The year was 1980 and the Spokane Police Department was about to discover its new civilian secret weapon.
A woman had been murdered some time before, but the police had not captured the killer. Police stood at a frustrating dead end when an anonymous tipster called in to a little known program.
Secret Witness, which was founded in the 1970s, has helped citizens safeguard their own communities and earn money doing it. Police do as much as they can, but they can’t be expected to know everything going on in neighborhoods. So, receiving particulars from informants provides police with vital information that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to collect.
Because citizens expect retaliation for cooperating with police, they often don’t share crucial details needed to resolve a crime. But with an opportunity to remain anonymous and earn cash rewards, tipsters are more forthcoming.
In fact, tipsters don’t have to give their name and are encouraged to use a code name or number to receive their reward.
Since the first tipster was rewarded in 1980, the program has given out over $119,000 to people who provided solutions to crimes. Getting a reward doesn’t require that the suspect be convicted; it only requires that the tip provide a solution.
Over the years, the program has helped solve 28 homicides and bring in 186 fugitives. In addition to that, the program has demonstrated that it’s an invaluable force in halting burglary and armed robbery, with 106 and 104 cases solved respectively.
Secret Witness is a subcommittee of the more familiar Partners in Crime Prevention; the latter being formerly known as Crime Check.
The Secret Witness program is run by a volunteer board of concerned citizens. The board members don’t seek recognition for their success, and they keep their names a secret. Keeping it all anonymous is the key to their success.
The Board of Directors, made up of business people, former police officers and ordinary citizens, decides which cases to accept from the police department. They must decide which cases to offer reward money and how much.
Depending on the value of information, the rewards can be up to a few thousand dollars. As an example, Secret Witness offered $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of Spokane’s serial killer, who eventually turned out to be Robert Lee Yates.
The reward money is donated from citizens and businesses that have become financial sponsors.
Spokane police Sgt. Mike Yates, a liaison to the Secret Witness program, says that there is no government money involved with the program and that all the work is done on a volunteer basis. "There is no overhead. I want to emphasize that," he said. Working without a bureaucracy and administrative expenses keeps the program lean and efficient, which makes doing business easier, he said.
Last year alone, the program paid out $3,950 for tips. Some of the reward money paid in 2004 helped catch 16 fugitives, solve one homicide, resolve at least two burglaries, and rid schools of 11 guns and weapons, according to Yates.
As part of the anti-gun violence campaign "Keep Guns Outta School," sponsored by Partners in Crime Prevention, Secret Witness has paid $75 to students who provide information about weapons on school property.
Along with trying to eliminate guns and weapons in school, Secret Witness is also focusing on drive-by shootings as a new target. So far the program has distributed four rewards for information about drive-by shootings. In the future, program directors will work to rid the city of this crime completely.
Often Secret Witness will depend on the voluntary cooperation of local media. A fugitive is featured every week, and their profile and background are provided to local TV stations and newspapers in an effort to gather new information. News organizations are provided with details about certain crimes, outstanding warrants and photographs. This type of exposure gives a boost to officers trying to bring closure to certain cases.
Individuals with information can call the hotline (509) 327-5111 and provide anonymous information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.