October 25, 2017

    New Jersey Prosecutor Turns to App for Opioid-Crime Tips

    A New Jersey prosecutor is turning to an app to fight his county’s opioid epidemic.

    Starting Wednesday, residents of Somerset County will be able to use their smartphones to anonymously text tips on opioid-related crimes to the office of the prosecutor, Michael H. Robertson.

    Mr. Robertson said he hopes the app would encourage tech-savvy people who are less likely to call a police hotline and those uncomfortable speaking to law enforcement to come forward with information about dealers and overdoses.

    “Our intention with this is basically to use it almost like a neighborhood watch on steroids,” he said. “Civilians, they’re boots on the ground but they’re terrified to work with law enforcement out of fear of retaliation.”

    Mr. Robertson is hoping that at least some of the more than 300,000 residents of his county use the STOPit app. So far this year, police and emergency medical technicians from Somerset County have deployed naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, 187 times and reported 21 fatal overdoses. That compares with 217 overdose reversals last year and 29 deaths.

    In New Jersey, more than 1,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the first six months of 2016, the latest data available.

    Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit national membership organization, said departments across the country have started using similar apps.

    “The ability to have users or others text the identification and location of dealers in real time could save lives,” Mr. Wexler said.

    Up until now, the STOPit app has been used by students to give anonymous tips on bullying in schools, said STOPit founder Todd Schobel, who met Mr. Robertson last spring while playing golf.

    “We were taking about the bullying craze,” Mr. Robertson said. “I said, ‘You know, why wouldn’t I use this in the law-enforcement world?’ ”

    In the months since, Mr. Robertson’s office has sent letters to community leaders, encouraging residents to download the app. While he is marketing it as a tool to fight opioids, he hopes people will get comfortable using it to report other crimes, too.

    “The reality is we have to evolve with technology,” Mr. Robertson said. “The idea of calling a 1-800 number, those days are over.”

    Residents will be able to use the app to send text messages, photographs or videos to detectives. It is then up to detectives to use their investigative skills to verify the leads, said John Fodor, the chief of county detectives.

    An exchange with an anonymous sender wouldn’t by itself warrant an arrest but would rather serve as a tip for an investigation, Mr. Robertson said. Chief Fodor said it would be up to those detectives to vet potential false information that may flood through the app.

    “The saying of ‘See something, Say something,’ they’ll be able to do that with this app without someone knocking on the door,” Chief Fodor said. “The people who see an accident but pass by because they don’t want to be involved, we’re trying to get to those people.”

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