LONG BEACH — The homicide investigators were all but stumped. A 20-year-old man had been gunned down in a crowded dance hall, but no witnesses seemed willing to come forward with clues to the gunman's identity.
The detectives, however, got help.
Shortly after the June 15 shooting, an account of the incident was published in local newspapers and broadcast on radio stations as part of a weekly feature from a group called Crime Stoppers. If someone called police with information that led to an arrest, that person would be eligible for a cash reward up to $1,000.
Three days after the feature appeared, police got a tip. For the homicide detectives, it was the break they needed--further investigation led to the arrest of a street gang member in the shooting.
It wasn't the first time Crime Stoppers has lent a hand to law enforcement in Long Beach. Since its inception nearly two years ago, the Crime Stoppers program has led to the conviction of numerous hoodlums for crimes ranging from burglary to murder.
"A lot of times, police will be stuck with a case where there are no tips, no clues, no witnesses," said Detective Robert McDonnell, who oversees the Crime Stoppers program for Long Beach police. "In a situation like that, something like Crime Stoppers can really help."
Among Nine Cities
Long Beach is among nine California cities and nearly 600 communities throughout the United States and Canada with police departments who use Crime Stoppers, an anonymous tip program.
The concept is simple. Police officers have for years used money, mostly from their own pockets, to pay informants for tips, McDonnell said. With Crime Stoppers, he said, police are trying to expand on that concept.
A person calls the special Crime Stoppers number, (213) 491-LBPD, and gives any information about a crime to McDonnell. Informants never give police their names; instead, each is assigned an identification number. That number is used to identify the tipster if the information helps lead to an arrest and charges are brought.
By publishing and broadcasting information about the crime, police hope to get the casual witness "who saw something but really wasn't aware it was a crime" to come forward, McDonnell said. In addition, police have found that thieves often will turn in one another when a monetary reward is involved. Finally, witnesses who are afraid of retaliation are put more at ease by the anonymity of the program, according to McDonnell.
So far, 78 criminal cases in Long Beach have been solved because of Crime Stoppers tips, McDonnell said. Thirty-two people have been arrested and 31 were convicted of the crimes. In addition, more than $160,000 in stolen property and narcotics has been recovered because of such tips.
While police are involved with the job of screening calls and investigating crimes, the payment of rewards is handled by a nonprofit corporation made up of Long Beach residents and business people.
Each month, a three-member committee of corporation members meets to decide how much reward money a tipster gets. According to McDonnell, only about one in 20 tips proves helpful in leading to an arrest.
It is the responsibility of the corporation to raise money for the reward fund through donations and fund-raising events. None of the money comes from tax dollars.
Since the Long Beach program began, nearly $4,000 in reward money has been distributed to 18 tipsters, McDonnell said. Those rewards generally run about $100. Although Crime Stopper material promises rewards of up to $1,000, the highest amount given so far has been $500 to the informant involved in the June 15 murder case. Four people have declined to accept any reward.
While backers of the program maintain it has been a useful tool for Long Beach police, Crime Stoppers has not been without its critics.
Dave Ryan, a Long Beach police detective who helped organize and run Crime Stoppers early on, said the program has been hurt by limited contributions to the reward fund.
With little money--the nonprofit corporation currently has about $2,000 in its kitty--the rewards have been too low to attract sufficient interest, Ryan said.
"My personal feeling is it's a fancy-looking window with nothing behind the glass," Ryan said, adding that he felt the program could potentially become "really good" if handled properly. Ryan said he thought the police department should be authorized to solicit funds.
But Police Cmdr. Jerry Heath said he felt fund raising would be an "improper role" for the department. "We're not here to go out and solicit funds," Heath said.
Even some of the biggest supporters of Crime Stoppers acknowledge the Long Beach program has been hurt by the scarcity of reward money.
"If we had more money we could do a heck of a lot more," said Ron Frank, a retired downtown businessman and a member of the Crime Stoppers board. "There's no question the lack of funds is slowing us down."