Shalt Thou Bear Faceless Witness?

Crime Stoppers programs work, but they raise some troubling issues.


The figures are harrowing: a robbery every 55 seconds, an aggravated assault every 49 seconds, a murder every 24 minutes. Those are the rates at which violent and property crimes occur in this country. Of every 100,000 inhabitants, 10 are murdered each year. If you live in Miami or St. Louis, the rate is nearly six times that; in Detroit and Atlanta, four times the national average; in Los Angeles and Dallas, three times the national rate. In response to these circumstances, an alarmed American populace is frantically searching for effective countermeasures to restore an atmosphere of security.

Many of the more innovative anticrime measures possess one common theme—maximizing citizen participation. In that vein, local police departments have established programs, such as "Operation Identification," wherein residents are urged to mark their household belongings with personal identification numbers, theoretically rendering the disposition of stolen merchandise more difficult. Law-enforcement agencies similarly promote "neighborhood alert" organizations, which encourage community members to watch for and report suspicious activities. But the effort that has attracted the most attention and praise is the "Crime Stoppers" program.

The rationale for this program is straightforward. Local newspapers and radio and television stations publicize selected unsolved felonies, and substantial cash rewards are offered for information leading to the arrest and indictment of perpetrators. Proponents argue that the combination of publicity and financial inducements encourages an inflow of valuable tips from both ordinary citizens and criminal "snitches." Community leaders as well as the police praise the Crime Stoppers program, saying that it dramatically increases the arrest and conviction rate.

Much of the enthusiasm is warranted. For example, the Austin, Texas, operation, instituted in 1979, produced nearly 300 arrests and recovered more than $800,000 in stolen property during its first three years. Those results were achieved for less than $45,000 paid out in rewards. Granted, Austin's program was especially effective (the record in other cities was more modest), and many of the crimes solved through Crime Stoppers might have been broken eventually by other means, but those statistics still represent impressive results. For a crime-weary citizenry, such evidence of competence elicits enthusiastic, even uncritical, support.

Indeed, it is difficult to find opponents of the Crime Stoppers concept. Establishment groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, embrace the program with special fervor and use their public-relations apparatus to promote it. Local news representatives, which one might expect to view the operation with professional detachment, instead typically become active participants. Television stations eagerly "reenact" selected crimes for their viewers each week as a "community service." It is hardly coincidental that these telecasts predominantly feature sensational or titillating felonies (rapes or attempted rapes of young, attractive females are especially popular). Crime Stoppers officials openly solicit media cooperation by suggesting that crime reenactments provide an excellent vehicle for increasing viewership.

Crime Stoppers is a superb idea, nearly everyone agrees—an effective tactic in what is otherwise often a losing struggle against urban crime. While this enthusiasm is understandable, there are troublesome doubts about the program's impact on basic civil liberties. Such doubts surfaced in a graphic manner with respect to the highly regarded Austin program, when an innocent man spent several weeks in jail as the direct result of a Crime Stoppers–induced tip. That such a miscarriage of justice could occur in a well-run program should trouble even the most avid Crime Stoppers proponents. More worrisome is that such a "mistake" may be symptomatic of larger defects in the concept itself.

Contrary to the official position, the Crime Stoppers system is designed not so much to encourage the involvement of ordinary citizens as to induce a perpetrator's friends or associates to turn him in for reward money. Again, the procedures followed in the Austin program are typical. Individuals are urged to call a special phone number and provide tips on specific felonies. Callers are not pressed to identify themselves in any manner. Instead, each informant is given a special code number and told to "keep in touch." If a caller's tip leads to indictment (not necessarily conviction), a meeting is arranged where a member of the Crime Stoppers board of directors will deliver the reward. Board members are never police officers; they have no knowledge concerning an informant's identity or even for which tip the reward is being paid. Informers are merely shadowy figures with special code numbers. Crime Stoppers rewards these tipsters, no questions asked.

Such procedures should have alarmed civil liberties groups long ago, since the potential for abuse is obvious and distressing. Two aspects of the program virtually invite an erosion of vital civil liberties: the anonymity guaranteed informants and the payment of rewards for indictment rather than conviction.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees a person accused of a crime the right to face witnesses against him. Various court decisions already have undermined this procedural protection by exempting undercover police officers and "professional" police informants from the requirement to reveal their identities in cases where they have provided material evidence. Crime Stoppers takes this exclusion a giant stride farther. Now, anyone providing information to police under the auspices of that program is guaranteed complete anonymity. Indeed, under a recently enacted state law, it is now impossible in Texas to subpoena Crime Stoppers records, even during the course of a criminal trial.

Proponents of the Crime Stoppers program insist that strict anonymity is imperative for success. Police Sergeant George Vanderhule, prime mover of the Austin program, explained the official rationale for the maintenance of confidentiality in an unpublished document submitted to the Austin Police Department in 1979:

All too often citizens do not contact the police with information that could help solve a crime out of fear that if they reveal their own identity they would expose themselves, or their families, to acts of retaliation by the criminal. In most of these instances these citizens will not come forward with information unless they can be absolutely assured that they will be provided complete anonymity by the police. If the police fail to provide this anonymity when it is desired, the result is usually the loss of vital information due to a lack of willingness to cooperate on the part of these citizens.

Vanderhule is undoubtedly correct in his assessment. Many tips also come from individuals whose own crime records could not bear serious scrutiny. Such informants are not likely to come forward unless shielded by the cloak of anonymity.

This is precisely the aspect of the program, though, that should trouble advocates the most. It is one thing for a would-be informer to make a false accusation knowing that he might face cross-examination in a trial setting and, if his evidence is demonstrably false, a perjury indictment or lawsuit for defamation of character. It is quite another situation when one may make accusations of criminal conduct against a fellow citizen free from any possibility of legal retaliation or even identification. These latter conditions virtually invite slander.

The threat to reputations and civil liberties is not trivial. Police departments must investigate a tip that an individual was involved in a felony, whether or not the information is in fact erroneous. Multiple tips on the same person (which could happen easily under Crime Stoppers) might well trigger an intensive investigation. Consequently, even a law-abiding citizen may be subjected to police scrutiny because of unfounded accusations by an anonymous informer. An individual's reputation among friends, neighbors, and business associates may be damaged without his even being aware. And if the accused party does find out, he is still legally helpless. The police have been acting in good faith upon information received, and even they don't know who made the accusation.

An additional ingredient in this "witches' brew"—giving rewards for information leading to indictments, not necessarily convictions—escalates the danger to civil liberties. Evidence needed for an indictment is always substantially less than that required for conviction. In some states, district attorneys may prosecute on their own authority, no matter how flimsy the evidence. Other states, such as Texas, have the additional safeguard of mandatory grand jury proceedings, but indictments are still relatively easy to obtain. Knowledgeable prosecutors admit privately, and sometimes even publicly, that skillful district attorneys can manipulate most grand juries in any direction.

While this aspect poses only minimal danger for those citizens who have had no previous encounters with the law, the situation is vastly different for individuals with prior criminal records. Police officials and prosecutors often suspect that such a person might be involved in an unsolved crime, even though the "evidence" might consist of nothing more than a tip from an anonymous informer, combined with, perhaps, the absence of a reliable alibi. Such a suspect's position is extremely vulnerable. If he fights the proceedings and pushes the matter to formal trial, he risks a major felony conviction and a lengthy prison sentence.

Since both judges and juries are typically unsympathetic toward "repeat offenders," attempting to prove one's innocence can be both difficult and risky. It is not far-fetched to picture a defendant in that predicament opting for the less dangerous course of plea bargaining, accepting a much shorter sentence for a guilty plea to a reduced charge. One wonders whether some of the crimes "solved" through Crime Stoppers may have been solved only in the bureaucratic sense—tagging someone, whether guilty or not, with a crime and getting him sentenced.

For one Austin, Texas, man, these theoretical dangers of the Crime Stoppers program became a chilling reality during the early months of 1982. As reported in the May 15,1982, edition of the Austin American Statesman, the man spent nearly seven weeks in jail for allegedly robbing a downtown business. An informant implicated him following a Crime Stoppers dramatization of the incident on a local television station.

As events unfolded, it emerged that the "evidence" consisted of these facts: (1) the suspect's physical description roughly matched that of the robber, (2) he was already on probation for theft (albeit of a very minor nature), and (3) an anonymous Crime Stoppers informant had accused him. Not exactly a strong case, but one that the authorities considered sufficient to imprison him for an extended period.

Even though the accused man repeatedly requested a polygraph test to prove his innocence, the police declined to administer one—until a later incident badly undermined the case they were building. While the suspect was still in jail, a similar robbery took place in another central Texas city. The Austin police finally relented, allowed the suspect to take a polygraph exam, and subsequently urged the district attorney's office to drop all charges.

This case illustrates clearly how an innocent person, especially someone with a previous conviction, can become ensnared in the Crime Stoppers anonymous-informer system. Except for the accusation by an unknown informer, it is unlikely that this suspect would have been arrested and spent weeks behind bars. There is even greater doubt whether that informer would have made the damaging accusation without the protective cloak of anonymity. Most disturbing of all, Crime Stoppers officials admit that at no point during the suspect's long ordeal did the informant even attempt to collect the reward. A question arises whether the tip was an honest error resulting from the suspect's physical resemblance to the actual assailant or whether other motives were involved—perhaps a personal enemy gaining revenge.

At the very least, the Crime Stoppers concept is not the unalloyed benefit its proponents would have us believe. There are serious questions about the fairness and reliability of several crucial components. Furthermore, evidence is emerging that, in some cases, the program is being used to assault individual liberties. Although the Austin organization has confined most of its efforts to the solution of serious crimes, the same cannot be said for other cities. Recently, a San Angelo, Texas, man was arrested for the simple possession (not possession for sale) of marijuana following the search of his home—authorities were acting on a telephone tip to the local Crime Stoppers. Not only was this "criminal" fined and assessed a three-year probated sentence, but the court ordered him to reimburse Crime Stoppers for the reward money spent on his apprehension.

Another disturbing development occurred in 1981, when the Texas legislature passed a bill establishing a statewide version of the Crime Stoppers program. Significantly, one of the bill's principal sponsors was State Senator Walter Mengden, an ultraconservative Republican known to his opponents as "Mad Dog." It is charitable to say that Senator Mengden is rarely among the staunch defenders of civil liberties.

The manner in which the Department of Public Safety (the Texas state police) wanted to use Senator Mengden's proffered weapon against "organized crime" became evident almost immediately. The department produced a television commercial announcing a reward system for tips on "the most serious crime" menacing the Lone Star State. The DPS spokesman was not referring to murder, rape, burglary, or any such offenses—but rather to the crime of drug abuse. Texans should be more than a trifle nervous that an anonymous-informer system is being used to harass citizens whose "crime" is the growing of a marijuana crop.

Various law-and-order groups now openly suggest expanding the Crime Stoppers system to the federal level. This would provide a vast new arena for mischief. One can visualize an elaborate apparatus that rewards and shields informers for providing tips on tax protestors, draft resisters, or any other "subversives."

All this suggests that the Crime Stoppers concept contains serious potential for an erosion of civil liberties. Americans must ask themselves whether any system that encourages anonymous, mercenary informers is consistent with the values of a free society—or is the tactic of a totalitarian police state. The Sixth Amendment's guarantee that an accused person has the right to face his accusers is a vital procedural protection. The Crime Stoppers program, by its very nature, poses threats to that basic guarantee. Proponents of the program present a powerful argument in its favor: it works and works effectively. That benefit, however, is achieved at an unacceptable cost. Citizens who value individual liberty will not purchase increased safety at the expense of basic freedoms.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a research associate at the University of Texas. His book, America and NATO: The "Great Debate" of 1950–51, will be published by the University of Texas Press this year.