New way to improve city safety? App-solutely

Anonymous text, email system debuts in Coatesville Police Department

Updated at 6:15 to provide quotes from CEO of CitizenObserver

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

Coatesville Police Chief Jack Laufer (left) and Sgt. Rodger Ollis demonstrate the ease with which citizens can contact police anonymously through a phone app.

Coatesville Police Chief Jack Laufer (left) and Sgt. Rodger Ollis demonstrate the ease with which citizens can contact police anonymously through a new phone app.

Interested in making Coatesville safer? There’s an app for that.

On Wednesday, Dec. 4, Coatesville Police announced the introduction of CitizenObserver, a system that will facilitate communication between the police and the public through texts or emails.

By downloading the CoatesvillePD Tips app for iPhones or Androids, residents can contact police anonymously with a few keystrokes, said Coatesville Police Chief Jack Laufer. In addition, residents who sign up to receive free alerts will get information from police, which could range from news about a road closure to a photo or video of a suspect being sought, Laufer said.

The police chief said he read about the system, which started in St. Paul, Minn., did some research, and felt the city could benefit from it. He emphasized that it should not be viewed as a 9-1-1 substitute but will offer a quick way to provide information on non-emergency issues. After a couple of weeks of testing, it’s ready for prime time, Laufer said. 

“This supplements what we already have in place,” added Sgt. Rodger Ollis, explaining that the system should enable the department to reach out to a younger demographic. Lt. James Audette agreed. “Everyone’s attached to their cell phones these days,” he said.

Laufer acknowledged that while he may not always be up on the latest technology, he certainly recognizes its importance. “I want Coatesville Police to be the preeminent professional agency in Chester County,” he said. “This is one step to get us there.”

Ollis said the system can be accessed from the City of Coatesville Police Department’s Facebook page – – or on the Police Department section of the city’s web site: Anonymous tips can be generated by using the app or by texting the keyword of Coatesville and a message to 847411.

“This is an outstanding use of technology, well-suited to a densely populated urban area,” said Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan.  “Under Chief Laufer’s leadership, the Coatesville Police Department continues to take innovative steps to keep the good citizens of Coatesville safe.”

Laufer said the system, which was not budgeted, costs several thousand dollars a year to operate. He said the department was able to scrape together some leftover funds from the community-policing budget. If the system works as well as expected, it would become a regular budget item, Laufer said.

Ollis, who heads the Coatesville Community Policing Committee, said he believed using community-policing funds made perfect sense. “The goal of community policing is to establish communication and solve problems, and that is what this does,” Ollis said.

Laufer said six members of the department, including himself and the on-duty patrol supervisor, would receive the alerts. Tipsters, whose identity will not be known to police, will get a text or email acknowledging receipt of the information. They will likely also get a response from one of the officers, Laufer said.

Ollis said the department is eager to publicize the system and will receive some help in that regard from the Brandywine Health Foundation. He said the foundation would finance a promotional billboard that should be on display for those heading east into the city by the first of the year.

Frances M. Sheehan, president and chief executive officer of the Brandywine Health Foundation, said improving communication is one of the foundation’s priorities so advertising the availability of the app is consistent with that mission. “We’re always hearing from people in the community that they want to feel safe,” she said. “This seems like an innovative way for the police to involve people in that effort.”

Initially launched on August 8, 2001, CitizenObserver is currently working with hundreds of communities in over 40 states, according to Terry Halsch, its president and chief executive officer. Halsch said the impetus for the system began in 1999 when a Minnesota man began working in a friend’s basement to try and generate computer tips on the whereabouts of his stepfather, accused of the attempted homicide of  the man’s mother. Eventually, the rudimentary system resulted in the stepfather’s arrest, Halsch said, spotlighting the need for a service to facilitate communication between authorities and residents.

Halsch said one of the earliest alerts went out in a Florida community after a group of juveniles had been shooting out picture windows in a neighborhood. The vehicle description enabled a woman to recognize the truck when she saw it and call police, he said.

Regionally, the system operates in New Castle County and Newark, De.


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One Comment

  1. Matt Baker says:

    Great article and progress for Coatesville. Maybe this innovation will find it’s way into City Government. Only time will tell.

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