Neighborhood Newspapers Help Nab Thugs at Home
MIAMI — PSSST! Does this photo look like anyone you know? Perhaps a neighbor?
In the coming weeks, the residents of West Palm Beach, Fla., may be doing more double-takes as they join an emerging anticrime trend: ''gotcha'' tabloids.
From Seattle to Orlando, a controversial publication - a '90s version of the Old West ''Wanted'' poster - is taking root. Thanks to these tipsheets springing up around the nation, it's no longer safe for those on the lam to do their laundry or go around the corner to grab a Big Mac. Individuals wanted by police are being fingered by eagle-eyed public citizens.
While civil libertarians raise concerns about privacy and vigilantism, law-enforcement officials praise the trend.
''It's a win-win proposition. The public wins, law enforcement wins,'' says Brian Kensel, spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Tampa, Fla., office.
The idea is simple: Tap local concern about crime by involving citizens. The distribution of free, photo-filled tabloids in everyday places such as fast-food chains, drug stores, and dry cleaners, gives police thousands of trained observers. When people spot a familiar face, they call local law officers.
''Agencies say to get involved, but they don't tell how to do it,'' says ''gotcha'' tab founder Ken Donovan. ''We tell people how. They pick up their phone and tell about the drug dealer in their neighborhood.... We take criminals out of the dark and put them into print.''
The idea has proved successful in Mr. Donovan's Tampa Bay area, where the Bay Area Crusader came out four years ago. Elevating the milk-carton photo campaign to a new level, the publishers claim to have put a dent in crime.
According to Donovan, 584 wanted individuals have been apprehended and 89 missing children have been located, thanks to tipsters. Of the many agencies that have contributed photos, the local FBI can trace at least two-dozen arrests to the publication's readers.
Donovan started the paper in 1992 after a two-week crime spree struck several friends. Thugs beat up a wheelchair-confined neighbor. His wife's business associate was raped and robbed. The alleged rapist had four warrants out for previous rapes. Donovan was stunned.
''I assumed that when people had warrants [on them], they were put in jail,'' says the former actor who puts out the paper with his wife, Carolyn Jett-Donovan. When they began, neither had newspaper experience. But Donovan says their ''we're fed up with crime'' commitment is what gives the tabloid its punch.
''It's been very successful. It publishes things we couldn't get in the local newspaper,'' says Ray Velboom, a supervisor at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Tampa office. Most newspapers run ''wanted'' photos infrequently, if at all.
Today the free publication resembles a visual rap sheet of ''America's Most Wanted.'' Donovan works with the FBI, the US Marshall's Office, and a host of local police agencies, publishing photos of people wanted for crimes from check fraud to terrorist bombings. A recent edition of the Crusader ran 16 photos and addresses of sex offenders released last month.
Drawing attention to convicted sex offenders is sometimes a source of controversy.
Civil liberties groups say that such editions have provoked vigilante retaliations in other communities. Although Donovan says he discourages such actions, he vows to continue publishing this data. ''I know it's controversial. I just can't move off my position. [Pedophiles] present such a danger to children.''
Another complaint: Some apprehended individuals are acquitted. ''We never say that these people are guilty. All we say is that they are wanted,'' counters Donovan.
Hoping to launch a national network, Donovan has helped 35 cities start similar publications, including Detroit. Others include New Orleans, San Diego, Kansas City, Mo., Dallas, Nashville, Green Bay, Wis., and Oklahoma City.
Many are not profitmaking ventures. Operated with advertising revenue, the Crusader is awaiting nonprofit status so it can apply for grants. Donovan wants to expand his activities to include helping victims of crimes. ''You can't sit on the sidelines,'' he says. ''Everybody's on one team or the other. Are you scared or angry enough to do something about it?''