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Anonymous texts aid police, weary tipsters

By Denise Lavoie
Associated Press / November 29, 2009

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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.

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 antisnitching 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 cellphones.

In Boston, the first city to heavily promote texting for crime tips, police have received more than 1,000 tips since the program began two years ago.

Police credit text tips for providing them with key leads in at least four high-profile killings, including: the accidental shooting of Liquarry Jefferson by his cousin; an arson fire that killed two children; the shooting of a Boston teen on her 18th birthday; and the fatal stabbing of a man during a bar fight.

Officer Michael Charbonnier, who oversees the 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.

“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.

People feared retaliation for talking to police, but with texting programs, police never see the tipster’s name or phone 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.

Charbonnier said police, who promise tipsters confidentiality and anonymity, have never tried to get a tipster’s identity from the third-party company.