FARMINGTON — The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office hopes a new anonymous tip line will increase information brought into the department and help combat underage drinking and other criminal offenses.
The tip line, created in October, was listed as a priority for the department during Sheriff Scott Nichols’ campaign in 2012. He said the tool lets the department get information from residents who otherwise might not makes reports to police.
“Once we get information, we need to cross reference it and investigate,” Nichols said. “It’s a tool to point us in the direction of possible crime and lets people feel more at ease with reporting.”
Nichols said because the tip line is anonymous, the information not enough evidence for the department to get a warrant. The role of the tip line is to notify law enforcement of crime and give detectives a starting point from which to investigate.
“The messages get sent to Canada and scrubbed before they are sent to us, so we have no identifying information,” he said.
John Michaud, director of the School of Legal Studies at Husson University, said tip lines are popular in the law enforcement community because they increase information brought into the department. Michaud previously worked as a federal agent with Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and said even though the organization did not have a formal tip line, it still got anonymous tips.
The tip lines serve to systematically take in these types of tips and reassure people that the police will not know who gave them the information, he said.
“People don’t want to get involved,” Michaud said. “So many people — good people, well-meaning people — they just don’t want to give their names and contact information and addresses to police.”
The Franklin County program was funded by a grant for combating underage drinking from the Healthy Community Coalition, an affiliate of Franklin Community Health Network that promotes preventative health initiatives. Nichols said while the department has specifically been encouraging people to use the line to report underage alcohol and drug use, it can be used for reporting of any non-emergency criminal activity to the department.
The sheriff’s office says tipsters should provide as much information as possible, including names and nicknames of those involved, vehicle descriptions and registration plate numbers, addresses, times and dates of specific activity or any other relevant information. While names of the tipster aren’t required, if a person does give his or hers, Nichols said it will be kept confidential. Names will only be used to validate submissions to the department and give investigators the ability to contact them for further information.
It is possible to have a two-way conversation with the tip line software, according to Lt. David Rackliffe, so a user may get a reply asking for more information or for clarification. However, the deputy replying to the user has no way of knowing their identity unless it is offered.
Rackliffe said the department used the conversation feature with one of the tipsters, asking for more information about drug sales.
“I was able to send a message back and ask if there was a specific time or place where the drugs were being sold,” he said.
When texts or online messages are submitted, they are sent to the detectives and the sheriff so they get the information immediately, Rackliffe said.
Rackliffe said the department has advertised the tip line at the movie theater in Farmington and plans to do more advertising to increase resident use of the tool. So far, less than a dozen tips have come through, he said.
Anonymous tip lines are used throughout the state by different law enforcement agencies, including Portland, Lewiston and Bangor police departments.
The New England Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration announced the launch of its public tip line Wednesday. Special Agent John Arvanitis, head of the New England field division, said in a news release that by texting 847411 with keyword DEADRUGS in the text body, residents who otherwise might be reluctant to provide information are able to tip the agency.
Waterville Police Deputy Chief Charles Rumsey said his department gets about 100 tips annually on their website’s anonymous tip form. He said while the tips have been used primarily for gathering information on drug activity, the tips can run from loud noise complaints to messages about missing toddler Ayla Reynolds, whose case remains unsolved.
“It can be the initial information about an activity or that last missing piece for probable cause after investigating a suspect,” Rumsey said.
Michaud, the Husson professor, said the percentage of anonymous tips that yield information is traditionally low, and said the only downside to having a tip line could be if an agency wasted a lot of time investigating false leads.
But, “I think it’s worth the risk,” Michaud said. “When you’re looking for leads to cases that have run out of places to go, they can give you that last bit of information. With good police work following up on these tips, you might get probable cause.”
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 firstname.lastname@example.org