June 19, 2018
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Texting tip program lets midcoast teens anonymously report underage drinking, drug use

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

THORNDIKE, Maine — Police are hoping that a new anonymous tip line might help teenagers reach out for help when they believe a friend or a classmate is doing something dangerous.

“Nobody likes to be told on for doing something bad, but what it boils down to is us trying to keep people safe,” Deputy Nick Oettinger of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday. “It might give us that chance to prevent a crash or something like that. The goods outweigh the negatives. I think it’s a great thing. It just needs to take off a little bit.”

So far, no teen or other community member is believed to have used the anonymous line in Waldo County, which works by scrambling messages through a Canadian relay computer system.

Users must text their tips with “wTip” at the beginning of the message, then send them to the number 274637. The program has been been implemented via a joint effort of the sheriff’s office, local police departments, the Waldo County Regional Communications Center and Broadreach Family & Community Services.

Its use doesn’t have to be limited to high-profile illegal activities such as underage drinking parties, police said.

“It could be used to share any information the police should know about,” Chief Mike McFadden of the Belfast Police Department said. “It is untraceable. Even if we were so inclined to [track down the source,] we wouldn’t. Our ability to track that information back is non-existent.”

County law enforcement officials decided to implement the tip hotline after seeing its success in Sagadahoc County, where there was “significant increase” in reporting after the establishment of their own anonymous program in 2012, according to Patrick Walsh, the director of prevention services for Broadreach. The program is funded through a mini-grant from the Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws program, which is administered through the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. He said that tips can also be called in at 1-800-660-3398, a hotline that is not anonymous.

McFadden said that police are hoping that teens will be more comfortable sending information via text message than they would by calling a tip hotline or by sending an email.

“I think the text feature is something that younger folks will probably be more inclined to utilize than any other form,” he said.

And while police acknowledge that some of their targeted audience might immediately reject the idea of sharing information with police about their friends’ activities, they also hope that some will think again. Police said they’re trying to stop problems like drug overdoses, drunk driving and reckless conduct.

“They should really stop and think about how dangerous some of these situations can be,” McFadden said. “The sky’s the limit, if you think about it, in terms of the amount of things that can go wrong. I would ask kids to just put it in your phone, and if you come across something that just makes you not sleep right at night, just us send a text message. If we get a tip that there’s a party on Cedar Street with underage drinking, we’re not going to descend like a SWAT team. We’ll come knock at the door.”

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