Brent Batten: Here's a tip: Don't call 911 if you want the reward

BRENT BATTEN
Timothy Tuttle was captured just south of Daniels Parkway on Treeline Avenue, across from the airport, after a 24-hour search in Lee County. (Photo courtesy of NBC-2)

Photo by NBC-2

Timothy Tuttle was captured just south of Daniels Parkway on Treeline Avenue, across from the airport, after a 24-hour search in Lee County. (Photo courtesy of NBC-2)

Should the caller who helped deputies catch Timothy Tuttle get the Crime Stoppers reward?

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Systems aren’t perfect.

That’s OK. Systems are designed by imperfect human beings so the occasional breakdown is to be expected.

But when a breakdown occurs, is it unreasonable to expect the human beings in charge to make adjustments?

Two years ago, when Fort Myers police officer Andrew Widman was murdered on the street by a wanted man who should have been behind bars but for a systemic breakdown, officials’ first reaction was to defend themselves and their systems. The proper procedures had been followed, they said in the days after the killing. This was just one that slipped through the cracks.

To their credit, that attitude didn’t last long. Public outrage and inquiries from the governor’s office may have contributed to the change, but whatever the reason, leaders of local law enforcement, probation and the judiciary soon huddled to piece together exactly how a few weeks before Widman’s death his killer, convicted felon Abel Arango had appeared in court, entered a plea and walked out in spite of a pending no-bond warrant for his arrest.

They took it upon themselves to find and implement a computer software program that identifies wanted suspects on court dockets, making it much less likely a repeat of the Widman case will recur here. As opposed to the proactive approach of those local leaders, the state Legislature is still dithering over funding to take the local program statewide.

Superficially, the Widman case and the last week’s arrest of murder suspect Timothy Tuttle appear to have little in common. One was a downtown Fort Myers shooting in which the killer was himself killed by police moments after the firefight erupted. The other, a culmination of a 24-hour manhunt stemming from a murder weeks earlier in Cape Coral.

But both cases represent a breakdown in a system. In the Widman case, the breakdown was in communication between police, probation and the courts.

In Tuttle’s case, it is a breakdown in coordination between police and the non-profit Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers tips hotline that is supposed to help them.

Johnny Hooker was driving by the search area when he spotted Tuttle trying to elude officers. He dialed the sheriff’s office on his cell phone and let dispatchers know where the suspect could be found.

But Hooker’s been told he doesn’t qualify for the $1,000 reward because he didn’t dial the tips line, 1-800-780-TIPS, even though he specifically asked the dispatcher to make a note of his name and expressed an interest in the reward.

Crime Stoppers is an independent non-profit agency and can only offer rewards for tips that come through it, said Trish Routte, coordinator of the local chapter. The policy is the same at all 1,100 Crime Stopper branches world wide, she noted.

Crime Stoppers is a successful program that claims to have assisted in the arrests of close to 700 suspects in Southwest Florida last year.

The group doesn’t have resources to monitor the phone records of all 18 law enforcement agencies in Southwest Florida, Routte said. It offers callers anonymity, something police can’t always guarantee. For those reasons, it only acts on calls it receives directly she added.

Not every case has the immediacy of the one last week involving Tuttle.

But imagine the conundrum of Hooker or any other person hoping to both aid in the arrest of a fugitive and collect a reward.

Do you call the tips line?

Routte says the line is answered by a human being 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But I called twice on Wednesday, once at 10:22 a.m. and again at 10:29 a.m. Each time the phone rang 16 times before a recording kicked in. “Thank you for calling the Big Bend Crime Stoppers status line. We are currently processing another call. Please call back in a few minutes.”

Routte said Wednesdays are particularly busy for her and the one other Crime Stopper employee here since that’s the day people who have provided tips are advised to call to check the status of their reward claim. Tuttle was captured on a Wednesday.

Big Bend is an area of North Florida around Leon County. Routte said she doesn’t know why the call would be transferred there but acknowledged that if she and the other employee are tied up, a recording will occasionally pick up. After hours calls are routed to a call center where operators are trained to take the information.

If you can’t get through to the tips line, are you supposed to wait, and potentially have the suspect get away?

If you call 911 do you forfeit any claim to a reward? Not necessarily, said Routte, noting that Hooker could have called the tips line immediately after calling the sheriff’s office.

But that’s assuming citizens have 1-800-780-TIPS committed to memory. As good a job as the organization does at public outreach, not everyone realizes that there’s a separate number, indeed a separate agency, to call for rewards versus calling to provide information to police.

How hard would it be for police and Crime Stoppers to huddle, just as the parties to the Widman case did, to work out a contingency plan that allows 911 callers, if they express an interest in a reward, to get in the Crime Stoppers system? It may be no more complicated than having dispatchers explain Crime Stoppers to callers who ask about a reward and allowing them to transfer those calls to Crime Stoppers.

The arrest of Tuttle, facilitated by a citizen tip after a massive manhunt involving dozens of officers, 30 dogs and a helicopter failed to bring him in, is a perfect example of law enforcement enlisting and capitalizing on the public’s help.

Why not further encourage that partnership by improving a system that clearly is not perfect?

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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