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DeKalb nears interactive law enforcement

Sgt. Tracy Smith of the DeKalb Police Department shows the screen for the iWatch DeKalb app on Monday. The DeKalb version of the app that allows residents to anonymously report crimes is not available yet.
Sgt. Tracy Smith of the DeKalb Police Department shows the screen for the iWatch DeKalb app on Monday. The DeKalb version of the app that allows residents to anonymously report crimes is not available yet.

DeKALB – DeKalb residents will soon be able to report a crime in the time it takes to send a text message.

The DeKalb Police Department is planning to launch a smartphone application either this month or in early March that would allow residents to anonymously report suspicious activity and send photographs and video from their phone that could help police in investigations.

The program, called iWatch, is a free application that connects police departments and residents through a third party. Reports can be submitted in more than 30 languages and translated, a key feature DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery said could break language barriers and make people more comfortable communicating with police.

“Everything in life is based on relationship building, and this will help us connect with the community,” Lowery said. “Smartphones are becoming the norm. We are utilizing that technology to add eyes and ears that could benefit us all.”

When the application is launched, residents are prompted to select a crime type with choices including assault, drunken driving, crimes against animals and more. Once the type of report is selected, submissions can be specific or general, with options to give descriptions of subjects and vehicles.

If officers have questions, they will be able to contact the resident through the application without knowing the person’s identity, Lowery said.

The program offers information for residents such as crime alerts and a crime map that shows areas where offenses occurred and were reported. Residents also can file complaints against officers through the application.

Lowery said he is hopeful the application will appeal to students in DeKalb who witness or are victims of crimes that go unreported.

“I want to see all people getting connected to this program,” he said. “This can help us prevent crimes from happening. If there is a serial burglar out there, we can get the kind of information we need from people in the community to identify and stop that person.”

With the greater access to anonymous tips comes the potential for more false reports. But Lowery said the positives of anonymity outweigh the problems because too often people are intimidated to approach officers or talk about a crime they witnessed or experienced.

One of the first police departments in the state to use iWatch is in south suburban Lynwood, where the department has experienced an increase in citizen reports, especially in drug cases, said the village’s police Chief Michael Mears.

Mears said the program took off after the department mailed fliers explaining how iWatch works to every resident. He said the focus is on encouraging residents to send information about nonemergency situations that may have otherwise gone unnoticed by police.

“It’s a new spin on the community policing itself,” Mears said. “Most people do have some sort of smartphone now, so it’s a great new tool that makes communities safer.”

Lowery said as more police departments join, the program will become more effective. He said one major help for DeKalb would be Cook County’s recent launch of iWatch. The tips Cook County officers receive could help DeKalb investigations because of the large crossover, Lowery said.

Although there will be roughly $5,000 in start-up costs, Lowery said the program would easily pay for itself with the efficiencies it will create in solving crimes faster and focusing resources in target areas.

Lowery plans to reach out to local businesses and residents with information about iWatch in the coming weeks. He said the launch is part of a bigger plan called “20/20 A Clear Vision for the Future” where the department will introduce 20 initiatives in 20 months focused on engaging the community and building relationships.

“When you look at the big picture, [iWatch] supports these other initiatives,” he said. “It’s all part of changing the paradigm of community and safety.”

The application will be able to be accessible on any smart phone models and computers.

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