Maybe it's the plethora of superhero movies in theaters these days or maybe people are just fed up with crime. Whatever the reason, more of us are taking on the role of crime-fighter, with more tools at our disposal — and the cops encourage it.
"If we give the public the opportunity to get involved in the crime fight, they will get involved," said Broward Sheriff's spokesman Jim Leljedal. "They want to do it."
That doesn't mean officers want civilians to don masks and capes and put themselves in harm's way. However, police do want people to be observant and communicative.
That's what happened on Nov. 14, when a UPS driver, a bank manager and a bank customer combined efforts to help police and FBI agents catch three bank robbery suspects who were chased nearly 40 miles from Coral Springs to north Miami Dade. A fourth was arrested later that day.
The civilians recognized suspicious activity and called 911 to report the bank robbery and the switching of getaway cars, Coral Springs Police Sgt. Joe McHugh said.
"It couldn't have worked out any better for us," he said. "If we work individually as just a police department, we're not going to have as much success unless we work as a team with the community."
Each South Florida law enforcement agency has a web presence and some link to one of three crime-tracking websites: raidsonline.com, crimemapping.com and crimereports.com.
Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs Police feature raidsonline.com; Hollywood, Hallandale Beach and Plantation Police link to crimemapping.com; Delray Beach and Florida Atlantic University Police have crimereports.com. Boca Raton and Davie Police have their own crime tracking web pages.
But many law enforcement agencies don't link to any.
Raidsonline.com offers to add your city to its database for free if your local police department is willing to share its crime statistics.
Enter a date and a location and these websites pinpoint on a map where every crime has been reported in your neighborhood, ranging from homicides and burglaries to arson and vandalism.
You can spot patterns and trends, then take steps to protect yourself. The websites even offer to alert users when a crime is reported in their neighborhood.
Some civic associations have reported a drop in the local crime rate after noticing trends and acting on them. Some police agencies will show neighborhood groups how to get grants for crime deterrents such as more street lights.
Most residents don't know what resources are available to them on police websites, Fort Lauderdale Detective DeAnna Garcia said.
"We have a crime prevention unit made up of a couple of detectives and they will go out to homeowners meetings," she said. "They will give them tips and information on how to better protect themselves, their property, their neighborhoods."
Birch Park Finger Streets Association President Brian Donaldson believes Fort Lauderdale's raidsonline.com crime-tracking website is probably underutilized, but he uses it.
"I happen to be a Realtor and I use it to look at a neighborhood and share [the website] with a potential buyer just to inform them and say, 'If you're thinking of relocating to this particular area you may want to check out this,' and it just helps people understand what's happening in their community."
Police in Miramar, Pembroke Pines, Boynton Beach and the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office also link to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's webpage listing the known addresses of registered sex offenders.
The Broward Sheriff's Office is one of a just handful of law enforcement agencies that put surveillance photos and videos on their website.
"It doesn't matter how lousy the pictures are, how grainy the video is, people hit on it and we solve cases all the time," Leljedal said. "People see that video, they see it on a website, they see it on television and they say, 'Hey, I know that guy, he's my ex-boyfriend. I'm going to call Crime Stoppers and get $1,000,' and it works out for everybody."
Since 1981, Broward County Crime Stoppers reported more than 19,000 cases closed, over 11,000 arrests and more than $2 million awarded to anonymous tipsters.
Palm Beach County Crime Stoppers reported solving more than 7,000 cases with nearly 5,000 arrests and paying out more than $470,000 in rewards since then.
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