Crime Stoppers brings hope, controversy

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KPD Chief Eve Thomas explains the Crime Stoppers program. Photos by Jenna Stambaugh.

Sometimes the hardest part of a criminal investigation is getting the people who may have information about, say, a burglary or a murder to share what they know with police.

There are plenty of reasons why people don’t share voluntarily that information. Loyalty to loved ones who may be involved in the crime, for instance, often plays a role. But so do fear and, sometimes, coldly rational self-interest.

Perhaps nothing can be done about the first factor so long as people are people, but the men and women behind East Tennessee Valley Crime Stoppers believe they can help conquer the other two and make the community safer as a result by helping Knoxville Police Department officers get the information they need.

The non-profit program launched Wednesday with a new app and website, authorities said. Crime Stoppers is also taking over the Knoxville Police Department’s crime hotline (865-215-7212), which means that all calls to the number will be routed to the program’s call center.

By promising absolute anonymity and cash rewards to those who report crimes, officials hope they can conquer the fear of retaliation and help sway those who ask “What’s in it for me?”

“We have recognized the need for a local Crime Stoppers program for some time and were already moving in that direction at the tail end of last year. However, the recent uptick in gun violence, particularly the violence that resulted in the death of multiple high school students, accelerated that process,” said Police Chief Eve Thomas.

“This will be another important tool to assist the KPD in its mission to keep Knoxville safe. This also provides a platform that encourages citizens to actively participate in that mission. Public safety is a shared responsibility that requires vigorous community involvement and willingness to push back against crime.” 

The launch of the program was announced at a Wednesday press conference at KPD headquarters. 

Crime Stoppers is a non-profit organization that won’t require any tax money to operate and, although its purpose is to support KPD operations, it will technically be an independent entity, officials said.

The Crime Stoppers program started in 1976 and now has approximately 1,000 chapters, with East Tennessee’s program being the most recent to open. Despite the name, East Tennessee Crime Stoppers is focused exclusively on crimes in Knoxville right now but officials hope to expand its coverage to surrounding communities eventually.

Discussions about starting a local chapter began last October but accelerated as Knoxville’s homicide rate climbed to previously unseen levels. The homicides of five students from Austin-East Magnet High School over a period of just a few weeks rammed home the need for a program that could effectively gather tips from the community, officials said, especially as two of the Austin-East killings remained unsolved. 

“In many of our recent cases we know there are witnesses, witnesses who may be scared to come forward out of fears of being identified,” said Mayor Indya Kincannon. “Crime Stoppers removes that fear and offers some incentives for people to report what they have seen.” 

Mayor Indya Kincannon is a firm believer in the potential of Crime Stoppers.

She continued: “We have all been heartbroken by the recent gun violence in our City and, while this can’t reverse what has happened or take away the pain, it is an important step in the right direction. It’s an important step toward justice and healing.” 

Officials used the case of one of the dead students, 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad, to illustrate how the Crime Stoppers program works.  KPD officials say they have asked for the public’s help in solving the case numerous times to no avail. 

In Janaria Muhammad’s case, a $2,500 reward is being offered instead of the standard $1,000 because someone in the public donated the extra money specifically to it, said Harold Cannon, president of the program’s executive board.

“I would love for the first crime we solve to be Janaria’s,” Cannon said. “That would be remarkable, and quite frankly it’s time. But for that to happen, we’ve got to have this kind of help.”

Harold Cannon, president of the local Crime Stoppers board.

East Tennessee Valley Crime Stoppers can be reached at any time of the day or night, 365 days a year, using one of its three channels, officials said. Anyone with information about a crime, wanted fugitive or any criminal activity occurring in Knoxville is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477), visit www.easttnvalleycrimestoppers.org to submit an online tip or download the free mobile app, P3 Tips, from either the Google Play or Apple App Store.

Cannon, Thomas and other officials stressed how the Crime Stoppers program guards the anonymity of those who submit tips through any of its channels. 

When someone contacts Crime Stoppers, they are issued an ID number and password and that’s the only way they are identified in the system. If they lose the ID number they can’t recover their reward.

If the information leads to an arrest, the capture of a wanted person or the recovery of weapons, narcotics or stolen property, that tipster could be eligible to receive a cash reward of up to $1,000. 

Crime Stoppers is so committed to preserving the anonymity of tipsters that its call center is located in Ontario, Canada, beyond the reach of subpoenas issued in the United States, officials said. 

Although the program is supposed to be self-supporting through donations in the future, the City opted last month to give it start-up funds.

Mayor Kincannon channeled $1 million toward violence interruption efforts in February, and included in that appropriation was a one-time City contribution of $13,000 in “seed money” to get the Crime Stoppers program off the ground quickly.

Moira Connelly, pictured here at a recent City Council meeting, has criticized Crime Stoppers. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

Some critics have questioned, among other things, whether Crime Stoppers should legitimately be counted as part of a violence interruption strategy. 

Moira Connelly, a member of the planning team of HEART (Healing ET Alternative Response Network), summed up the argument this way: “Reimagining public safety tries to reduce the number of encounters community members have with police. Because Crime Stoppers attempts to bribe community members to share information with police, this program is a law enforcement program, not one associated with violence interruption or reimagining public safety.”

City Council members Amelia Parker and Seema Singh used this basic line of reasoning when they voted against giving the money to the group last month.

Mayor Kincannon, however, answered those complaints in a Wednesday interview by saying that very little of the City’s violence interruption money is going for the program. “It’s a tiny amount, it’s not really that big of a portion of it,” she said. “The vast majority of it is going to go to those community-based strategies.”

 Others have pointed out that some communities may not appreciate the police encouraging residents to turn each other in. At some of the protests that have occurred in the wake of the Austin-East shootings, speakers have urged young people not to cooperate with law enforcement efforts.

Mayor Kincannon, however, says that she’s spoken to many people throughout the City and support for law enforcement is high, even in the areas that see the most violence.

“When they hear shots fired at night, they want to see police. A lot of people who are in high-crime areas see police as someone who is there to protect them,” Kincannon said. “And they are happy to see that, and our police are trying their best to keep people safe…. And this idea that you shouldn’t share information, I’d like to change that.”

The new East Tennessee Valley Crime Stoppers website.

Imani Mfalme, co-founder of Community Defense of East TN, criticized the program as prone to making mistakes. “There is no way to verify the information given, and no way to know if misleading information is being given purposely possibly leading to wrongful convictions,” she said. “Crime stoppers is a reactive approach taking funds away from preventative tools and resources that are proven to create safer communities.”

Officials at the press conference conceded there often isn’t any way to verify the information gathered through Crime Stoppers but stressed that no one can be arrested unless confirmed, legally admissible evidence is gathered independently using conventional investigative techniques. 

Tips or information submitted through Crime Stoppers nationwide had resulted in over 775,000 arrests and the clearance of over one million cases with over $117 million paid out in reward money. Additionally, over $2 billion of drugs have been seized based on Crimes Stoppers tips, according to statistics provided at the press conference.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on May 7, 2021