The Evanston Police Department’s “text-a-tip” program has been slow to get off the ground.
More than six months after Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl requested that so that teenagers could anonymously report information regarding criminal, dangerous or suspicious activity to police via text message, few students seem to know the correct number to message should the need arise.
During an informal survey by Evanston Patch of 50 ETHS students, 58 percent of participants were unaware of the text-a-tip hotline and only one student knew the correct number to message.
Tisdahl said that the idea for the texting program arose from meetings that she had last spring with a group of ETHS students who told her that a police text number might encourage teens to report potential crimes, as text messaging would be less conspicuous, more anonymous and a more familiar form of communication for Evanston youth.
Tisdahl said that she enlisted the help of students because they sometimes have knowledge of crimes before they occur, but, in the past, have failed to contact Evanston police by phone.
“I said to them, ‘Our hotline obviously isn’t working for you. What would help? Because frequently you know where the bullet is going before the gun is fired,’” Tisdahl said.
Though the majority of students surveyed said that they would contact police if they knew a crime was going to occur, 36 percent said they would likely not reach out police if they had prior knowledge of a non-violent theft, 38 percent said they would likely not get in touch with police if they had prior knowledge of an assault on a student and 20 percent said that they would likely not contact police if they had prior knowledge of a shooting.
When asked why they might not contact police, some students reasoned that they would first attempt to intervene and warn the potential target rather than call the authorities.
But other students said that they would remain uninvolved for fear that they might be targeted in retribution for providing the police with information.
According to Tisdahl, such fears were the reason the text-a-tip number was created to guarantee anonymity. The Evanston texting program uses a third-party service so that police are unable to identify the tipster, provides the tipster with a system-generated alias for purposes of correspondence and gives the tipster the option to end communication with police at any point by messaging the word “STOP” to the text number.
Additionally, as part of the text-a-tip program, ETHS students who might want to contact school authorities while circumventing police can anonymously contact the ETHS safety department between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on school days by texting the same EPD number, while adding the word “ETHS” to the beginning of the message.
In addition to proposing the new text-a-tip number, the students advising Tisdahl also suggested that the city do a better job of putting police contact numbers in students’ hands.
In response, the city created 6,000 pens with police contact numbers printed on the side, created a text-a-tip webpage on the Evanston police website and used word of mouth to inform Evanstonians.
However, through the end of October, the new texting number has been messaged only 32 times. Evanston Police Cmdr. Tom Guenther said the text number has been used to report a variety of crimes, including parking complaints, suspicions behavior, “drug tips” and speeding cars.
Dalyan Kosar, an ETHS sophomore, said that he thought the anonymity of the new text number would increase the likelihood a student might contact police, but that simply handing out pens at the high school was not a good way to make students aware of the new number.
“That’s a waste of money,” Kosar said. “There are a lot people that think [passing out pens] is a great idea, and that just adds up to a lot of pens and pencils with numbers and names on them. Nobody cares or reads them.”
Of the 50 students surveyed, only four said that they remembered seeing the text-a-tip pens.
Tisdahl said that the pens had not been very effective in promoting the new police number.
“After I passed out pens by the thousands with the number on it, more students at the high school told me that they don’t know the number,” Tisdahl said, “so obviously I have to get back to the high school and do more work there.”
Tisdahl said that she would consult with her recently-created, ETHS-student-composed youth advisory group on ways the city could better promote the text number.
All 50 students surveyed said that they would call 911 as a primary method of reaching police.
The text-a-tip webpage also has a link to an EPD confidential system for reporting a tip online.