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'They have to trust you': How Crime Stoppers keeps tipsters anonymous

Last Updated Oct 10, 2019 at 7:12 am EDT

It’s a tiny call centre in northern Ontario that only has about five operators working during each shift. Despite its small size, the team helps solve crime across Canada and overseas. And they have a message for the public — they are not the police.

“We’re not related to the police. We’re all civilians,” says Donna Chambers, the operations manager of the national Crime Stoppers call centre.

“Each call taker is a civilian. We take the calls and dispatch it to police. We call the police on the public’s behalf.”

Each month, the call centre takes an average of 13,000 anonymous phone, text and digital tips from across Canada, parts of the U.S. and Asia, but the organization worries that fear is stopping many potential tipsters from reaching out.

“When people call in, some of the first questions we have is ‘is this anonymous? Prove to me this is anonymous’,” says Sean Sportun, chair of Toronto Crime Stoppers. “They don’t know what’s going on here when those calls are coming in.”

In a television first, CityNews cameras were allowed behind-the-scenes at the call centre to take a look at how those calls are handled and kept anonymous. This was done under several restrictions in order to preserve the privacy of tipsters, reports and employees.

For security reasons, we were not allowed to tape or listen to the audio of actual calls or see any of the information being relayed to the operators. For the safety of employees, we can only say the call centre is located in northern Ontario.

A simulated call shed some light on the process used to gather information from callers while keeping their identity hidden.

Regardless of whether the call is coming in from Canada, the U.S. or overseas, staff say the caller ID is blocked and IP addresses from web tips are stripped and never traced. There is a total of 12 to 25 staff members who answer calls and monitor online reports on 12-hour shifts.

Shannon O’Brien has been with Crime Stoppers for the past 13 years.

“As a call taker, it is my responsibility that if you’re telling me something that I think will give away your identity, we tell you that. We explain it and we make sure we’re not giving away your identity when we write the report as well,” says O’Brien, the operations coordinator. “We don’t judge, we don’t care what you’re involved in. The idea is to take the information, forward it off so that the crime can be solved.”

The call centre began exclusively taking Crime Stoppers tips in November of 2017. Since then, staff have taken almost 300,000 phone and digital tips.

“It’s just a rapport you have to build with them. They have to trust you,” O’Brien says about the callers who are trying to make their neighbourhoods safer. “You have to be able to talk to them and explain that it’s not that I understand, because I’m not in your situation, but I do know you want to make it better.”

If you have tip, Crime Stoppers can be reached anonymously at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or online at www.222tips.com.


Statistics

National Crime Stoppers call centre (since its inception in November 2017)

National

Incoming calls: 109,133
Tips viewed (including web, mobile app or SMS): 181,913

GTA

Incoming calls: 40,000
Tips viewed (including web, mobile app or SMS): 77,753