Police may send crime alerts by texting our cell phones


March 20, 2009|By Peter Hernann | Peter Hernann,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

The Baltimore Police Department is already coming to your computer on Facebook and Twitter. Soon, cops may be sending text messages to your cell phone.

City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is urging the agency to deliver breaking crime alerts to help cops quickly apprehend criminals and satisfy demands from residents who want to know, immediately, all the bad things happening around their homes.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, who is bringing the department into the Internet age, told me that officials are studying the idea. He suggested that it is probably an inevitable next step as information and rumor now spread faster than bureaucracy can handle.

"It's only a matter of time before government catches up," he said.

Giving out information about crime, especially as it is happening, is not something police agencies do particularly well or efficiently. Information at crime scenes can be painfully scant, wrong and conflicting, and it can take hours before it is sorted and delivered to the public coherently and accurately.

It used to be that live television was a police department's greatest concern regarding information. Now any bystander with a cell phone can take pictures and notes and publish on the Internet as fast as a cop can put up crime scene tape.

Last summer, city police angered residents of Mount Vernon and Charles Village by failing to tell them about a serial rapist attacking women in their homes, saying the blackout was necessary to preserve their investigation. Several people complained that they saw plenty of suspicious people and would have called or taken more precautions had they known a rapist was in their midst.

Rawlings-Blake told me that other police jurisdictions send out text alerts, "so you know there's a way for us to do things better. I think it's responsible and responsive. There's a lot more that can be done to break down the barriers of communication and trust between the citizens and the Police Department."

Police in Washington are using federal homeland security grant money for text alerts, which they typically send out after a robbery. Here's one that D.C. police sent at 5:04 a.m. yesterday:

"Robbery Gun_0447 Hours on Eastern Avenue between 56th Avenue & Porter Court, NE_lof Older B/M armed with a 38 caliber revolver wearing black jacket black hat dark blue jeans walking with a crutch on Eastern Avenue, NE DO NOT TAKE ACTION CALL 911."

D.C. started its texting program in November, and police told me it hasn't yet prompted tips leading to an arrest. But at least the community is quickly informed of what is going on. In Baltimore, crime news is disseminated in a variety of ways through the department, its Internet site, the news media, at community meetings and through neighborhood associations. Private Internet companies also map crime, but some of their information is collected through neighborhood bulletins, not from official sources.

I wish the police would post all crime data online every day so everybody gets the same information at the same time. Several universities in Baltimore and Maryland text crime alerts, and people can now text in tips to Metro Crime Stoppers. The city school system is considering allowing students to text in tips about bullying, gangs and other problems.

It is crime in real time, and it might be coming to a cell phone near you.

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