The sound of gunfire echoes through a neighborhood and residents peer from their windows.

Police show up almost immediately, but neighbors don’t want to give them any information, fearing retaliation. The suspect may be in the gathering crowd.

Now, Portland police have a system to let residents use their cell phones to send the department anonymous text messages, information that can be passed to officers instantly at a scene so they can find a suspect or a weapon.

“People are more inclined to text information or send it to a secure website especially in areas where there’s a high gang presence,” than to have a face-to-face conversation with officers, said Police Chief James Craig.

In the old days, it was called “dropping a dime” when someone used a pay phone to pass information anonymously to the police.

Now, with pay phones almost gone, Portland police are asking residents to “Text a Tip.”

“This allows the community members to text in a truly anonymous way,” Craig said.

Some people worry that even calling police will lead to a visit by officers or a subpoena to appear in court. People are accustomed to having their numbers show up on caller ID when they make calls.

Text a Tip should ease that concern, Craig said.

In 2007, Boston became one of the first few cities in the country to adopt such a program. Within a couple of days, anonymous tips helped police solve a fatal stabbing and a shooting. The city received almost 700 tips in the program’s first year.

Craig said he hopes the guarantee of anonymity can help police make arrests in some unsolved homicides in Portland.

James Angelo was shot to death in 2008 outside Mercy Hospital, where he was a security guard. In January, Darien Richardson was shot in the leg during a home invasion on Rackleff Street. She died a month and a half later from a blood clot.

“I firmly believe there are those in the community who know who’s responsible,” Craig said. “Just give us the information.”

Craig said he decided to pursue Text a Tip after speaking with a woman whose son, a high school student, would tell her about drug dealing and weapons he saw. He was afraid to speak with the school resource officer for fear of being labeled an informant.

“We live in a no-snitching culture,” Craig said.

Text a Tip seeks to overcome that by allowing people to help curb crime without putting themselves at risk.

Anyone with information can use their cell phone’s number pad to send a text to 274637 — “CRIMES.” There is no charge, although standard messaging rates in the cell phone plan apply.

Texting the keyword “GOTCHA” routs the tip to Portland police.

The service cost $2,200 to start, police officials said, with the cost paid by a group of businesses. The program was developed by Crime Stoppers, an international, nonprofit group that facilitates anonymous tips to help police solve crimes. The group also offers rewards for information leading to arrests.

Text a Tip is now used in major cities across the country, according to the group.

“I’m not all that familiar with texting, but I understand everybody else is,” said John Spritz, president of the Back Cove Neighborhood Association. “If it’s one more way to get citizens to work together with police, then it’s a great idea.”

When someone submits a tip by cell phone, it is routed to a server in Canada, where it is assigned a temporary number that doesn’t identify the phone that sent it. The information is then routed to the appropriate police department.

Officers can respond by using the assigned number, unless the person blocks that contact, but they cannot know who sent it unless the person volunteers that information.

“There’s no way we can go back and backtrack that person,” Craig said.

Cities that have the system urge people who use it to delete the sent and received texts so that anyone who looks at their phone will not see them.

Portland police will put up posters to promote the program, Craig said, and a sticker with the Text a Tip telephone number will be displayed on police cruisers.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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