by David Chapman
Crime is down.
The calls at First Coast Crime Stoppers are up.
While it might be easy to see a correlation between the figures — violent crime down 11.6 percent, total crime down 9.7 locally from a year ago, according to a recent Florida Department of Law Enforcement report — Crime Stoppers Executive Director Wyllie Hodges believes the organization is just one part of the reason. Additional cops on the street and a higher prosecution rate combined with efforts like that of Crime Stoppers he believes has put a dent in the local crime rate. But, Hodges realizes there’s still a long way to go.
“There’s good news and bad news,” explained Hodges, of the organization’s increased figures. “The good news is we’re getting a lot of tips ... the bad news is we’re still getting a lot of calls.”
Crime Stoppers, a volunteer civilian organization formed in 2002, allows witnesses of crime to place anonymous calls or e-mails that can help lead to the arrests of offending individuals. The guaranteed anonymity, combined with a potential added incentive of reward — up to $1,000 — has lured many a witness who might not have otherwise come forward with information regarding a crime to step up.
Since its inception, Crime Stoppers has helped solve 53 murder cases based on tips, along with aiding in more than 1,500 total arrests.
And it continues to become a growing information outlet.
“So far this year, we’ve already had more than 3,000 tips,” said Hodges, referring to figures based on a midyear analysis. “It has been busy.”
That’s more than the 2008 total (2,978) and close to the total number from its highest total in 2007, at 3,043.
Their work isn’t taken lightly, either.
Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office officials appreciate the support they receive from the organization in its efforts to obtain information and further cases.
“We have an excellent relationship with Crime Stoppers,” said Undersheriff Frank Mackesy. “It gives people who might not otherwise come forward to talk to the police a way to give valuable information and feel comfortable doing it.”
Hodges credits the growth to several things, including trips to each school in the area to inform students about the program, increased advertising in Northeast Florida through billboards in highly trafficked areas and the overall trust increase from the community, as word-of-mouth has helped it gain credibility in a society where the “Don’t Snitch” mentality has become pervasive.
“Over the years, people have been more and more reluctant to talk to the police,” said Hodges. “That’s why we exist.
“We’ve always maintained that people do remain anonymous and that the rewards are paid if they lead to an arrest. If we lose credibility in either of those areas, then we don’t succeed.”
The organization hasn’t always been as effective as it is currently and over the past few years. That effectiveness has coincided with Hodges’ arrival.
“It (First Coast Crime Stoppers) has really taken off under Mr. Hodges,” said Mackesy. “He has really taken it to the next level and made it successful.”
Neither anonymity for tipsters nor paying out rewards has been a problem to date, but Hodges is worried about the organization’s funding moving forward. Normally, the organization’s budget is between $390,000-$400,000 a year, funded through both a special trust fund (obtained by an additional $20 imposed on fines of criminal offenses, collected by the clerks of court), fundraising events and donations.
For the 2009-10 fiscal year beginning Thursday, though, there is a budget deficit of around $129,000, which Wyllie attributes to people not paying such fines that go to the trust fund and overall economy affecting individual giving.
To counter, Hodges and Crime Stoppers are actively seeking corporate sponsorships and donations to fund everything from the pens they hand to children in schools with their contact information to the advertising costs for billboards.
Another economic trend with the organization has been with the number of collected rewards. In the early years such as 2004 and 2005, said Hodges, the “pick up rate” would end up less than 50 percent. It’s increased each year and now is closer to 80 percent.
While funding is down significantly, Hodges is optimistic Crime Stoppers will get through the lean times and continue to provide the tips necessary to lead to more and more arrests.
“The (funding) numbers are down, but the end isn’t here,” he said. “We’ll get through it someway, somehow.”
The challenge on numerous levels isn’t one he’s afraid to tackle, either, as the results in assisting law enforcement speak for themselves.
“If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t be here,” said a grinning Hodges, a former undersheriff. “I’d just pack it up, retire and relax.”
Numbers through the years
Totals since inception