The Dark Side of Crime Stoppers – False Information and Police Tunnel Vision

CS LogoYou’re probably familiar with Crime Stoppers.  Crime Stoppers first began in Albuquerque, NM during July 1975.  Two weeks after a fatal shooting, the police had no information, when out of desperation, Detective Greg MacAleese approached the local television station requesting a reconstruction of the crime. The re-enactment offered $1,000 for information leading to the arrest of the killers.  Within 72 hours, a person called in identifying a car leaving the scene at high speed, and he had noted its registration. The person calling said that he did not want to get involved, so he had not called earlier. Detective MacAleese then realized that fear and apathy were the primary reasons why the public tended not to get involved. So he helped establish a system where the public could anonymously provide details of crime events that offered cash rewards for information leading to an arrest and/or conviction.  Since its first chapter was officially formed in Albuquerque in 1976, Crime Stoppers has spread across the United States, and has been responsible for more than half a million arrests and more than $4 billion in recovered property.

This all sounds very good, and I support the organization, but let’s dig deeper into the motivational aspects of why someone would phone in an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers.  Someone who really wanted to do their “civic duty” would go directly to the police, and if they’re afraid of “involvement” or retribution, they can still remain anonymous.  Given that anyone can provide an anonymous tip directly to the police, the real attraction of Crime Stoppers is the cash.  Here are some examples from Crime Stoppers organizations across the country.  The payouts are all conditioned upon either an arrest or an indictment or both.

This from the Topeka, KS Crime Stoppers website:
Topeka Crimestoppers

And  here is a random sampling of the rewards offered by Crime Stoppers organizations across the country:

Crime Stoppers of Michigan$1,000

Texas Crime Stoppers – $50,000

Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay$1,000

NYPD Crime Stoppers – $10,000, $2,000, $1,000, or $500 – depending on the crime

The problem here is that people can be tempted to provide information, even if it’s false, just to get the payout.  It happens – just like jailhouse snitches will provide false information to get a deal from the prosecutor.

I have been personally involved in a case in which the defendant was convicted and imprisoned based primarily upon the initial tip by, and subsequent testimony of, an informer.  This key prosecution witness has since completely recanted her testimony, and admits that she provided the initial tip for the Crime Stoppers money.  Face it – when you’re a teenage school dropout with a drug habit, $800 is all the money in the world.  Her initial tip, and subsequent testimony, led to a clearly wrongful conviction, and we’re still working to get the defendant released.

Money aside, some people will provide false information motivated by revenge.  A typical false informer here would be the girlfriend who’s been cheated on, or dumped – just like people reporting an ex-spouse to the IRS.  I’m involved in another case in which the scorned woman did just that, and the ex-boyfriend is now in prison.

Crime Stoppers has no way to verify information.  They just pass it along to the police, and make the unfortunately flawed assumption that the police and prosecutors will get all the misinformation correctly sorted out, and not charge, indict, and convict innocent people.

This is where the problem with police “tunnel vision” comes in.  In cognitive science, this is called “confirmation bias”.  This is the compelling tendency to readily accept data and information that supports our own ideas and beliefs, and to reject or ignore data and information which contradicts, or does not support, those ideas and beliefs.  Based upon a false tip, police can become “locked on” to a particular suspect, ignoring and rejecting all information that the suspect is actually innocent.

Trial prosecutor in the Chicago Dixmoor 5 case, in which five boys made false confessions, Bob Milan, made this telling quote when interviewed on CBS “60 Minutes” about the case, and what can happen when the police latch on to false information (emphasis is mine):  “What happens is it’s tunnel vision. OK. They get locked in on this individual. So the anonymous phone call, the confidential informant, the well-meaning witness sends them in the wrong path.”

I know of no available data we can access to accurately dimension the scope of the problem, but I do know it does happen.  I would also take the position that “once is too many”.  I’m not proposing that we abolish Crime Stoppers.  The problem lies in the investigative practices and protocols of the police agencies.

Here is a quote from Mark Godsey’s recent WCB post on ‘tunnel vision’.  (See Tunnel Vision post here.)  “Brandon Garrett, the law professor who wrote the book on wrongful convictions and why they happen, has pointed out that police and prosecutors have no obligation to pursue alternative explanations, or even to follow a particular method of investigation or keep a record explaining the course they’re taking. Which means it’s close to impossible to hold them accountable for their errors.”

So there’s actually a double problem here – lack of process & protocol in investigations and lack of error correction mechanisms.  “Confirmation bias” (tunnel vision) is, unfortunately, human nature, and the way these kinds of human nature issues are dealt with in industry is through “process”.  Process is figuring out the best way to do something under a particular set of circumstances, and then making sure you do it that way every time.  There should be a process for how to conduct an investigation that has safeguards built in to prevent the occurrence of “tunnel vision”, and to make sure that investigations are objective, complete, thorough, honest, and fair.  There should also be some way to do a root cause analysis of why investigative errors happen when they do, and feed that information back into the process to make sure they don’t happen again.  Doesn’t that sound simple and logical?  Why does it not happen?  I would also direct you to my previous post on Six Sigma and the justice system for more information on the subject.

5 responses to “The Dark Side of Crime Stoppers – False Information and Police Tunnel Vision

  1. Docile Jim Brady – Columbus OH 43209

    Good write and will share .
    As I recall , tunnel vision was a component of the wrongful conviction of Clarence Elkins , after his niece said the predator “looked like” her uncle .

  2. A concise look at a difficult problem. Human nature is complex and unreliable, but we have to try.

  3. Here’s another problem with Crime Stoppers: The group’s records are generally not considered public, so it’s impossible to exactly how the tip came in or how it was processed or massaged. I worked on a case in which two supposed friends of the murder victim identified the defendant to Crime Stoppers only after his name surfaced in the rumor mill. These ”friends” each collected $2,000 rewards for identifying the defendant as the the person they saw leave the bar with the victim the night she was killed. Their identification was higly suspicious to me, but not to the detectives eager to solve a highly publicized case.

  4. Pingback: Crime Stoppers Gets it Wrong … Again | Wrongful Convictions Blog

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