PUBLISHED: 11:14 AM on Wednesday, March 2, 2005
Crime Line offers anonymous way to inform about crimes

Photo Courtesy of Juneau Crime Line
  Crime Line accepting a $1,000 donation from the Public Safety Employees Association (PSEA). Pictured from left to right are: Sarah Hieb, Juneau Police Department; Bill Wilcox, President, Juneau Crime Line; Robin Paul, Treasurer, Juneau Crime Line; Jeff Manns, Sergeant, Alaska State Troopers and President, PSEA; and Trooper Todd Machacek, Southeast Vice President, PSEA.
Juneau isn't exactly LA, and neither is the work of Juneau Crime Line anything as intense as the cases described on "America's Most Wanted" - but the idea behind both programs are similar: When a crime is committed, there is usually someone out there with the information law enforcement officers need to find the culprit. The hard part is getting that someone to share the information they're sitting on. And that's where the non-profit organization Juneau Crime Line comes in.

Operating since 1981, the Juneau Crime Line is a way for the community to take a proactive role in reducing crime. When the state troopers or the Juneau Police Department have reached a dead end in an investigation, they may choose to hand information over to Juneau Crime Line. Through the Capital City Weekly and other media outlets, information about a specific "Crime of the Week" is published throughout Juneau and Southeast Alaska, and people with information are encouraged to call and report what they know.

When you call the Crime Line hotline (586-4243), the person picking up the phone at the other end is a JPD dispatcher who takes the information and assigns the caller a specific number. Never is a caller asked for their name. If they end up being eligible for a reward, a notice is put in the newspapers for the person with that number to contact Crime Line.

The anonymity, said long time Juneau Crime Line board member Bob Kanan, is usually more important to people than whatever reward they might be able to collect.

"If you're calling to report a family member, or a friend, or a neighbor, knowing that you will never be called to testify in court or identified is more important to people than any dollar amount - especially if it ends up you've made a mistake."

Juneau Crime Line guarantees the anonymity of callers, though Kanan said sometimes it takes a while to get that point across to people in the court system.

"I've been subpoenad more than once to appear in court by defense lawyers trying to get me to tell them who the person is who gave us a certain piece of information - but once they get it into their heads that I really don't have the foggiest, that I delivered the reward money in an envelope taped under a specific phone booth, they have to back off."

Anonymity might be the biggest motivating factor that makes people call, but another factor is the way rewards are paid out. In some similar organizations in the nation, no reward is paid out until a criminal is convicted on the basis of given information. But in Juneau, as soon as an arrest is made or a grand jury indictment is handed down, an informant can be eligible for a reward.

The success rate for Crime Line when it comes to most regular crimes isn't very high; 1-2 percent, the group estimates. But that has to be seen in context: For a case to even get to Juneau Crime Line, law enforcement agencies have to be at the point of shelving the case until - if - new information resurfaces.

For more high-profile cases, Crime Line can get involved at an earlier stage. When Juneau taxicab driver Eric Drake was assaulted and robbed in January 2004, a reward of $3,000 was offered to the public -Eand a person who called the Crime Line hotline could supply the information JPD needed to make a swift arrest.

"It's a case they would have solved anyway," said Crime Line President Bill Wilcox, "but when it's something like that, it's nice when it can happen quickly so people don't have to worry about someone being out there."

The $3,000 paid out for the tip leading to arrests in that case was a donation from a private citizen -Eand that's how Crime Line is financed, completely through donations. There's no federal, state, or municipal dollars flowing into any accounts, only what the public, as businesses and private citizens, contribute.

Consequently, Juneau Crime Line isn't able to pay out any large rewards, except in extreme cases. But the system is quite successful wherever it has been implemented, rewards or not. The Anchorage sister organization, in its first six months of existence, recovered $600,000 worth of stolen property.

"That's an important point, too" said Kanan. "It's not always necessarily about putting the bad guys in jail, but also about recovering stolen property. We've paid out tip money as far away as Oregon over the years."

The organization functions with "as low an overhead as you can get," said Kanan. The volunteer board is made up by a cross-section of the community, and meets once a month. Crime Line has no paid employees, everybody involved volunteers their time, and whatever office materials are needed are donated by local business owners. The low overhead means every dollar donated to the program goes straight into the rewards program.

"It's a very generous town, both when it comes to individuals and businesses," said Crime Line Treasurer Robin Paul.

But the successful attempt by the organization to decrease the number of drunk drivers on the roads has resulted in Juneau Crime Line being in need of sponsors and donations: Every call that directly leads to a drunk driver being arrested is rewarded with $100 - a small price to pay for what JPD officers have told Crime Line volunteers saves at least one life every year. The organization estimates that they've taken about 20 drunk drivers per year off the road before they are able to harm themselves or others.

Crime Line used to have a corporate sponsor for the drunk driving project, which has been operating for over 10 years as by far the most successful part of the operation,Eand that's what most urgently needs to be replaced right now.

"If we get a sponsor, it would be up to them whether they want the publicity or not," said Wilcox.

Some business owners prefer to contribute anonymously, something the Crime Line boardmembers have a lot of understanding for.

A letter soliciting donations from local businesses happened to hit mailboxes just about the same time as the tsunami disaster hit Southeast Asia, and that might have impacted the lack of response, said the volunteers, who are hoping as the community becomes more aware of the operations of Crime Line, they'll also want to contribute, either by monetary donations or by donating their time to the organization.

"We're sort of silently assisting the community" said board member Dennis Wilson

Tax-deductible donations to the non-profit organization can mail a check made out to Juneau Crime Line, Inc., at P.O. Box 20141, Juneau, AK 99802.