Some arrests start with a 911 call.
A homeowner sees a suspicious person lurking outside. A cashier spots a shoplifter trying to leave the convenience store. The police break up a fistfight outside a bar. An officer makes an arrest on the spot and the suspect heads to jail.
But what happens when the suspect gets away and a law enforcement agency releases surveillance footage of a suspected criminal who looks an awful lot like your roommate, husband, ex or neighbor?
That’s where Coconino County Silent Witness comes in.
The decades-old nonprofit program is a conduit that allows any person to anonymously provide information that could help local law enforcement bring fugitives to justice and unravel crimes they might otherwise not be able to solve.
“We’re a community,” said Coconino County Silent Witness’ new chairperson, Joy Sabin. “We’re all part of it and we all have to do our part. If we can offer a way to assist the community in some way where you don’t have to be the thumb that sticks out and says ‘I caught so-and-so,’ that’s great.”
The Silent Witness committee is made up of volunteers who are not active members of law enforcement. The members are not involved in taking tips or in investigating crimes in any way. Instead, they are responsible for raising and distributing reward money to tipsters.
Sabin joined the committee nearly two years ago shortly after moving to Flagstaff and became the chairperson last summer. She is involved with Silent Witness because it allows her to make a difference in her community, she said. She believes providing a local, anonymous avenue for citizens to communicate with law enforcement helps stop crime.
“Crime has been quite low in this town and we like it that way,” Sabin said.
Overall, she said, 2015 was a quiet year. Coconino County Silent Witness received 140 tips about everything from probation violations to robbery and drug trafficking. Those calls led to seven arrests. At the same time, the total crime rate for all serious offenses within Flagstaff city limits fell by about 12 percent.
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Typically, Silent Witness gets the most calls regarding cases that have been publicized in the media, especially if law enforcement has asked for the public’s help. It is also common for Silent Witness to receive tips about suspected drug-related activity through its online TipSoft program.
“Drug trafficking (tips) seem to be a little bit more (common), I guess, because of I-40 being a huge corridor,” Sabin said.
The process begins when a tipster contacts Silent Witness online, by phone or by text message. Once they submit the information, it goes directly to the Silent Witness staff at the Flagstaff Police Department. The tipster immediately receives a secret identification number. They are never asked for their name or any other personal information.
“There is no worrying about the person finding out who you are,” Sabin said. “It’s completely and totally anonymous. It’s nice because sometimes you don’t want them to know who you are but you want them off the street.”
The information gets forwarded to the agency that is working the case. FPD, Northern Arizona University Police Department, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office and the Arizona Department of Public Safety have all benefited from tips gathered through the Silent Witness program. Almost every month, representatives from those agencies meet in the auditorium at the Law Enforcement Administrative Facility in Flagstaff to tell the Silent Witness Committee how many tips have led to arrests and solved crimes the previous month.
“Even if a defense attorney submitted a subpoena to get the name for the individual (who submitted) the tip, we don’t have it so we can’t give it, which keeps it open and honest,” Sabin said. “That way, we’re not potentially putting anybody at risk.”
If a tip leads to an arrest or helps solve a crime, the Silent Witness committee votes on the reward that will be given to the anonymous tipster. He or she then has six months to present the secret number at a designated bank and receive a reward of between $100 and $2,000 without ever showing any identification. Silent Witness handed out $1,600 in rewards last year, down from $2,800 in 2014.
Sabin has been consulting Yavapai Silent Witness for ways to raise the Coconino County group’s profile. One idea she got from Yavapai has already panned out: FPD is now putting decals with the Silent Witness logo and phone number on all its patrol vehicles. The Sheriff’s Office has decided to do the same thing as it replaces vehicles.
Silent Witness has also started distributing window clings made by The Print Raven and placing brochures in public buildings. Sabin is hoping the more visible the group is, the more people will get involved in an effort to keep their community a little bit safer.