GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Three decades later, Chris Cameron still absolutely loves what she does.
Every day is different. Every call could be the one. Every case is an opportunity for her and the community to make a difference. Since 1991, she has been in the business of solving crimes with Silent Observer in Kent County.
“When a tip leads to an arrest and a victim can see justice, there’s nothing better than that. There’s nothing better,” Cameron said.
Kent County’s Silent Observer is the state’s second oldest crime tip line. It’s an anonymous service where anyone can offer a tip they may have about a crime. If that tip leads to an arrest, the tipster is eligible for reward money.
“This is a community-driven program that is only successful because community people pick up the phone or get on their computer and submit information about crime. We’re just a facilitator. We just take the information and pass it on,” Cameron said.
Those leads are passed to organizations like the Grand Rapids Police Department. Deputy Chief Kristen Rogers has been with the GRPD since 1996. She served nearly 20 years in the detective unit and investigated thousands of cases. She said sometimes Silent Observer tips can be the missing pieces to the puzzles.
“When we kind of get to a road that seems to end, if somebody can give us a tip, even small amounts of information. Some people might think that what they saw isn’t important but it might be important to us. It might be like, ‘Hey, I drove by and saw this blue truck.’ I mean, just something simple like that,” Rogers said.
Once on the nonprofit’s board, she said she knows what a huge resource it is not only to law enforcement agencies but also to keeping communities safe.
“It’s invaluable. There’s really no other organization in our area to assist with this,” Rogers said.
She recognizes that some people might feel more comfortable telling someone other than police what they saw or what they know.
“Kids are more likely to tell their buddy or go home and end up telling somebody else’s big brother or that type of thing,” Rogers said. “And I think Silent Observer, the more we advertise it and the more people are aware of it, the more that they’ll really use it as they feel it’s a safe place to give information and to stay anonymous.”
Cameron made sure that last part was protected by law. In 2006, she went to the state Legislature, which created a law to protect the identity of all of Silent Observer’s tips and records.
“Tips are going to be guaranteed they’re never going to be found out. We don’t use caller ID. We don’t track IP addresses. We don’t know who’s contacting us,” Cameron said. “We’re a place where people can do the right thing safely, easily and remove violent criminals from our streets, help victims of crime see justice and help keep our neighborhoods safe.”
Still, one of the organization’s biggest hurdles is that people sometimes thinking contacting Silent Observer is ‘snitching.’
And times have changed: The way the community is contacting Silent Observer is leading to less info on crimes. It used to all be done over the phone, where Cameron could ask follow-up questions if appropriate to gather the most accurate information. Now most of the tips are coming online and often with few details to go on.
“Some of them are so vague that … it’s just hard to figure out what they’re really about,” Cameron said. “And there’s so many common names out there that if you give us a common name without an age and a descriptor, we just don’t know where to go with it.”
She encourages those who leave online tips to come back and check to see if are follow-up questions or reward money handed out. Often, reward money is never claimed.
“Most people it seems are calling in because it’s the right thing to do and they’re not really concerned about the reward aspect,” Cameron said.
Over the decades, Silent Observer has branched out to include more community involvement. It helped start Project Night Lights, where law enforcement and community members shine lights up to child patients at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. It holds candlelight vigils and school programs where kids can report what’s going on in their schools.
It’s all of those moments, combined with helping solve a case, that has had Cameron committed to Silent Observer for all these years.
“It’s a community-led program (that is) only successful because of the community members that want to stand up against crime,” Cameron said. “I think it’s a force in our community. Without it, I just don’t believe that the police would be able to solve as many crimes.”
As Silent Observer celebrates 50 years of fighting crime, it is highlighting 50 unsolved cases and reopening calls to the public for help in solving them. Find those cases on the nonprofit’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
You can call 616.774.2345 to submit a tip about any crime.