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Proposed city fund would bolster cash rewards for crime tipsters

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Tex Texin/Flickr
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Crime scene tape. On Tuesday, the Baltimore City Council's Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on a charter amendment to establish a fund to supplement cash rewards offered for tips leading to arrest in homicide and shooting cases.

A Baltimore City councilman is proposing a charter amendment to create a permanent fund to supplement cash rewards offered for tips in homicide and shooting cases.

The nonprofit Metro Crime stoppers, which operates in much of Central Maryland, now funds about $2,000 per reward. The Supplementary Criminal Apprehension and Conviction Fund, proposed in legislation from Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, would put additional money toward the rewards. If approved by the council and mayor, the fund will go before Baltimore voters as early as the general election.

“There should never be a situation where a reward is less than $10,000,” Schleifer told WYPR in an interview. “The return on investment is, in my opinion, the best return on investment on any public safety dollar because it only pays out when results are delivered, while bringing closure to victims’ families and their communities.”

If approved by the council and the mayor an amendment to create the Supplementary Criminal Apprehension and Conviction Fund would go before city voters in the next general election. A subsequent piece of legislation would specify the fund’s operational details, including the exact amount of supplementary cash.

The council’s Ways and Means committee held a hearing Tuesday on the fund, where they heard from Metro Crime Stoppers, also known as MCS.

Metro Crime Stoppers operates in the cities of Baltimore and Annapolis, as well as Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard, and Queen Anne’s counties. They operate a 24-hour toll free hotline and online platform where residents can anonymously provide information. MCS provides the information to relevant law enforcement agencies using an encrypted web program called P3, which assigns anonymous tipsters a confidential code number.

“The only way that we can contact a tipster is by way of that number,” MCS secretary Lee Miller told council members. “The police do have the ability to send emails back through the P3 system to these tipsters to get additional information. … They can have this anonymous dialogue going.”

Tipsters use the confidential code numbers to identify themselves during contact with MCS, which can include receiving status updates about cases, and, when eligible, arranging to receive a reward.

Local jurisdictions such as the Baltimore Police Department inform MCS when tips lead to arrests and convictions. MCS then pays out the cash rewards anonymously. From 2015 to 2020, MCS authorized $53,302 in rewards in Baltimore cases. In 2020, 21 rewards were authorized.

Miller said that only about half of rewards are claimed.

The nonprofit provides $2,000 of its own money for arrests in most felony cases. Though the identities of tipsters and MCS’ communications with them are secure and anonymous, those who don’t claim rewards are fearful of retaliation, he said.

“The reason they do not is because generally, they're afraid. It's our opinion, but they're primarily interested in helping solve the crime,” he told the council. $2,000 “doesn't really move the scale enough for people to risk their lives.”

MCS chairman Earl Winterling noted that tipsters who provide information related to the drug trade are “for the most part, the ones that don't claim the reward money.”

“There's still a fear of animosity, but also they could be an elderly neighbor that is seeing activity going on, and she just wants to do the right thing,” he said. “We still have people in this world today that want to report things that they see and don't worry about other issues.”

MCS raises reward money through fundraising events such as oyster roasts and golf tournaments, Miller said. The organization also receives donations from businesses, but those have dried up in the last 10 to 20 years, he noted.

The organization also receives additional funding to supplement MCS’ standard reward of $2,000 for tips tied to certain crimes. Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake led a partnership to create an illegal gun tip line.

“The program was about adding additional reward money for violent crimes where guns were used,” Winterling said. “Whenever there's a homicide within the city, we offer a cash reward up to $4,000, as long as there's a gun involved.”

Mayor Brandon Scott set aside about $200,000 for MCS in his fiscal year 2022 budget. Miller said some of that sum will eventually be used to supplement MCS cash rewards: tips for all homicides will be $4,000, while those for gun-involved homicides will increase to $6,000.

MCS also funds rewards through individual donors, who can contribute directly to a reward fund for arrests in specific crimes that impacted loved ones or relatives, Miller said.

Schleifer praised Scott’s commitment to increase the rewards, but said his legislation would serve as a mechanism to codify the larger sums and bolster equity by ensuring that grieving residents do not have to lean on their networks to fund rewards.

“What we've seen across the city is a tremendous inequity in how much a reward is based on what neighborhood it happens in, or based on if the governor sees your case on the news or not,” he said at the hearing.

Gov. Larry Hogan recently announced a $100,000 reward for tips leading to an arrest in the killing of Evelyn Player, a grandmother who was stabbed to death in her East Baltimore church in November.

Councilman Robert Stokes, who represents the district where Player was killed, said that many of his constituents have lost children to homicide.

“There are a lot of unsolved murders in the city and a lot of parents felt like, their kids are just as important,” he said.

BPD Commissioner Michael Harrison announced an arrest in the case earlier this month. He noted that the arrest was made based on DNA evidence, but that many community members stepped forward with tips.

The police agency currently has a case clearance rate below 50% for murders and about 25% for shootings. Schleifer argued that his proposed fund would help detectives solve those cases more efficiently and cut down on overtime hours, while signaling to tipsters that their information and anonymity is valued.

Miller and Winterling said that bolstering the cash rewards, in conjunction with raising awareness of the program’s anonymity, would result in more tips leading to arrests and convictions.

“The key is having a program where everyone remains anonymous and being able to offer a cash incentive to give them that additional motivation to make that call,” Winterling said.

Baltimore police representatives agreed. They testified in favor of the fund, saying it would entice witnesses and those with information about crimes to come forward.

“Increased communication could certainly enhance the department’s ability to solve cases and hold perpetrators accountable,” Michelle Wirzberger, BPD’s director of government affairs, wrote in a letter to the Ways and Means committee.

Officials from the Department of Finance testified against the bill, noting that Scott has already set aside funding for MCS and that the measure would not allow unspent money in the program to be put toward any other purpose.

“The ability to reallocate funds across programs and services has been vital during this time to maintain core city services and ensure a strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” budget director Bob Cenname wrote to the committee. “It may be more appropriate for an entity like the Baltimore Civic Fund to manage this special fund.”

The legislation will appear before the full council for a preliminary vote as early as January.