More than 30 years ago, the daughter of a Morris County official was robbed in Arizona. The only encouraging thing about the experience was that the perpetrator was caught in two days thanks to an innovative program in which law enforcement agencies paid informants for tips on unsolved crimes.
Back in Morris County, local activist John Sette, who since has gone on to a varied career in county politics, was paying close attention. He met with then-Sheriff John M. Fox and devised a similar program for the county. Thus was born Morris County Crimestoppers, a non-profit initiative that has been jointly run by the sheriff and the county prosecutor ever since.
“It’s been a great run,” said Sette as the organization and more than 200 supporters celebrated the program’s growth and continued success at a fundraising party Monday night in Whippany.
There is much to celebrate. Sette, who over the last 30 years has been a county freeholder, a park commissioner, a member of the county elections board and most recently chair of the Morris County Republican Committee, said there have been more than 1,000 arrests over the years thanks to Crimestoppers. So far in 2017, Crimestoppers has received 198 tips leading to 53 arrests.
In a time when virtually everything is politicized, Crimestoppers has managed to stay above the political fray. All county sheriffs have been Republicans, but even when prosecutors have been Democrats, the program continues on as usual.
Marty Okun, a onetime Roxbury Township councilman and long-time Crimestoppers supporter, said, “We get bad guys off the street.”
Even in today’s fractured political climate, that’s a pretty bipartisan goal.
The program works simply. When a crime is unsolved, law enforcement agencies publicly advertise the details of what happened. Years ago, this was done in local newspapers, but today social media is involved. Those with knowledge of the crime can either call a special number or send a text through a program that allows that to be done anonymously. They can also alert authorities to ongoing criminal activity. If the tip pans out, tipsters are entitled to a cash reward of up to $1,000.
Sette recalls that one of the first noteworthy cases involved a convicted rapist who got out of jail in Rhode Island and promptly robbed a fast food resident in Massachusetts. For some reason, he relocated to Morris County and an associate alerted local officials to his whereabouts and he was arrested. Years later, Crimestoppers led to the arrest of five teenagers for starting a fire that burned down a steakhouse at the Rockaway Townsquare Mall. The fire originally was thought to be accidental.
The success of Crimestoppers has spread. Sette says he’s talked to officials in “probably half the counties in New Jersey,” who wanted to get their own programs started.
The anonymity of the tipsters is key.
“No one has ever, ever been exposed,” said Morris County Sheriff James Gannon, who inherited the program when he came into office in January. He previously worked in the prosecutor’s office.
Maintaining confidentiality can be difficult. Keep in mind that with law enforcement agencies not knowing who is giving them information, paying tipsters is not as easy as writing a check. Instead, representatives arrange to meet and recognize tipsters in a public location and quickly slip them cash.
The cloak and dagger aspect of things certainly gives the program a bit of cache.
Human nature being what it is, tipsters are often settling a score. Many times, they are turning in friends or associates with whom they had a falling out, and, of course, former spouses or partners.
“They’re easy to spot,” Gannon said. But still, every tip is vetted and if it turns out to be true, so much the better. Motivation really is irrelevant.
Notwithstanding the inclination of people to “rat” each other out, those in search of the “better angels of our nature,” can take heart.
Officials said many tipsters decline to take their reward money.