Dialing for Dollars
With the advent of Crime Stoppers, reporting an offense has become synonymous with reaping a reward. And now, Crime Stoppers has found a new target: public schools.
"Money is the only incentive that drives teenagers these days," explains Bellaire High School senior William Speer.
The statistics seem to bear his theory out. The organization boasts that it has cracked more than 300 cases relating to Harris County schools, with offenses that include bomb threats, guns and other illegal weapons, and gang activity. Snitches have walked away with more than $50,000 in rewards.
The Crime Stoppers Safe School Program of Houston works much like the standard Crime Stoppers. Students with information about criminal activities are advised to call the hot line. They are then given a code number, providing them with anonymity. If the lead results in an arrest and charges against a suspect, the tipster gets a cash payout ranging from $50 to $5,000.
"Over 200 schools in Harris County have used the Crime Stopper Safe School Program," says Myriam Turrubiates, the program's assistant manager. "It has reduced crime in our schools, introduced anonymity to students and has been able to provide cash rewards as an incentive for reporting crime."
The program was limited to a handful of local schools when it began in 1997. However, Harris County Commissioners Court came up with $25,000 in 2000 to allow the program to hire a full-time coordinator and expand throughout the county, according to Turrubiates.
About 20 districts are now linked with the county's Crime Stoppers. Officials say some outlying districts -- including Goose Creek, La Porte, Clear Creek and Pearland -- have programs operated by the students themselves, even to the point of deciding the reward amounts for each tip.
Officer Dwight L. Moore, the HISD police officer at Bellaire High School, says he'd like to eventually start a student Crime Stoppers organization of perhaps 300 to 500 students at that school.
Since adding Crime Stoppers last spring, Moore has reported receiving two calls from the program -- neither of them turned out to be valid. The first tip-off reported that a student might be bringing a gun to school. The other reported that a robbery would be taking place on campus. While the tips didn't pan out, Moore strongly believes that the program is necessary on campus and that it deters students from committing crimes.
"The overall picture is that now students know that if they commit a crime there's a possibility that someone will call Crime Stoppers," Moore says.
Moore touted the program through discussions in PE and health classes. However, students such as Speer believe most kids still aren't giving it much notice, reducing its chances for ultimate success.
"However successful the program has been in other places, Crime Stoppers faces the problem of being ineffective because of the fact that nobody knows that it exists," says Speer.
When Lamar High senior Heather Degan is asked about how students there heard of the program, she says thoughtfully, "They didn't." She says her only knowledge of it is from signs placed throughout the school, which students regard mockingly.
"I saw the signs around school and on the buses. But have people talked about it? Jokingly," Degan says. "You see it on the bus, and you joke about it. You see it posted up on the wall outside, and you joke about it." Her voice reaches a deep, infomercial-esque pitch. "If you see a crime, look on the wall, and call 1-800-Crime Stoppers."
Well, the actual number is 713-222-TIPS.
The program also reaches out to middle school kids. Bill Bedner, now a student at Bellaire, recalls a police officer casually mentioning the program to him during his days at Pershing Middle School.
"I remember a police officer coming up to me and saying, 'Hey, if you know of your friends doing something wrong, you can call Crime Stoppers and get paid.' It just seemed really wrong to rat on your friends for money," Bedner says. "Obviously if you think someone is doing something that can hurt other people, you would want to tell on them for everyone's safety, not for cash."
Some students, such as Bedner and Degan, consider it contradictory for schools to emphasize ethical behavior to students, yet still feel the need to lure them with money.
"It just seems really weird how they try to stress to you when you are young to be a good, moral person. But then with programs like this they say, 'Well, we don't really trust you -- you probably need money as an incentive,' " says Bedner.
Despite possible moralistic concerns, the Safe School Program anticipated that students might be hesitant to use Crime Stoppers because of a fear of retaliation.
"Since Crime Stoppers' inception there have not been any records of retaliation," states Turrubiates. "Our success is due to the fact that we provide anonymity "
Program supporters believe that it provides a realistic approach to get students to report crimes.
"The program itself is great. Innocent people are rewarded with monetary gains while the wrongdoer is punished for his crime," Speer says. "They aren't worried about what message they're sending; what they care about is a way to catch the criminal. The only way to get people to take a risk to tell on someone is to entice them with something that drives them."
The big picture for Harris County schools remains this: If money is what it takes to put students on the side of the school, then so be it.
"You just want to prevent a crime from happening," says Officer Moore. "I have 3,200 students around here, and they have more eyes than I do. If they want to have a safe learning environment, they need to speak up."
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