Using SMS to Fight Crime

Posted by Bonnie Bogle on Jun 27, 2006

Earlier this month the Boston Police Department started sending out text messages and emails to tell residents about crimes happening in their neighborhoods. The goal isn’t to instill fear in residents; it’s to get them involved in solving crimes. Police think that this system will make it easier for people to send in leads on cases since they can do so quickly and electronically, and that it will put more people on the lookout for suspects when they’re most vulnerable – soon after they commit crimes. The alerts also keep people better informed on the specific crimes happening in their neighborhoods, enabling them to better protect themselves. Most people are more inclined to lock their car doors if they know that two cars have been stolen within a few minutes of where they park.

Crime alert systems that use SMS and email messages are becoming more common. Citizen Observer, the company that runs Boston’s system, works with police departments in more than 300 U.S. and Canadian towns and cities. Singapore police have been sending out SMS alerts on local crimes for more than a year, and subscribers receive SMS messages like the following that tell them about local crimes and what they can do to help:

Bet 22-29 Mar, 4 houses were broken into in Bishan & Thomson private estates. Culprit(s) entered via kitchen or toilet windows. Secure all windows & other openings. Report suspicious person in your estate-SPF

Since 30.3.06, 7 elderly females were robbed of their jewelry in AMK. Culprit: F/Malay/30s/tanned/thin built. Dial 999 to report suspicious persons - SPF
In South Africa an SMS and email alert system supports citizen Block Watches (groups of community members organized to prevent crime), and police in Brandon, England, nabbed a suspect in February after sending out an SMS alert on the crime. Malaysia, Germany, and the Netherlands all have similar SMS crime alert systems in place.

To a lesser degree, SMS crime alerts are also being used on a national level. One example is the United States’ Wireless Amber Alerts system. How it works is that subscribers receive a text message when a child is missing in their area with a description of the child, a potential abductor, and other identifying factors. These messages, in combination with others broadcast in the media and on highway billboards, enlist the help of the public to find the missing child. Similar programs also exist in other countries.

Police have long known that they need the help of residents to catch criminals and keep communities safe, and it’s great to see that more are starting to go away from the door-to-door methods of the past and to instead use technology to help them to their job more efficiently. has an excellent archive of articles on other ways that police departments are using SMS to fight crime.

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