Using TV to catch a crook
At 8:45 one December evening, a tall, husky man wearing blue-tinted sunglasses strolled into a Rockville, Md., grocery store. He introduced himself with a .38-caliber chrome revolver, fired twice at the clerk to frighten her, cleaned out the cash register, and -- to guote the Montgomery County police report -- "disappeared from sight."
But not for long. Shortly afterward, he was the focus of a three-minute segment on "Crime Solvers," a weekly series on WJLA-TV's nightly news program here. Thousands of viewers heard a detailed desciption of the man -- right down to his uneven bottom teeth -- and learned that he was charged with armed robbery and assault with intent to murder.
He is one of hundreds of criminals whose violent acts have been exposed and publicized on television as part of an effort to involve the community in helping police arrest those who prey on society.
"Crime Solvers" is in its second year on WJLA-TV (Channel 7, and ABC affiliate), and this month won a Washington- area Emmy award for its station and for Paul Berry, the 5:30 news anchor man who made it happen. In those two years , the series has rolled up an impressive list of previously unsolvable crimes solved, criminals arrested, and valuables recovered.
In Maryland, the program has helped solve 226 previously "dead end" crimes, arrest 66 criminals (33 adults, 33 juveniles), and retrieve $249,358.81 worth of valuables. Citizen groups have paid out $14,950 in reward money, since cash payments are awarded to telephone callers offering information on "Crime Solvers" felonies. The crimes include robbery, assault, murder, arson, and rape.
In nearby Fairfax County, Va., where the "Crime Solvers" program was first aired in October 1979, 72 previously unsolvable felony cases have been solved, $ 83,200 worth of valuables recovered, and $2,610 in rewards given out.
In another Maryland area, Prince Georges County, where the program went into effect in December 1979, $5,000 worth of property has been recovered, eight cases have been solved (including one murder), and $2,000 has been spent in rewards.
The WJLA anchor man is beaming now about the fact that the program is expanding into other areas. He says Arlington County in Virginia has just signed up, and the FBI is interested in using it to help solve the bank robberies that plague the area. Berry is proudest, he says, that the District of Columbia Police Department, after two years of reluctance, plans to join the operation.
"It's ludicrous to me," he says, "for a television station that sits in the middle of the district, which has the highest crime rate of any of the other jurisdictions . . . that it not avail itself of three minutes of our air time on a weekly basis to help them fight crime."
He suggests that one of the sticking points in some jurisdictions signing up was a misconception about how the reward system worked. The rewards, which range from $100 to $1,000, are determined by a county "Crime Solvers" board of directors made up of concerned citizens -- representatives of service groups, businesses, utilities, the local phone company, etc.
Rewards are given only when information leads to an arrest or indictment (although no arrests are made without corroborating evidence such as additional witnesses or fingerprints). The police department is not involved in soliciting reward money or making payments to callers who qualify for a reward.
Each week, the "Crime Solvers" program focuses on a special "Crime of the Week," for which the local police deperments has absolutely no leads. Viewers with information may call in, anonymously if they wish, and are then given a number by which they are identified.Berry and the cooperating police departments assure questioners that the calls are not monitored, taped, or traced. Some callers decline a reward, but those whose information qualifies them for one also receive it anonymously.
The money, in cash, is claimed by the caller at a designated office or business, where the person dispensing it requires him to sign an identification number, assigned by the station when he calls, as verification, and cautions that the IRS considers the reward declarable income. (There are no hints as to what category it should be declared under. Perhaps consultant's fee.)
"Crime Solvers" started in mid-1978 when a pair of Montgomery County policemen known as "the two Georges" got in touch with Paul Berry, who in addition to being a Channel 7 anchor man also does a community-service series called "Seven on Your Side," which investigates consumer complaints.
Berry is a genial but tough reporter who has built up a sense of trust among viewers who see him on the tube righting wrongs like rip-offs, flimflams, overbillings, and undelivered but paid-for goods, when every other avenue has been exhausted.
So officer George Heinrich and Cpl. George Ludington of the Montgomery County Police Department asked Berry to consider doing a weekly news series based on the "Crime Stoppers" program in Albuquerque, N.M., which had resulted in the Albuquerque Police Department's closing 540 criminal cases in two years through publicizing them in the news media.Similar programs have been enacted in more than 70 other areas across the country.
Berry and Channel 7 agreed, and November 1978 "Crime Solvers" aired for the first time. (The media effort includes local newspaper and radio publicity.) As predicted by the Albuquerque team, it was nearly seven months before the first crime was solved. The series picked up momentum gradually as word spread among the members of the community as well as "on the street," where police have often used "tipsters" in a conventional way to gain information about the criminal world.
As officer Heinrich points out, "We're encouraging people to come forth with information. It's their civic duty, but sometimes people don't. The rewards and complete anonymity are an extra incentive." So is the "Crime of the Week." That showpiece crime apparently snags viewer interest and helps police obtain a flow of information on other crimes as well. In fact, as Heinrich points out, only 9 crimes of the week have been solved in a year, but leads on dozens of others have led to the 226 criminal cases closed in his county as a result of the program. He says that "one caller's information, for in stance, resulted in 53 burglaries being solved in Bethesda."
Corporal Ludington points out: "The police and the media together have a positive impact on crime, that's the whole thing behind 'Crime Solvers.' It's not just another cop program. And it helps to dissolve that myth about community apathy . . . "
One of the most rewarding moments for the officers in the "Crime Solvers" program occurred when a "Crime of the Week" involving a murdered caretaker in Bethesda was solved. When a caller informed in Bethesda was pect had fled to Beltimore, they enlisted the help of the Baltimore Police Department and three TV stations in airing the program there. As a result, the suspect was arrested in the area two days later.
In Prince Georges County, police officer Tony Kavelak is proudest of the "Crime Solvers" program resulting in the arrest of a suspect in homicide. A Largo, Md., man was strangled to death Nov. 4, 1979; the only clue was a series of unidentified photos in his apartment. Officer Kavelak says when the murder was aired on "Crime of the Week," callers supplied identities for all but one of the photos. Two months later, the final photo was identified by a caller who had seen the program and supplied information linking the photo to a suspect; a warrant was obtained, and the suspect arrested only nine hours later.
In Fairfax County, police officer Stan Ingerski is most proud of a "Crime Solvers" program that led to the arrest of two men who had broken into a young woman's apartment and then raped her. He notes, too, that another call resulted in the closing of 47 burgrary cases committed by one suspect, after a caller suggested the suspect was respondible for an outbreak of thefts.
The "closed cases" summary for the program includes a wide and wild variety of crimes solved: $20,000 worth of stolen dental gold recovered; a $25,000 construction backhoe retrieved; five juveniles arrested for a Bethesda robbery involving a .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun: the arrest of a suspect in three armed robberies in Price Georges County. Two calls resulted in the closing of 62 residential burglary cases involving $125,000 in stolen property.
The program, with its unique mix of cops and reporters, has its effect on both. Corporal Ludington says, "We enjoy it now, but in the beginning we were both a little shaky about getting up in fron of the camera. Paul has helped us on camera, so we speak in simple words like 'perpetrators,' all those police terms." Officer Kavelak says he enjoys it now, too, "but in the beginning I could hear my heart beating so loudly I was frightened. Give me a Bengal tiger and a piece of wood and I'll go up against him, rather than that." declarative sentences and have gotten rid of
Paul Berry, who in 1975 acted as a mediator in a D.C. jail crisis which inmates took 12 guards hostage, has no reservations about mixing crime-solving with journalism:
"It is advocacy journalism. It is a matter of not waiting for something to happen so much as helping something happen. I submit to you that that is a part , I think, of how a television news person ought to be functioning. . . .
"I think you have to be concerned about the community. I see this as a community service. It galls me when I realize that there are those who criticize this kind of program but see nothing wrong with running to the first bank robbery and standing there with a [TV] camera and showing what has happened , and calling that great news. And [someone who] is right there the moment something tragic happens involves the police in questions. But when it comes to finding out the person responsible for it, why [can't] those same airwaves be sused effectively in a community sense? If informing is what we're about, this is the ultimate way to inform."