Texas Crime Stoppers using reward money for CEO salaries

In a 2019 training for Texas Crime Stoppers, representatives from local chapters shared slogans they used to promote their work:

“Crime doesn’t pay, but Crime Stoppers does!”

Exchanging money for anonymous tips is still Crime Stoppers’ calling card. Yet as the organization approaches its 50th birthday, for many chapters the heavily promoted rewards have become almost a financial afterthought, with far heftier sums being spent on education, celebrating police, purchasing equipment or supporting their own administrative scaffolding.

Midland Crime Stoppers in 2020 reported $145,000 in expenses, including a director’s salary and $60,000 for advertising, office, banquet and travel costs, for $6,000 in paid rewards. Charity Navigator, a national evaluator of nonprofits, recently gave the North Texas Crime Commission, which includes the Dallas-area Crime Stoppers, a “zero” score for spending more on administrative costs than programs.

Sustained by a steady flow of court fees from criminal defendants ordered to pay local Crime Stoppers as punishment, some chapters have quietly amassed bulging bank accounts. Williamson County Crime Stoppers has long collected more than it paid for tips, said Chairman Sam Jordan. Documents show it distributed about $17,000 in rewards over the past two years while receiving nearly $100,000 in court fees. Its bank account is approaching $700,000, records show.

By the end of 2020 the Dallas chapter, which has seen its reward payments plummet in recent years, had a nest-egg of cash and investments approaching $5 million, records show.

Angie Valenzuela, Midland’s director, said her administrative costs were necessary to sustain the organization, which also operates a campus tip line for local schools. Like many Crime Stoppers affiliates, it fund-raises as well, collecting private support through its annual “40 Guns in 40 Days” raffle, in which citizens vie to win new firearms.

The organization continues to enjoy wide political support. Gov. Greg Abbott included an expansion of Crime Stoppers into more schools in his response to the 2018 shootings at Santa Fe High School.

North Dallas’s meetings remain a regular stop for members of Congress and ambitious law enforcement officials. “It’s a connected organization, and there’s a lot of networking activity there for people in the criminal justice world,” said Joe Brown, a former Sherman County district attorney.

Yet Crime Stoppers also is navigating a mid-life crossroads as the social and political landscapes that launched the organization have shifted. High-profile police misconduct incidents have frayed the public’s trust in law enforcement. Media outlets Crime Stoppers traditionally depended on for publicity are rethinking their law enforcement relationships.

More fundamentally, there has been less crime in need of stopping. Founded and expanded when U.S. violent crime rates surged, through the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s, the organization had little trouble selling its message the world was a perilous place in need of citizen help.

The rates have plunged since then. Although homicides have spiked during the pandemic in some places, overall crime levels remain well below their historical highs. Several Crime Stoppers executives said most tips lead police to lower-level offenders.

A series of recent Texas court decisions also has raised questions about the legality of its public funding. With many chapter budgets built off typically poor criminal defendants, critics add that the human cost of government support of the organization is high.

“Paying court costs can mean the difference between paying your rent and keeping your family housed – or paying the costs because you fear being jailed and then losing your housing,” said Jani Maselli, who as chief of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office appellate division has waged a years-long battle against the fees.

Crime reenactments

In 1976, Albuquerque, N.M., police Detective Greg MacAleese found himself growing frustrated when no witnesses came forward to help solve the fatal shooting of a young gas station attendant. A former reporter, he hit on the idea of shaking loose tips by enlisting a local television station to broadcast a reenactment of the crime. Witnesses who called in were promised anonymity and a cash reward. A suspect was quickly identified and arrested.

The gimmick caught on. In 1978 Crime Stoppers reported five affiliates. By the time Loyola University Chicago Professor Arthur Lurigio first studied the phenomenon less than a decade later, there were more than 600. Texas, which joined the movement in 1981, lists about 150 local chapters, although not all are active.

Crime Stoppers wasn’t the first to offer anonymity and cash rewards. But the reenactments were a gamechanger, Lurigio said. Broadcast on (and often produced by) local TV stations, the spots offered viewers the thrill of lurid entertainment costumed as community service. The formula pleased both the police, who received tips; and local stations, whose ratings climbed.

“The majority in each group views the program as quite successful,” Lurigio’s major study, in 1987, reported. It later helped spawn true-crime, pro-policing juggernauts such as American’s Most Wanted – “basically Crime Stoppers with high production values,” he said.

Criticisms were largely theoretical. A few psychologists fretted over whether paying citizens to act responsibly eroded civic morals. Others disapproved that many of those pocketing rewards were criminal-adjacent. Lurigio’s police surveys showed about three-quarters of the tips came from other criminals or “fringe players.”

Lurigio documented wide variation among local Crime Stoppers chapters in attracting community donations. But, he noted, “One of the most promising fund-raising techniques is court restitution.” Although it wasn’t yet widespread, he wrote that the strategy of convincing local judges to order criminal offenders to contribute to Crime Stoppers as a condition of their probation showed great promise.

Fees as probation condition

Today, Texas affiliates can collect money from several fees written into state law. A small percentage of the “consolidated court cost” every criminal offender pays flows to the Governor’s Crime Stoppers Assistance Fund. Local organizations can apply to the office for grants of up to $50,000.

Local judges also can order individual offenders to refund Crime Stoppers for a reward the organization paid for a tip used to solve his or her felony crime. Chapter leaders said they received such reimbursements infrequently.

Most commonly, judges require offenders to pay a fee – typically $50 for felonies, $25 for misdemeanors – to the local Crime Stoppers as a condition of probation. The practice is at the discretion of individual judges and so varies by location.

Most of the revenue legally must be used on reward payments, so any extra accumulates. Tyler Crime Stoppers paid about $5,000 in tip rewards in 2020, ending the year with a nearly $400,000 bank cushion, according to its financial filings.

Affiliates find other ways to spend money. Lufkin spent more on “special events honoring Law Enforcement” than rewards in 2019. Over each of the past three years Montgomery County Crime Stoppers paid about $13,000 in tip rewards. During the same period it donated more than $200,000 to local police for the purchase of Tasers, sniper rifles, body cameras, gas masks, new vehicles and a computer-sniffing dog. Steve Squier, the county’s Crime Stoppers coordinator, said all were paid for using private donations.

The North Texas Crime Commission hired two lobbyists during the 2017 legislative session, according to state ethics filings. While one, chairman David Dean, a former Texas Secretary of State, was unpaid, records show the organization paid former state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown up to $10,000. Dean said that despite the filing he could find no record the organization ever compensated a lobbyist.

Illegal payments?

Though reformers argue court fees create another barrier to successfully re-entering society, the judicially ordered Crime Stoppers payments have seldom been questioned. Yet in recent years several Texas courts have suggested judges could be wrongly assessing them.

As part of his 2018 forgery conviction, records show Vincent Jackson, of Sweetwater, in West Texas, was ordered to pay a suite of costs and fees, including a $1,000 fine, $423 in court costs, $1,800 to lawyers, $180 in “restitution,” $50 to Crime Stoppers. On appeal, however, the Seventh District Court of Appeals in Amarillo concluded that with part of the court cost already going to the organization, it “is inappropriate to assess a separately-charged fee to Crime Stoppers.”

Ted Wood, of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, said two other courts – in Corpus Christi and a West Texas appeals court — have concluded assessing a Crime Stoppers fee in addition to the mandatory court cost levy could be unlawful. The Nolan case also found the judge had assessed a $50 Crime Stoppers probation fee even though the offender was never placed on community supervision – an illegal bill.

Together, the decisions raise questions about Crime Stoppers’ most reliable government funding source in Texas, he said.

It has faced other headwinds, as well. More organizations have joined the rewards-for-information game, potentially diluting the Crime Stoppers brand and fundraising. With the growing use of security cameras, police departments can simply post surveillance footage of crimes online.

“A lot of people don’t know about us,” Chuck Curtis, hired by Crime Stoppers in 2019 to produce commercials for the organization, told a magazine in 2019.

Crime Stoppers nonetheless continues to boast eye-catching accomplishments. The live tally on the national website stands at more than 800,000 crimes solved and $4 billion-worth of property and drugs recovered thanks to tips.

Mundane crimes

Lurigio acknowledged it was nearly impossible to fact-check such numbers. It is difficult to know which crimes would have been solved without a paid tip. Shrouded by anonymity – legally protected in Texas – Crime Stoppers stats derive exclusively from police, who have an incentive to report high arrest rates.

Several organization officials also acknowledged that while solving violent crimes garner attention and advance public safety, offenses commonly solved by Crime Stopper tipsters are much more mundane. Mike Pappas, who heads up the North Texas program, said most tips referenced probation violations or drug possession. Midland’s school progarm pays $20 rewards for information on kids smoking vape pens, Valenzuela said.

“It doesn’t do anything to add to public safety,” said Scott Henson, a long-time Texas criminal justice reform advocate. “It’s a PR ploy that promotes a culture of law enforcement fetishism.”

Lurigio concluded that even a highly successful chapter well-supported by the community was unlikely to have a meaningful impact on local crime rates. “While numerous crimes are solved through Crime Stoppers,” he wrote, “these successes amount to only a small fraction of the total volume of serious crimes committed in a given community each year.”

Last year, North Texas Crime Stoppers tips resulted in just over 50 arrests and 100 cleared cases. The chapter covers an area that reported over 100,000 serious criminal offenses in 2020, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

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Fugitive From Kaplan Nabbed After Vermilion Crime Stoppers Tip

A man from Kaplan accused of multiple charges including domestic abuse-strangulation was nabbed by Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s Violent Crimes Task Force agents after a tip to Crime Stoppers of Vermilion.

It was not an easy situation to deal with, but it was resolved peacefully according to Eddie Langlinais who heads up not only Crime Stoppers of Vermilion but also the Vermilion Parish Violent Crimes Task Force.

Christopher Simon

Photo courtesy of the Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s Office

Langlinais says Christopher Simon had been a fugitive from the law for some time. He had outstanding warrants for the following:

  • Domestic Abuse- Strangulation
  • Home Invasion
  • Simple Burglary
  • Theft
  • Contempt of Court

This man’s case was featured on Crime Stoppers here on KPEL and on local t.v. along with social media. Based on a tip, agents went to 1012 West 5th Street in Kaplan Monday, where Simon decided not to come out. Instead, the man barricaded himself inside the home when a deputy tried to serve the warrants.

Langlinais says the decision was made to use an armored vehicle in front of the home. He says this allowed them to be able to bargain with Simon to come out safely which is exactly what happened. He gave up, he was taken into custody, and then he was booked into the Vermilion Parish Jail.

As the Director of Crime Stoppers of Vermilion, Langlinais says getting that tip is what helped them find Simon. He added,

Our Crime Stoppers program is beginning to demonstrate its value as we feature both crimes and fugitives on our local radio and tv stations…..We are excited about it and implore out viewers to promote our Crime Stoppers Program to their friends, families, and neighbors. It’s a prime example of how things can work when people and law enforcement agencies come together for the greater good…….

Each Friday morning at 7:40, we interview Langlinais about what crime or fugitive is being featured. Often he will tell us that he believes the program is so popular because people are fed up with crime. While the program was dominant for many years it was given a reboot in 2021. He has told us in many interviews that everyone in law enforcement is grateful for people who reach out with tips. He says this program is showing how powerful tips are to help curb crime.

If you know anything about a crime or suspect, you can always call the Crime Stoppers of Vermilion Tips Line at 337-740-TIPS (8477). Another anonymous way to help law enforcement and maybe get some money is to download and use the P3 app on any mobile device.

If your tip leads to an arrest, you can make up to $1,000. Almost every week when we speak to Langlinais he reports that since the reboot of this program, close to fifty percent of the people who tip them don’t even want the money, they just want to do their part to fight crime.

He says this arrest came together with help from the tipster and the following law enforcement agencies:

  • Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s SRT
  • Vermilion Parish Patrol Division
  • Vermilion Parish Warrants Division
  • Kaplan Police Department

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