Are crime tips to Bay Area police really anonymous?

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- Family, friends and loved ones held an emotional vigil for four young men shot dead as they sat in a car in San Francisco. A man was arrested, but now, nearly two years later, police are still looking for other suspects in this horrific crime.

A San Francisco police flyer, announcing a $250,000 reward, asks anyone who can help solve the killings to send in tips, anonymously.

"It was a quadruple homicide!" said Asale-Haquekyah Chandler, the mother of Yalani Chinyamurindi, one of the victims.

Chandler desperately wants justice for her son. But even she isn't so sure about the system.

"Nothing is anonymous on the cell phones! Come on, let's be real! " she said.

"Snitching" has long been taboo. And now, in the digital age, there are serious questions about providing information. If you use your phone to send in a tip, is it really anonymous?

KTVU crime reporter Henry Lee paid a visit to the San Leandro Police Department, which has cracked a number of cases with tips from the public.

San Leandro police Lt. Robert McManus says people aren't calling nowadays with information - they're texting.

So KTVU decided to test the system. We texted a tip about seeing a bad guy on the street corner. It popped up - in real time -  on the lieutenant's computer.

"Tip SL police: robbery suspect on the corner of East 14th and Davis now."

Henry's name and phone number never showed up on the screen. It only read, "Tipster."

"Through this system here, it's completely anonymous," McManus said. "It doesn't show a phone number, it doesn't show an IP address of a computer, it gives us no information whatsover, except for what that person sending that information to our law enforcement agency, whatever they send us, is all we get."

With 27 years of experience, Vallejo police Sgt. Brent Garrick knows firsthand that people can be reluctant to talk to the police.

"There's still some reluctance in the public to use that, because of the digital blueprint think that they're leaving behind," Garrick said.

"So it's a matter of not being a snitch," Garrick said. "It's actually a matter of public service and telling the truth about an incident because, if the tables were turned, you'd expect the same thing from the public and other individuals."

Sherri-Lyn Miller is a victim's advocate in Pakland who creates memorial programs. She comforts families who have lost loved ones to violence.

"We have to stop the murders, and if we have a new way to report without the backlash, that could possibly be our first step in preventing further murders," Miller said.

But Miller knows it's not that easy, and the fear is real.

"We've seen people give info and then we're attending their funeral," Miller said.

Miller's office is in an East Oakland funeral home. The irony isn't lost on her.

In an interview, Henry tells Miller, "I'm going to pretend to be the person. But Sherri-Lyn, I'm scared - I don't want to be the next person in your funeral home.  What do you say to me?"

Miller paused. "It's a hard question. Again, if we can do it anonymously with no ties to them, you'll see them come around."

KTVU met with a group of San Francisco women who have all lost loved ones to homicide. Many understand why it's hard for tipsters to come forward.

But Barbara Glaspie, whose son Fredrick was shot dead in 2012, says the next family you help could be your own.

"Because if that person murders your loved one after they've done mine, and you decided it was OK to stay silent," Glaspie said. "How would you feel? Could you live with that? Can you live with yourself?"

List of police agencies that accept texted, anonymous tips:

  • Fairfield police: Text TIP  FAIRFIELDPD followed by your message, to 888777
  • Fremont police: Text TIP  FREMONTPD followed by your message, to 888777
  • Petaluma police: Text TIP  PETPD followed by your message, to 888777
  • Rohnert Park police: Text TIP  RPDPS followed by your message, to 888777
  • San Francisco police: Text a Tip to "TIP411" and begin the message with SFPD.
  • San Leandro police: Text "TIP  SLPOLICE" followed by your message, to 888777

List of police agencies that accept e-mailed or phoned tips:

  • Alameda County Sheriff: Call (510) 667-3622
  • Contra Costa Sheriff: Call (866) 846-3592 or email:  
  • El Cerrito police: Call Crime Stoppers (510) 799-8255 
  • FUGITIVE WATCH: text 408-355-0999 or email or call 1-800-9-CAUGHT
  • Hayward police: E-mail
  • Milpitas police: Call Crime Tip Hotline at (408) 586-2500
  • Oakland police: Call TIP LINE at (510) 238-7950
  • Palo Alto police: E-mail text (650) 383-8984
  • Pleasanton police: Call (925) 931-5100
  • San Jose police: Crime Stoppers Tip Line, (408) 947-STOP
  • San Mateo police: Call Secret Witness Line at (650)522-7676
  • San Mateo Sheriff: Call 1-800-547-2700
  • Santa Clara Sheriff: Call (408) 808-4431
  • Union City police: Call UCPD Tips line (510) 675-5207
  • Vallejo police: Call Crime Stoppers 707-644-STOP
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