NEW CUMBERLAND-Calling every cellphone user a potential tipster, the Hancock County Sheriff's Department launched on Wednesday an Internet-based tool that enables the public to report crimes anonymously and immediately.
The tip411 feature allows cellphone and smartphone users to message anonymous tips to the sheriff's department, and deputies to respond back, creating a two-way "chat" through the computer, texting and iPhone or Android phone applications.
"This is a great tool-another tool in our arsenal to combat crime in our jurisdiction," Sheriff Ralph Fletcher said. "I just hope it gets used in the way that it can."
Fletcher, who first mentioned the idea at a townhall meeting in Newell last year, said Hancock County is the only county in West Virginia to offer the program-although it is used by more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide.
Fletcher said tip411 is one way for the sheriff's department to capitalize on the fact that so many people use smartphones and smartphone applications. "It's a different generation out there, so we're trying to reach out to as many people as we can," he said.
Tips using the tip411 feature, including photos, can be sent in the following ways:
* By downloading the app on a smartphone. The app is available for free download at the Google Play store or iTunes by searching "Hancock County Sheriff's Office" or by visiting the sheriff's department's website at www.HancockCountyWV.org.
* By sending a text on a regular cellphone to the recipient 847411. The text should be composed using the keyword "HCSOWV," followed by a space and the tip information.
* By visiting the sheriff's department's Facebook page (Facebook.com/HCSOWV) or website.
Once the tip is sent, it goes automatically to Fletcher, Chief Deputy Art Watson and the shift sergeants, who can assign a deputy to follow up on the information. No identifying information about the tipster is included in the message, Fletcher said.
"It's 100 percent anonymous," he said. "A lot of people- they want to help, they want to offer information, but they don't want to be involved beyond that."
Watson said he hopes the tip411 feature enhances the sheriff's department's capacity to respond not only to crimes but also to crimes in the making.
"There's so much we can glean from this immediately, that we can pass on to the officer in the field," he said. "Any type of tip is welcome, in order to help us be more efficient in doing our duties."
Watson said tip411 is not meant as a substitute for 911, which still should be used for the reporting of emergencies.
Funding for the program, at $6,000 a year, is coming from the sheriff's department's budget, Fletcher said. The feature is provided by Citizen Observer, a St. Paul, Minn., company that provides Web-based alerting tools to law enforcement agencies in more than 40 states.
Citizen Observer also provides technical support and marketing materials, which the sheriff's department will use in the coming months to spread the word about tip411.
"We wouldn't be able to solve the crimes that we do without the good people of our county," Fletcher said.