Copyright 1995 Denver Publishing Company
Denver Rocky Mountain News
May 23, 1995, Tuesday
SECTION: EDITORIAL; Ed. F; Pg. 30A
LENGTH: 709 words
HEADLINE: Bad guys seldom caught through offers of cash
BYLINE: Trevor Nelson; The New Republic; United Feature Syndicate
On April 20, roughly 30 hours after the Oklahoma City bombing, Attorney General Janet Reno addressed a packed Washington news conference. She announced that the federal government would award $ 2 million to anyone who could provide information leading to the arrest and conviction of the bombers.
There's just one problem with cash rewards: They rarely help investigators solve crimes. Rather, these monetary carrots are an old public relations tool aimed at convincing a jittery public that authorities are doing all they can to crack a case. As James Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist, says, ''If you don't offer a reward, people will think that you're not taking it seriously.''
Cash rewards are an anachronistic quid pro quo left over from the days when, in some places, there were no local police forces, and justice was bought and sold. In the early 19th century, newspapers published ''Wanted'' ads, offering bounties for the return of a runaway slave or the capture of a thief. Outlaws in the Wild West wound up on posters with handsome sums attached to their names.
Though the establishment of taxpayer-funded law enforcement should have made these rewards obsolete, the practice endured and is in fact growing rapidly. Usually touted in tandem with a telephone ''tip'' line, cash rewards have achieved a certain investigative cachet.
Unfortunately, as shown by the experience of Crime Stoppers, a well-known international program operating in hundreds of U.S. cities, rewards don't yield impressive results. In New York City, Crime Stoppers is coordinated with the city's police department; it offers up to $ 1,000 for information leading to an indictment in any case that involves a violent felony. Billboards throughout the city invite tipsters to call 1-800-577-TIPS to share leads about unsolved crimes.
In 1994 Crime Stoppers' board of directors approved $ 57,200 in rewards stemming from 78 cases in New York City. Of that amount, only $ 47,000 was actually collected by the anonymous tipsters. Program director Gregg Roberts suspects the informants who forwent their rewards are serving time in prison. The program's assurance of anonymity, Roberts adds, is just as important to tipsters as the potential for any cash dividend, all of which makes it hard to discern just how crucial the financial incentive is to Crime Stoppers' accomplishments.
Whatever the impetus for informers, 78 cases solved out of New York City's 136,522 violent crimes last year is not remarkable. After the firebombing of a subway last December, Lieutenant Richard Kuberski says, the Crime Stoppers' switchboard ''lit up like a Christmas tree.'' Most calls were, by Kuberski's admission, ''not relevant.'' Still, on the lieutenant's assumption that ''you never know,'' detectives had to pursue every bogus lead. Ultimately, gumshoe detective work led to a suspect's arrest.
The program hasn't fared much better in other cities. In the Baltimore metropolitan area, $ 11,300 in rewards produced indictments against 34 individuals last year. Not much of a dent in the 92,783 violent crimes the region suffered in 1994.
The same problems emerge at the federal level. Neither the Justice Department nor the FBI keeps statistics on the use of cash rewards in federal law enforcement; an FBI spokesperson told me that compiling accurate numbers on rewards would be next to impossible. But what evidence the Justice Department does have suggests that cash rewards have not proven, as Reno said they have, to be of ''great assistance.''
Bounty proponents can point to a few memorable successes, foremost among them the notorious ''Mississippi Burning'' case of 1964. An investigation into the gruesome murder of three young men seeking to register black voters had hit a dead end. Only after a community group was able to muster $ 36,500 in reward money did two Ku Klux Klan informants spill the beans on their colleagues.
But a far more common example of how rewards work comes from the case of the ever-elusive Unabomber. Baffled federal officials two years ago offered $ 1 million for clues leading to the furtive mailbomber's arrest and conviction. Since then, 8,000 calls leading nowhere have poured into the FBI.