BATH, Maine — Among the myriad challenges faced by teens and adolescents is how to step in when they see a friend or classmate engaging in harmful or dangerous behavior, but a new anonymous reporting tool seeks to make that process easier.
Law enforcement agencies in Sagadahoc County, Brunswick and Harpswell have teamed up with Mid Coast Hospital’s Access Health & Substance Abuse Prevention program and a coalition called Communities Against Substance Abuse to launch eTip, a program which allows community members to notify police about underage drinking, drug use and a range of other crimes. The program is funded by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse.
Users of eTip, which debuted in April, can submit information by text message, which triggers a live exchange with a police dispatcher. The dispatcher typically would ask for specifics about the location of the violation and the people involved, but the tipster’s name and telephone number remain anonymous.
“If people call 911, sometimes their phone can come up on the [dispatcher’s] screen, so there’s not the level of anonymity that this mechanism has,” said Detective Sgt. Bob Savary of the Bath Police Department. “Even if I wanted to know who made the complaint, there’s no way for me to get that information. If you’re really concerned about remaining anonymous, this is probably the better way to do it.”
Melissa Fochesato, Mid Coast Hospital’s director of substance abuse prevention, said teens who worry about getting caught are less likely to engage in illegal activity — and that studies have shown that about 85 percent of Maine students do not worry about police catching them in illegal activity.
“We hope that the new eTip service will send the message to our youth that we are concerned about their safety and make it easier for everyone in our community to report underage drinking and drug use,” said Fochesato.
Users of the program can send a text that begins with the word “eTip” to 274637 (CRIMES) or download a free mobile phone application called “TipSubmit Mobile,” which works on iPhone or Android devices. Tips also can be submitted by going to the www.MidCoastCASA.org.
Tips go through a computer server in Canada — which because of international communications laws means they are encrypted and anonymous when they return to the Sagadahoc County Dispatch Center. Dispatchers then forward the tips to the proper agency, whether it’s a police department, a substance abuse counselor, a suicide prevention organization or a range of others.
Though eTip focuses on underage drinking and substance abuse, it can be used by anyone to report virtually any kind of criminal or unsafe activity.
Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said he understands the reluctance to submit tips that might get friends in trouble but that he sees eTip as a way to stop dangerous activity before it happens.
“I would like students to view this as it’s not so much about ratting someone out,” he said. “You have an opportunity here to prevent something before it happens. Sometimes just thinking the cops are snooping around puts a squash on something. I’ve seen that happen time and time again.”
Heidi Tucker, coordinator of Communities Against Substance Abuse, said the program is modeled after a similar one in Falmouth and that other Maine towns are doing the same. She said the eTip program has been promoted in local media and through the distribution of fliers and that high school students in surrounding districts will receive information about it with their report cards. Though eTip is meant for the midcoast area, anyone in Maine can use it and the dispatcher will forward the tip to the proper agency, she said.
“I think more communities will be picking this up,” she said. “Summer is the nonschool time when a lot of things happen, like partying.”
Morse High guidance counselor Janet Crowe agreed.
“Keeping kids safe, that’s the way I look at this,” she said. “Once this gets talked around … it will be something that a lot of people will say, Wow, I have another tool to keep everyone safe.”
Brianna Bigelow, who graduated from Morse last week, said if students understand that eTip isn’t necessarily about getting people in trouble, they’ll be more likely to use it.
“Some people might be reluctant because they feel they are ratting people out,” she said. “If they know something’s happening or they’re nervous something’s happening in the future, that’s when they’re going to use [eTip].”
Morse junior Paul Whalen agreed.
“That’s what kids are most scared about in using something like this, that their friends are going to get prosecuted or in trouble,” he said. “But I definitely think that it might help. In that sense it might be used to prevent things from happening in the future.”