number on there,” said Miner. “They think it’s just a way to leave a message for the police department.” Even when reporting that a roommate is dealing drugs — a situation that supposedly screams for secrecy — his students tend to leave a traceable trail as opposed to taking the anonymous route.
It’s the same story at Babson College, where Jackson said his 24-hour dispatch desk takes calls and allows students to remain anonymous if they choose. The behind-the-scenes information flow from that quarter is much heavier, but not necessarily unidentified.
Yes, You Need a Tip Line
Still, neither police chief has any intention of removing the phone. For starters, there’s no cost to the university. Jackson said it’s a great selling point when he makes safety presentations in the community.
Second, if no one is using it, that also means it’s not being abused with rambunctious students phoning to squeal on a roommate who is taking too long in the shower, or is sleeping with her boyfriend. It’s just the opposite: The information trickle Miner has received so far has been useful. “It’s usually stuff like ‘I saw somebody that looks like that and they were walking across the bridge at such-and-such time.” They aren’t solving the case, but providing some leads,” he noted.
“It’s a good benefit when you need it, so it makes sense to have it set up ahead of time,” Miner added.
Likewise, Jackson keeps his answering machine plugged in at all times. “It’s just to let people know they do have options,” he said. “You never know.”