In "Julius Caesar," Mark Anthony foreshadowed impending conflict and its foot soldiers, "the dogs of war."
In Philadelphia and Calgary, Canada, recent stolen-goods recoveries point the way toward a new approach to solving property theft and other nonviolent crimes. The foot soldiers in these battles were facile Web users who identified the thieves, helped return the stolen property and made law enforcement's job much easier.
If Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is listening, there's a phenomenal opportunity here for a big Bureau of Justice Assistance grant that can revolutionize the investigation of nonviolent property crime and perhaps other classes of offenses as well.
In Philly, burglary victim Jesse McPherson posted a rant-blog about the "morons" who stole the Xbox, PowerBook and flat-screen TV from his Fishtown home. The thief had called McPherson to ransom the video game. A Comcast engineer, McPherson posted the story (including his claims that Philadelphia police were Slowsky-like in following leads he provided).
Internet users from around the globe got mad, got involved and managed to identify the thief by putting Web puzzle pieces together. They hounded the burglar so much that he gave back two of the three stolen items.
In Canada, a rare 1991 Nissan muscle car worth $35,000 was stolen right from under owner Shaun Ironside's nose. When a potential buyer used fake ID and turned a test drive into a drive-away, Ironside posted a message and photo on an Internet auto forum.
One person spotted the car and managed to get a photo of the thief behind the wheel displaying his distinctively mangled hand. Amazing. The car is back and the thief has been caught.
Both these outcomes were achieved by cyber-vigilantes. What they foreshadow is the possibility of new auxiliary police forces for cities like Philadelphia which, done right, could free police to solve violent crimes.
With about 50 colleges in the Philadelphia area, how many offer criminal-justice, computer-science or law degrees? How many students, and working adults for that matter, can play a computer like a Stradivarius and would like the challenge of public service by joining the nation's first police cyber-auxiliary?
Each volunteer would have to underwrite the expense of a serious background check since no one with a criminal record or other potential problems would be allowed to help. Colleges would be encouraged to make professors (who'd also need background checks) available to manage teams of volunteers. The job would run by the book, a manual developed for the program, and no connection would be made to the department's existing data.
In 2000, I began developing an "America's Wanted" application for the APBnews.com in New York, where I was director of criminal-justice programs. It would have showcased wanted criminals across the country, and not just serial killers. APB went under just as I managed to get reps from nearly every federal law-enforcement agency together in the same room. (Quite a feat.)
Imagine putting hundreds of volunteers into solving cases or providing administrative duties that police departments aren't able to devote resources to. Infrastructure and programming would be needed at the start, but grant money from public and private sources might be found.
BURGLARY victim McPherson should have a sit-down with Commissioner Ramsey, not to complain because Philadelphia detectives didn't jump on his tips on a Saturday, but to explain how he reeled in stolen property and "made" a burglar. Start there and let's see if Philadelphia can again start a revolution - in crime-solving. *