National

Text-a-tip programs aid police in fighting crime

BOSTON — A mother in Boston tells police her 8-year-old boy was shot to death in their apartment by gunmen in hooded sweatshirts during a home invasion.

Officers later receive a text message from an anonymous tipster that leads them to a much different conclusion: the boy's 7-year-old cousin accidentally shot him while the two boys were playing with a loaded 9 mm handgun.

Meanwhile, authorities in Douglas County, Colo., thwarted a threatened Columbine-style attack after an anonymous text about a student's "kill list" led them to weapons in the child's home.

After struggling for years with an anti-snitching culture that made witnesses too afraid to come forward, police across the country are getting help from text-a-tip programs that allow people to send anonymous text messages from their cell phones.

Boston Officer Michael Charbonnier, who oversees the city's program, said people who live in high-crime neighborhoods are often afraid that if they talk to police, they could be hurt or even killed by gang members, drug dealers or other criminals.

"It's either call 911 or live with the bad guy. And if you call, there could be repercussions," he said.

"So when they have this option of texting us — knowing no one will know who they are — well, now, people give us license plate numbers, they give us names," Charbonnier said.

With the texting programs, police never see the tipster's name or telephone number. The text messages are sent to a separate, third-party server, where identifying information is stripped out and they are assigned an encrypted alias before being sent to police.

Texting programs have caught on across the country. The exact number is hard to pinpoint, but Anderson Software, one of the leading providers of technology for text-a-tip programs, has at least 400 law enforcement clients.

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