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Sunday, 10 May 2015 22:00

Silent Observer innovates its model to continue providing an avenue for tipsters

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Silent Observer Executive Director Chris Cameron, left, shown here with retired Grand Rapids Police Chief Kevin Belk, has worked to position the nonprofit organization to be an early adopter of new technology so that people can more easily submit tips and information about crimes in Kent County. Silent Observer Executive Director Chris Cameron, left, shown here with retired Grand Rapids Police Chief Kevin Belk, has worked to position the nonprofit organization to be an early adopter of new technology so that people can more easily submit tips and information about crimes in Kent County. COURTESY PHOTO

There are no true days off for Chris Cameron, who remains on-call 24 hours a day prepared to do her part to fight crime in Kent County.

But Cameron isn’t a police officer. She contributes to law enforcement efforts as the executive director of Silent Observer.

“She sends me tips all times of the day or night — days when she is working and days when she is on vacation. I’ll get tips in the middle of the night,” said Ron Gates, a Kent County Sheriff’s Deputy and member of the Silent Observer board.

“It’s her passion,” he added. “She doesn’t show signs of ever getting burned out.”

That passion has led to a 20-year career at the helm of Silent Observer, a nonprofit organization that allows citizens to call, text or digitally submit tips about crimes while keeping their identities anonymous. Cameron started with Silent Observer in 1991 as an assistant, left for a two-year stint to serve with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and returned when the executive director position opened up.

Silent Observer was formed back in 1972 by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the Grand Rapids Police Department. It currently continues as a part of the chamber and is a program of the chamber’s foundation.

The executive director position was part-time when Cameron started, but given the volume of tips now being submitted, she leads Silent Observer as a full-time employee.

While quietly heading up what many would consider to be a grossly underappreciated organization in Kent County, Cameron said her role at Silent Observer has become a part of her identity, not just a day job.

“It’s personal for me and it’s home for me,” said Cameron, who graduated college as an English major and has experience doing public relations work. “Everything I do is Silent Observer. It’s truly the biggest interest in my life other than my family, of course. It’s what I work hard at.”

ONE-WOMAN SHOW

Cameron isn’t just the executive director of Silent Observer — she is the entire staff. Silent Observer consists of Cameron and a volunteer board of directors. The program utilizes a Texas-based call center, where the tips are received and relayed to Cameron.

Silent Observer operates out of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce building, sharing resources to limit overhead.

Silent Observer receives anywhere from 1,600 to 2,200 tips annually. Both Cameron and Gates pointed out that Silent Observer-submitted tips have contributed to arrests in serious and violent crimes, everything from murder to sexual assault.

The tips are reviewed by a detective sergeant, who verifies their credibility and then assigns them to a detective. Every tip is looked at by law enforcement, and some even merit a monetary reward for the tipster.

The obvious draw to the program is the anonymity that comes with Silent Observer, which opens an avenue for helpful information from a demographic that otherwise may not have been willing to talk.

“What I like about Silent Observer is that it’s there if people are fearful to go to the police with information about serious crimes,” Cameron said. “They don’t have to get involved with the criminal justice system or fear about retaliation. They can rest assured that everything is in place to keep them anonymous.”

As a long-time law enforcer, Gates echoed those sentiments.

“Ideally, we would like the (tipster) to be identified and be able to ask additional questions, but we understand that not everyone is going to feel comfortable with that,” he said. “There needs to be another avenue for this information.

“Calling and getting some information is better than no information at all,” he added. “Homicide cases have been solved because (a tipster) identifies where a key piece of evidence is. That’s enough to get us pointed in the right direction.”

FUNDING PROVES CHALLENGING

Despite the measures Cameron and Silent Observer take to limit overhead, the program requires a $140,000 annual budget to stay up and running. Cameron admitted to muddling through a few “scary” months in terms of funding.

“We have to raise all the money to sustain our program,” she said. “If we don’t raise that money, there is a danger of it going away.

“We’re the only program of its kind in the area,” she added. “I think we play an important role.”

One of the taller hurdles standing in Silent Observer’s way to financial stability is the common misconception that the organization is run by the Grand Rapids Police Department.

Along with that assumption comes the misconception that it is funded by the state or via grants, or that it does not have a need for donations.

“I think people believe we are part of a police department, but we can’t be because if we were, we wouldn’t be able to keep our records and phone lines anonymous,” she said. “They would be discoverable and FOIA-able, so we’re not a part of the police department — we are partners.”

Even Gates, who has been in law enforcement for 25 years, admitted to making the same assumption until he joined the board of directors four years ago. He also acknowledged the rigors of raising funds for Silent Observer.

“Personally, I think Silent Observer is not one of those warm, fuzzy charities that involve children or animals,” Gates said. “I think there is a misconception that it is run by the government and grants.”

CHANGING WITH THE TIMES

Today, tips are submitted to Silent Observer at a roughly 50-50 ratio of phone calls to text/web messages. Cameron’s operation has a track record for staying ahead of the technological curve, unveiling text-to-tip in 2009, the first program in Michigan and one of very few programs in the country to offer it at the time.

“We were hoping it would add value — we did it with our young people in mind,” Cameron said. “We’ve had some good success with our text tips.”

An in-house tip management software handles text and web-submitted tips.

On top of that, Cameron said she hopes to launch a mobile app this summer, which would allow tipsters to provide more in-depth information, including pictures.

Cameron said she is dedicated to opening up myriad avenues for allowing witnesses to speak.

“In many cases, those that call Silent Observer speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Cameron said. “For example, children, the disabled, those who have been murdered or have suffered a traumatic experience — those that have been victims of crime. And Silent Observer tipsters help victims of crimes find justice, closure and answers when their perpetrators are arrested and removed from our streets.”

Read 3194 times Last modified on Sunday, 10 May 2015 21:03
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

[email protected]

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