This Friday The Stranger shared a comic strip written from Seattle’s police blotter. In it, cartoonist Callan Berry shares the story of the Botox Bandit — an alleged criminal who ripped off a clinic for free Botox treatment, but the story is actually pretty disturbing. The local Seattle FOX affiliate, KCPQ/Q13, ran the story as part of their partnership with Crime Stoppers of Puget Sound, an organization that offers cash rewards for information leading to the capture of alleged criminals.
Crime Stoppers offered $1,000 for information on the Botox Bandit. Seeing the story alongside his photo, the alleged “Bandit” went to the business that had claimed he had robbed them, and found that his credit card had been declined, but instead of calling him, the business alerted the cops. He settled the bill, and with the “crime” solved, he tried to get Q13 to remove the story. They refused.
A few days later, a couple potential “Crime Stoppers” saw him in a grocery store parking lot. They recognized him from the Q13 piece and assaulted him, having mistaken the reward for information as a reward for capture. Even though he was injured, he was able to avoid capture and escape to a hospital.
At the hospital, police advised him to stay inside until Q13 redacted or updated the story, which, as of this writing, they still haven’t. the cartoonist (Berry) says that Q13 stands by their story, claiming to have investigated the “Bandit’s” side. When Berry asked if they’d known that the man had gotten hurt because of the story, Q13 claimed to be unaware. Still, with that knowledge that their piece led to an assault on an innocent man, again, the article remains unamended.
Crime Stoppers programs have been around since 1975, though they’ve always been controversial for providing a monetary reward for information. Similar rewards have led to an increase in false information from scammers trying to make a quick payday while in this case an assault resulted from a misunderstanding about that reward.
False information is the scourge of police work. Crime Stoppers only pays out if the information leads to an arrest, but false information ends up in the wasting of police resources on a bad leads. Even worse, false information can result in wrongful arrests and convictions.
In New South Wales, Australia, Crime Stoppers tips have a pathetic 0.8 percent success rate of leading to arrests, which doesn’t take into consideration how many of those arrests have led to a guilty verdict.
Sometimes, Crime Stoppers itself provides false information. There have also been other lawsuits against Crime Stoppers organizations for libel when it turns out their own information is wrong.
We can’t only blame Crime Stoppers. The media can be lax about making sure only good information goes out, and not just local news organizations. CNN’s Nancy Grace is being sued for continuing to run a Crime Stoppers-sourced story even after police had cleared the subject of the story of any wrong-doing.
Shows like Q13’s Washington’s Most Wanted — produced in collaboration with six Crime Stoppers organizations in the Seattle area — aren’t the only time the media have tried to get into the police business. Perhaps the most infamous is NBC’s To Catch A Predator.
To Catch A Predator was a pop-cultural phenomenon, but ended in controversy. Predator was at the center of scandals involving Perverted Justice — the organization Predator partnered with to produce the show — including accusations of entrapment, the suicide of one of their subjects, lawsuits, and prosecutors refusing to act on arrests from the show. (This hasn’t stopped Chris Hansen from trying to revive the concept via Kickstarter.)
What’s the solution? It’s hard to say. No one wants to sound like they’re pro-crime, so stopping programs like Crime Stoppers is generally a non-starter, pardon the pun. And as Predator showed, these types of shows can generate great ratings. Not only are they sensational, but they help the audience feel involved. Someone watching can feel like they’re an engaged citizen “on the lookout” for criminals, even if they never actually call in a tip.
But what is the actual real-world result other than good feelings and high ratings? At best, it appears to be not much, and at worst, we see far worse wreckage than the original crime they tried to stop, with the media abdicating all responsibility. We might not know the best solution, but at this point it seems clear that the sensationalism of Predator and the casual, smug style of some Crime Stoppers reports make bad situations even worse.