The Tipping Point

An NYPD detective on the wonders—and hassles—of public tip lines.

The resolution of the sniper case seems like a triumph for law enforcement tip lines: Thanks, in part, to the hotline the FBI set up to accept tips from the public on the whereabouts and identity of the Washington snipers, the police now have two promising suspects in custody. But tip lines can be a hard-to-manage business, and this case highlights their difficulties as well as their merits.

For one thing, these lines generally accept—and often depend on—anonymous tips. The most credible and useful leads are usually the ones backed up by a name: Not only can you assess the credibility of your tipster, but if you think of a new question for him at 5 a.m., you can call and ask for details. But beggars can’t be choosers: Anonymous information is better than none at all, of course, and with a case as mysterious, frustrating, and deadly as the sniper one, law enforcement needs every bit of information it can get.

What makes anonymous information a little more valuable is that the law allows some leeway in how police can use it. If I get a call from a husky voice telling me that you are the killer, I cannot simply arrest you and then testify at your trial that Deep Throat told me you did it. But I can spend some more time following you, ask you questions, and get my boss to OK the overtime so I can go through your trash. Or so I can look for your car in Maryland rest-area parking lots.

How an agency sets up tip lines differs from organization to organization and incident to incident, but there is a nonprofit group called Crime Stoppers International that will set one up according to local established guidelines. Normally, phone calls come into a central location and are answered by agents or cops. The operator will ask if the caller wants to leave a name and number and if he will speak to investigators if they have more questions. If not, the operator will simply take whatever information the caller wishes to give. Then local investigators will examine the tip to see if it is worth passing along. Crime Stoppers assures its tipsters that their calls will not be traced, and the organization frequently offers rewards for information. Money can even be awarded anonymously by using a serial number Crime Stoppers gives to callers. These serial numbers are unique and can be used again and again—in fact, when a cop is trying to obtain a search warrant, it helps to tell the judge that Tipster No. 2,478 has proved reliable in the past.

When the FBI sets up a hot line, it generally uses brand new agents still assigned to the FBI academy in Quantico, Va. But necessity may require improvisation. In the sniper case, local police officers, civilian employees of the FBI, and members of other federal agencies were put on caller duty as well. And no wonder: An FBI spokesman stated that during the investigation, FBI tip lines were getting up to 15,000 calls a day on 75 phone lines.

He did not specify how many tips were valuable or even had been investigated. But this volume is another one of the chief problems with tip lines: A big case will generate an overwhelming number of calls and, hence, an overwhelming number of bad tips.

In the sniper case, wide dissemination of the tip line number was key—essential clues came from as far away as Alabama and Washington state. But as a result, investigators had a staggering number of tips to consider. At this level, a red herring can lead to thousands of misguided calls. Take a look at the Web counterpart to the FBI sniper tip line, which is still requesting clues about a white van—which looks, so far, to be irrelevant to the case. I bet that out of those 15,000 calls a day, 14,000 of them came from paranoid neighbors calling to report the unfortunate owner of a white Dodge Caravan down the block.

And the bigger the volume of calls, the harder it is to process them well. The Washington Post reported that the sniper himself may have called the tip line up to four times without success. Three times he couldn’t get through, and once he was disconnected. This lapse has been attributed to the inexperience of the personnel manning the phones. The NYPD attempts to ensure correct assessment of the importance of calls by assigning a member of the investigation’s detective squad to the phone center. But one detective can’t man every phone, and an officer unfamiliar with a case can easily miss clues that would allow him to recognize a rambling, garbled call as a vital tip or even a confession.

The calls in the sniper case were answered at the FBI’s Washington Field Building, and callers often had to wait before they got a live representative on the phone. Senior FBI agents reviewed tips as they came in. Until investigators realized that calls from the sniper might have been missed, the individual operators could disregard a call if they felt it was useless, and the calls were not recorded or equipped with tracing technology. The lines did have caller ID, but it was up to the individual phone operators to jot down the incoming number. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t, and sometimes the number was blocked. Only when the FBI realized the probable errors did it institute tracing and recording. It also started to accept and retain all tips, which of course dramatically increased the number of lousy ones. The majority of those tips were sent to the main command post in Montgomery County for distribution to the appropriate region.

A few days ago, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose politely suggested that not all well-intentioned calls were helpful. For example, he explained, tips that “suggest we go to every gun store on the Eastern Seaboard” would probably be disregarded. His unwillingness to refuse any tips except ridiculously broad ones was smart and necessary. The tactic worked, and we can only hope that law enforcement will continue to find similar needles in noisy haystacks.