Sgt. Fred Forsythe, the supervisor, turned to his computer – the source of the chiming noise – and brought up the department’s new crime information website.
“That’s an anonymous tip about the whereabouts of two people who may have warrants out on them,” Forsythe told a Star reporter, before putting out calls to another police lieutenant and the department warrants team to check up on the tip.
“Nearly every case … 90 percent of our cases rely on citizen tips, especially in investigations,” Forsythe said. A new website called Citizen Observer, started up last month by Anniston Lt. Allen George, has made it easier for residents who witness or have information about crimes in the city to send their anonymous tips to police.
Now, both Anniston residents and police have instant access to visual information about when, where and how often those crimes are occurring with the addition of an interactive crime-map website.
Since setting up the Citizen Observer site, George has spent the past several weeks working out the map portion’s final technological glitches. He said the crime map has been fully functional since last week.
“So every case, type of crime, address, and date and time it occurred, it’s all entered onto the map,” George said. “All the reports each day are entered as the dispatch clerks clear them.”
The map has a dual use, police officials said. It allows Anniston residents to have access – with a click of a button – to the most recent information about crimes in their neighborhoods and gives police the opportunity to instantly monitor recent crime trends and patterns.
That’s something that helps both the investigations and patrol divisions of the police department, officials said.
Investigators can use the anonymous tipping service and the map to seek out information about recently committed crimes that share similar characteristics – including suspect profiles, type of crimes and area where the crimes are occurring – with open cases they are investigating.
“For example, if an investigator gets a case that … matches the description of a case from a year ago, he can pull up the map to see what happened in that case a year ago,” Forsythe said.
And that kind of instant access to information without having to dig through paper reports – along with the now-easy ability for Anniston residents to e-mail or text anonymous tips – will help investigators close cases more quickly, Forsythe said.
“Obviously we’re trying to move this department forward,” the sergeant said.
The interactive map is also “moving forward” the patrol division’s ability to target higher-crime areas, specific areas for specific crimes like burglaries, drug dealing or car thefts as well as specific areas during specific hours of the day.
“Being what it is, the crime map shows the dates, times and locations of crimes, and – basically – it gives us a profile of the peak times,” said Sgt. Nick Bowles, a patrol supervisor for one of the day shifts. “If it’s a burglary ring, we know it’s in a specific five-block area, or if we need to schedule a special detail … we know where to set it up and the times the crimes are occurring between. It gives a profile of criminal activity for the whole city.”
In the past, it used to take long hours of digging through reports and plotting out crimes on a city map for officers to have access to that kind of holistic profile of criminal activity, officials said.
With the interactive map and tip system, the map is updated as soon as the clerks receive the crime reports and enter them onto the website.
“And then residents can access the map through a link on our Facebook page and can select what types of crimes they want to view,” George said. “Right now, there’s not enough data to get an overall view of city crime, but down the road, it will be really helpful in terms of scheduling patrolling and investigations.”
Since the Citizen Observer website began last month, officials said, more than 100 city residents have signed up to receive crime alerts from the police department, and officers have so far received seven tips via e-mail and text message.
George hopes the interactive crime map will encourage more residents to sign up for the interactive service and report information about crimes.
Both the Citizen Observer site and the interactive map can be accessed through the department’s Facebook page.
Anniston police have paid $7,200 for two years to use the Citizen Observer and interactive map technology and they say it’s taxpayer dollars well-spent.
“My big hope is that it really takes off in helping us inform the public and enlisting their help to solve crimes,” George said.
Contact Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele at 256-235-3562.