New Dallas police effort invites crime tips via Web and text, as well as phone
11:15 PM CDT on Sunday, October 3, 2010
By SCOTT GOLDSTEIN / The Dallas Morning News
Dallas police are calling on residents to keep a closer eye on their neighborhoods and to send potential criminal tips, photos and eventually video anonymously via a new website, text messages and iPhone and BlackBerry applications they are rolling out this week.
It's all part of iWatchDallas.net, which officially launches today, a program modeled after a similar one begun last year in Los Angeles. Police say it is a key piece of their vision for the 21st-century version of crime watch programs.
"Not many people in the 20-something, 30-something age group participate in crime watch in Dallas," Police Chief David Brown said. "I think those age groups are concerned about crime in Dallas, but they don't see the functionality of sitting in a meeting to communicate. I think the way they communicate all the time is through text, e-mail, that type of medium."
Brown, a 27-year veteran of the department, has pushed for such a program since before he became chief in the spring. He said that despite falling crime rates, Dallas police can do a better job of engaging community members to reduce crime.
Other major cities could launch similar programs soon and the Major Cities Chiefs Association has formally endorsed a national push for the initiative.
The Los Angeles version of the program, which primarily seeks information related to possible terrorist plots, has drawn criticism from some who say it encourages racial and religious profiling. Dallas police officials say those concerns are less likely to arise here, since they are mainly seeking information on more common street crimes.
The iWatchDallas.net home page will include detailed information on what types of behaviors and activities could indicate a terrorist plot. But more emphasis is on indicators of auto crimes, gangs, prostitution, burglary, narcotics, swindling and fencing. Officials hope to keep people coming back to the site with videos of real criminals in the act.
The potential for impropriety is still there, said Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
"Spying on each other just feels so Soviet Russia," Simpson said. "It's hard to have these programs [not] feel like they're going to turn into petty grievances against each other ... So the vetting process is critical obviously."
Brown dismissed the criticism, particularly the possibility of racial profiling.
"I just think that's the absolutely wrong way to look at it, if you just go jump right straight to race being the problem with reporting suspicious activity," the chief said. "I think that's a loser argument in my opinion, and that gets you away from the larger issue, the larger issue being how do you participate in your own public safety?"
People should continue to call 911 for emergencies that need an immediate response. But police said they hoped iWatchDallas.net would capture a flow of criminal tips that residents previously may have kept to themselves.
"Most people know ... someone knocking on your door not selling anything is suspicious," Brown said. "Most people know people walking in your alleys during the middle of the day is suspicious. Most people know a guy looking in windows in the parking lot at the movie theater is suspicious. But there's not a process to get that type of information to the Police Department."
All of the submitted information will go straight to the Police Department's intelligence-gathering and analysis unit, known as the Fusion Center, which opened in January 2007 and operates 24/7 with an overall staff of 25. The Fusion Center is tasked with vetting the information and passing it to the appropriate units if the information is deemed actionable.
Safer Dallas Better Dallas, a nonprofit that supports the Dallas police, provided roughly $10,000 to $15,000 for the development of the handheld device applications. No other new funds or staffing is being put toward the endeavor, officials said.
William J. Bratton has led both the New York and Los Angeles police departments. He left the LAPD in November, a few months after iWatchLA launched. The iWatch concept is the next logical phase of post-Sept. 11 security apparatus, Bratton said.
"It's basically a continuum," said Bratton, chairman of a division of Virginia-based security company Altegrity. "First was a matter of getting the local police involved in dealing with counterterrorism initiatives. And then local police, and basically starting to work on getting local security and private security, and now moving it into the public sector."
AT A GLANCE: HOW iWATCHDALLAS WORKS
Tipsters who visit www.iWatchDallas.net can submit information via a form that includes lines for potential suspects' physical description, employment information, address, vehicle information and the ability to upload photos.
Tipsters can text "DPD" followed by information to CRIMES (274637) or submit tips via downloadable iWatchDallas applications for BlackBerry, Android and other handheld devices. Police officials expect an iPhone application will also be available in the coming days.
Tipsters can also call 214-671-4847 and leave a message.
Information contributed by: The Dallas Morning News