Cameron Targets Crime

December 13, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Christine Cameron, director of Silent Observer, got her first taste of crime prevention as a volunteer and community liaison with the police department for the East Grand Rapids Neighborhood Watch program.

She got hooked on it.

"Volunteer work gives you a nice base and really hones your skills," Cameron said. "I heard Silent Observer had an opening for an assistant to the director, so I applied and was offered the job."

Cameron held several positions before joining Silent Observer in 1995. She had worked as a reporter and managing editor for Cadence Newspaper, as a freelance writer for the former BlodgettMemorialMedicalCenter, and as coordinator for the East Grand Rapids Gaslight Village Merchants Association.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and Grand Rapids Police Department started the Silent Observer program in 1972 to open communications between law enforcement agencies and KentCounty residents and to provide residents with a safe and anonymous way of reporting crime through a tip line. The nonprofit supports all law enforcement agencies in KentCounty but is not controlled by any governmental unit.

Before 1990 the program consisted of a single phone line and not a lot of hoopla, Cameron recalled. Her challenge was to take the program to the next level.

"It wasn't going to be just a phone in somebody's office anymore. We wanted to develop the program and make it a more viable operation. We wanted to increase participation."

Under her leadership these past nine years, Silent Observer established a Web site in 2000, introduced the Fast 50 Program for middle and high school students in 1997 and the Jail Tip Program for Kent County Jail inmates in 2000.

The Web site (www.silentobserver.com) gave citizens another means of reporting crime in addition to the tip line. As Cameron explained, the site has a special e-mail program that can't be tracked, so it guarantees anonymity.

"We've solved crimes from Michigan to California with that e-mail program," she said.

Under the Fast 50 Program, students with information on drugs, weapons, vandalism, major theft, arson, or threats of violence at their schools can report it to Silent Observer without fear of reprisal and earn a $50 reward if their tip leads to the recovery of contraband or uncovers the identity of vandals. If a weapon is recovered as a result of the tip, the reward doubles to $100. Since its inception, the program has expanded from two schools to 55 schools in KentCounty

Cameron said Fast 50 has been the organization's "star performer."

"It's outstanding. Kids use it and love it and school administrators love it," she remarked. "We started this before acts of school violence began to get attention in the news. That was pretty innovative at the time and insightful for our board to want to implement a program like this."

Jail Tip is the first program of its kind in the nation, according to Silent Observer. It allows inmates to anonymously report information on serious crimes using any payphone at the jail. By dialing #21, they can connect directly to Silent Observer free of charge.

Cameron said the traditional Silent Observer phone tip line will undergo some changes, as well. She hopes to have a multi-language tip line in place by next spring.

Today, Silent Observer offers rewards of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of criminal suspects and receives more than 1,800 tips a year.

"Participation is certainly up, as are arrests in cases cleared," Cameron noted. "Of all of the high profile cases you read about, there is always Silent Observer information flowing through it. It might not lead directly to the arrest of a suspect, but it provides a really important piece of the puzzle."

Since its founding, Silent Observer has led to the resolution of more than 900 felony crimes and its board has approved in excess of $400,000 in rewards to citizen informants. Though rewards can vary year to year, in 2003, for example, they totaled $26,500.

Silent Observer tips are forwarded to police departments in KentCounty first and Cameron follows up on them.

"I can make people feel at ease so they'll feel comfortable giving me more information," she said. "You have people that are just so tired of crime in their neighborhood that they want to contribute to the struggle of making their world a safer place. They need someone who will listen to them. It's a remarkable program, and I think we do a lot of good out there. It's very rewarding when a problem in a neighborhood is resolved."

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce donates office space and in-kind services to Silent Observer but it has to raise about $103,000 annually to sustain itself. To that end, Silent Observer puts on two major fundraisers a year — a roast of a local celebrity and an annual golf outing sponsored by Westdale Real Estate.

Currently, police departments receive monies through the seizure of drugs, houses, cars and other property in drug busts. Since 2001, drugs and property recovered due to Silent Observer tipsters have amounted to $1 million, but the organization doesn't share in the drug forfeiture money, Cameron pointed out.

Cameron is now working on behalf of all the crime tip programs in the state to see if the guidelines for drug forfeiture money could be eased up a bit so police departments can contribute a little of that money to crime tip programs.

She said understands that municipalities are facing budget difficulties, too, especially in light of cuts in state revenue sharing funds. But a small contribution — even as little as one quarter of one percent — would help the crime tip programs continue to do their job, she said.

Cameron also has taken a lead role in the formation of a statewide Silent Observer/Crime Stoppers organization that will lobby state legislators to put a law on the books that protects the identity of Silent Observer and Crime Stoppers informants in all cases.

The business community has been a direct beneficiary of the Silent Observer program, just as their neighborhoods have been, Cameron noted.

"If we can better communicate that, I think funding is going to be easier for this program. Funding is a huge issue for us. One of my goals is to absolutely convince companies and individuals that Silent Observer is a community treasure."

Both the Crime Prevention Association of Michigan and the West Michigan Crime Prevention Association honored Cameron as 1991Volunteer of the Year. In addition, the West Michigan Crime prevention Association also named her the Crime Prevention Practitioner of the Year in 1997.    

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