Moving with the tech times, the Virginia State Police recently announced the launching of a new smart phone app—one that will allow citizens to report crime tips directly from their phone. Called “See Something. Send Something,” the police are hoping the app will turn neighbor against neighbor and leave them looking like the good guys.
These apps are designed to put crime-fighting in the hands of the public, according to supporters, allowing them to send anything suspicious to police. Virginia isn’t the first state to launch such an app, Pennsylvania and Louisiana have them too.
The app accepts photos, text messages, or videos.
“If you see something suspicious, snap a photo with your smart phone and send it to us,” said Major Rick Jenkins at a press conference in Woodbridge. “If you can’t send a photo, or don’t want to, then text your tip.”
The app and the publicity around it begs the question: what exactly constitutes suspicious? What one citizen sees as suspicious—a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt walking after dark, for instance—another may recognize as completely normal. So, how the app lends itself to effective police work is questionable at best.
“The fundamentals of investigating and solving a crime haven’t changed,” said Jenkins in a press release. What Jenkins doesn’t seem to realize is that the app is not looking to solve crimes. Solving crimes happens after a crime occurs. The app is looking to criminalize suspiciousness, a highly subjective term.
Because you stop to talk to a friend on a street corner, pausing to shake hands, doesn’t mean you sold drugs. But if the wrong person sees you in their neighborhood, that could be what they see.
The same sort of vague “See Something, Say Something” campaign after September 11 in NYC led to many people being stopped and questioned for doing nothing more than snapping photos of the sights of the city. In this case, however, there was no plane crash, no terrorism, and no real justification.
Evidence that citizen tips work to “solve crimes” would be prudent in launching an app like this. As it stands, the state risks turning the people of Virginia against one another and increasing the irrational fear of crime that is already rampant.
Except crime is dropping everywhere in Virginia. The impression that the Commonwealth is a dystopian nightmare with criminals running rampant is both false and toxic to communities.
Before you “Send Something,” make sure your suspicions are justified. The last thing you want on your shoulders is the knowledge you suspected someone of theft, drug possession, or another crime, and that you were wrong.