SW Florida law enforcement authorities experiment with alternate reporting methods

Enrique Viquez, center, tells Collier County deputies what he saw from his house on Mindi Avenue in East Naples. Deputies responded to a burglary on Thomasson and Outer drives. Lexey Swall-Bobay/Staff

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Enrique Viquez, center, tells Collier County deputies what he saw from his house on Mindi Avenue in East Naples. Deputies responded to a burglary on Thomasson and Outer drives. Lexey Swall-Bobay/Staff

Sending a law enforcement officer to a caller's location isn't cheap, and sometimes it might not even seem necessary.

In an effort to free up officers, law enforcement agencies across the country are experimenting with alternative report-taking methods, allowing residents to file reports online or over the phone.

Some agencies, like the Collier and Lee county sheriff's offices already use such systems. Others, like the Fort Myers Police Department, are exploring them.

In Collier County, the Sheriff's Office began offering an online crime reporting option for lesser crimes in 2010, largely targeting people who need a report for their insurance companies in case of stolen items. About 800 people filed such reports online in 2012, Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said.

The agency spent around $29,700 for the CopLogic software, and it costs about $5,500 a year to maintain the system, Rambosk said. But the sheriff said it's money well spent.

"Even if you just think about it very simply, if you send a deputy to take any report, you're taking them off the road for an hour and maybe more, depending on the call," Rambosk said. "In our case, we're looking at one year, under 1,000 calls. That's a minimum 1,000 hours that we've saved. Turn that into cost and what it costs to arm, equip, train and put out on a road a deputy in a marked car — that's $100,000 a year to do that per deputy."

Rambosk said the system could be even more effective if more people used it.

"If anything, we've got to get better with promoting that we have that availability," he said. "We would love many more people to use it. I think we could double or triple (reports)."

Deputies in Lee County have been using alternate response officers, who take reports over the phone, for several years, said Lt. Larry King, a Sheriff's Office spokesman. If a crime fits the criteria, victims can choose to either talk to one of the officers over the phone or request a deputy to come to them in person.

Fort Myers police Chief Doug Baker said the department has been looking into alternate reporting systems as a way of freeing up officers to work on violent crimes and drug activity. Burglaries and thefts make up about 72 percent of the city's crime, occupying officers who might otherwise be free to pursue more serious crime activity, he said.

"I think, how much more time would we have without those?" Baker said. "Would officers have time to do something a lot more productive?"

But police have been restrained by a budget that doesn't lend itself to extra spending on an online reporting system, Baker said.

"The problem is there are no dollars. I could not afford to lose 10 officers or 10 civilian staff to finance something else," he said. "If you want the technology, you've got to find X amount of dollars in your budget."

Naples police say they have not had a need for alternative reporting methods — their officers still respond to every call for service, spokesman Lt. John Barkley said.

Even some past-occurred burglaries that might be seen as minor, like a purse stolen out of a car, has the potential for further investigation, he pointed out.

"We may be able to get evidence to prevent further car burglaries, like fingerprints," Barkley said.

But agencies that do use alternative reporting methods say they're happy with the results.

"If we get the right level of call and the right indicators that can be handled by the alternate reporting unit ... you can save a lot of money by not having to send the car," Rambosk said. "Online reporting or phone reporting frees up more time for deputies to patrol."

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