New system to allow crime-tip texting to aid Beaufort County Sheriff's Office

rlurye@islandpacket.comJanuary 4, 2014 

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office plans to use a notification service that would allow subscribers to receive and respond to crime alerts, among other services.

The Sheriff's Office has received a federal grant to pay for a one-year subscription to Nixle Engage, a notification service that allows agencies to send messages on everything from traffic to severe weather. Other Beaufort County and state law enforcement agencies have used the free Nixle service, but the Sheriff's Office has opted to upgrade to the first paid tier of plan.

The subscription allows residents to text or send the Sheriff's Office anonymous tips. It also allows deputies to coordinate their notifications across Facebook and Twitter. The $13,000 cost -- the less expensive of two paid options -- will be funded by a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, according to Lt. Col. Bill Neill of the Sheriff's Office.

The service begins the first week of February.

The Beaufort County Emergency Management Division used the free version of the program -- Nixle Connect -- before the division was placed under the authority of the Sheriff's Office in October. That version is limited to one-way communication from law enforcement officials via text, email and the Web, and to posting urgent local alerts on Google's homepage, Nixle spokesman Jim Gatta said.

In recent years, the Sheriff's Office reached the public through news releases and occasionally Reverse 911, which enables agencies to send messages to people in a designated geographic area, Neill said.

"We decided to upgrade to the next tier in order to provide much-needed additional services," he said. "Its failure or success will be measured by the end of the year according to the public's involvement."

More than 6,500 agencies across the country use Nixle, according to Gatta.

The S.C. Highway Patrol uses the free version to text members of the media when information on fatal crashes becomes available.

The Bluffton Police Department has also used Nixle Connect, but discontinued it a few years ago, according to Capt. Angela McCall-Tanner. She did not know why, but said the department has increased its use of social media generally.

In November, the Bluffton department launched a Facebook page to promote programs, distribute news releases and interact with the community. In an emergency, the department can also use Reverse 911.

The Beaufort Police Department also joined Nixle Connect last year, and has used it several times to update the public on traffic conditions or crime trends. Officers have been building a presence on Facebook for even longer, according to investigator George Erdel.

Since 2009, tips generated by users have resulted in the identification of 28 suspects or individuals caught on surveillance footage, he said. Eight people wanted for crimes have also been apprehended through tips, or turned themselves in after their photos were posted on Facebook, according to Erdel.

Using Nixle for notifications, however, allows for greater reach, he said.

"We do use it when the need arises, especially when there is a time-sensitive bit of information that needs to go out," Erdel said. "While Facebook is extraordinarily beneficial, we don't want to limit our impact to just one platform."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

Related content:

911, other emergency services put under Sheriff's Office purview, October 25, 2013

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