Kenai Peninsula law enforcement officers have a tool they can call on when leads on a particular crime are few and far between or just not panning out — the Peninsula Crime Stoppers.
Since the early 1990s, the organization has provided a dedicated phone line for callers to leave tips about area crimes. The members also fundraise to offer monetary rewards for those whose tips help officers make an arrest.
Wayne Pattison, a longtime board member, said he really felt the importance of the organization when some of his vehicles were stolen in quick succession. Peninsula Crime Stoppers President Gail Balzer said the group is composed of about 10 board members and has room for up to 20.
What used to be a group for the central peninsula expanded to include more police stations around seven years ago, which Pattison said has made a lot more sense.
“The Seldovia police chief at the time ... he was a longtime police chief, got a hold of us and he had something he wanted us to advertise a track on,” Pattison said. “And he actually came up to a meeting and we started talking about ... why are we central peninsula? Why aren’t we peninsula (wide)?”
The Crime Stoppers meet at noon on the second Thursday of each month, alternating between central peninsula police departments and sometimes area senior centers. Rewards for tips that turn into arrests are allocated at these meetings, Balzer and Pattison said.
Crime Stoppers offers up to $1,000 for tips that result in arrests, with more serious crimes and arrests resulting in larger wads of cash for the tipster.
One aspect of the program Balzer and Pattison emphasized is that tips are handled exclusively by police officers — Crime Stoppers board members are there to fundraise, pay out tips and pay for the software used on the group’s website that handles tips submitted online.
“There’s definitely a wall between those of us that would determine tips amounts and the people that are dealing with the tips,” Pattison said.
Sgt. Paul Cushman has served as a police liaison for Crime Stoppers and will soon hand over the job to the newest incoming investigator at the Kenai Police Department since he took on the role of investigations sergeant.
He said out of the approximately 100 crime tips call line gets annually, about three to five of those tips end up earning a payout based on an arrest.
“If they were to call, again, it rings right to the Kenai Police Department,” Cushman said.
Cushman answers the Crime Stoppers calls when he is in the office, and they are answered by dispatchers at the Kenai Police Department the rest of the time. The calls always come in on their own phone line, 283-TIPS, and dispatchers know not to ask for any personal details, Cushman said.
The process of leaving a crime tip is anonymous from start to finish, which Balzer and Pattison said is a major concern for many who would like to leave them. Even if a caller starts to volunteer personal information like a name or address, Cushman said he or dispatchers will ask them to stop because there is no reason for them to have those details.
When people call the tip line or submit one via the website, they are given a code word and a password, and are referred to by that code word from that moment on, Cushman said. If the person calls back or logs onto the website to check the status of their tip, they can communicate with the police handling the case via that code word, he said.
Cushman reviews all the tips that come in and forwards them to the appropriate agency. This depends both on the nature of the crime included in the tip — drugs, theft, etc. — and its location, whether it be in the central peninsula, down in Homer or under the jurisdiction of the Alaska State Troopers.
“And then those agencies investigate that, and then if they arrest somebody based on the tip they let me know,” Cushman said.
Cushman participates in the Crime Stoppers’ board meetings, where he tells members how many tips have come in and whether any resulted in arrests. The website software generates a recommended reward amount based on the nature of the crime, Cushman said. It takes into consideration the seriousness of the crime, how many times the tipster called in, and whether the person calling put themselves in jeopardy by providing that information, he said.
The board makes a final decision on what to pay the tipster.
“When tips are paid out they’re paid out in cash, not as a check ... so it just stays anonymous the whole time,” Balzer said.
It depends on the tipster’s preferences, but often the cash is dropped off at a bank where the person who gave the tip simply has to show up and give their code word, Cushman said. The police department has worked over the years to form relationships with the local banks that allow this, he said.
“Part of this anonymous process is that if something goes to court ... we have to be sure that our tipsters aren’t going to end up in court under scrutiny getting a subpoena for something they were told was going to be anonymous,” Pattison said. “We really don’t get involved with those people in any way shape or form.”
Balzer emphasized that Crime Stoppers is here to help local police on their terms.
“I know that there’s times the community will not understand why ... we’re not asking for information on a certain crime that happens,” she said. “As Crime Stoppers, we only put forward things that the police ask us to. So we as a group don’t say ‘Oh, there’s this crime, let’s ask for information.’ We don’t want to step on our officers’ toes.”
To find out more about the program, visit peninsulacrimestoppers.com or find the group on Facebook.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.