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Project Stand Up: One more tool to combat illegal drug activity in SD

November 4, 2017 GMT

SOUTH DAKOTA — With headlines about the opioid crisis and epidemic around the region and nation, the state is working to provide an additional tool to the public to help curb illegal drug use: Project Stand Up, an anonymous drug tip line launched statewide in May.

“We have deputized everyone who has a cell phone to stand up to illegal drug crime,” Sara Rabern, public information officer for the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office, explained Monday via email.

Project Stand Up, a coordinated effort between law enforcement officials statewide and Sanford Health, allows anyone with information about illegal drug crime to text the word “drugs” to 82257. The tipster will be asked a series of questions for additional information, and the person can choose whether to answer the follow-up questions, as well as choose how specific they answer the questions. The level of involvement lies with the citizen, while always remaining anonymous.

The Pioneer tested the system Thursday, texting the word “drugs” to 82257 at 8:29 a.m. At 8:31 a.m., a reply was received from the number, stating, “Thank you for contacting Project Stand Up. Your identity is 100% protected. Type the city name where the crime is taking place (Do not include State or County).”

After replying to each question, “This is a test to see if this service works,” the following messages were received from 82257, in the following order after each response:

— “If this is an emergency, dial 911. Please be aware, that falsely reporting a crime can result in a criminal conviction. What is the full name of the suspect?”

— “Please describe the criminal activity being committed. For example, is this person(s) selling or using drugs? (Include the drug name/type)”

— “Do you know where the suspect lives? If yes, type the exact address; street #, street name and apartment # (if relevant). If no, type Address Unknown”

— “Do you know the suspects phone number? If yes, type the area code and phone number? If not, type Unknown”

— “Type NOW if crime is happening now. If not now, describe the dates and any relevant details of when/where the crime will take place or took place.”

— “If you are in a safe position to take a picture of the suspect(s), the scene, their car/license plates, please send a photo and any supporting details/comments.”

The responses from 82257 came within seconds of each text message sent and stopped after the response, “This is a test to see if this service works,” was sent to the final message above.

Rabern explained that the text messages are sent to a third party that she did not name, and when pressed, described as a private company, which scrubs all identifying information and then redirects the information electronically to the appropriate jurisdiction/law enforcement agency.

“The conversation begins with location of the tip,” Rabern said, explaining that this allows for the third party to get to the correct jurisdiction quickly. While she did not provide the questions that are asked during the conversation, she said that the text messaging continues with name, address, activity, etc., of the alleged drug crime activity, and it also allows for photos to be attached and sent to the tip line.

Law enforcement agencies have provided contact information to the program, with most counties having both city and county law enforcement agencies as recipients.

The Spearfish Police Department is a partnering agency in the project and received its first tip through Project Stand Up Wednesday.

Spearfish Police Chief Pat Rotert explained that like with any tip, whether someone provides it to an officer on the street or calls or texts in information, it remains only a tip until further corroboration occurs.

“There’s a whole bunch of things that go into any piece of information that we get,” he said. “We have to turn it into what the court would look at, or somebody would look at, as a credible piece of information. So just by virtue of getting a tip doesn’t make that (information in the tip) evidence. … If we get a tip, we’re going to try to corroborate it, we’re going to try to see if it’s credible information for us to use, and if it is, we will use it in whatever fashion that we think that we can.”

Rotert said that the department receives tips through Project Stand Up electronically, with no identifying information included, and depending on the tip, it may end up being an informational item only. The department looks at the subject matter, since the tip could be about a location, not a person, for example, and the department would check to see if there have been previous complaints about the topic, whether patrol officers have witnessed anything similar, whether other cases corroborate it, etc.

“From past experience, what I’ve found is, that that piece of information can still become relevant in the future, coupled with other pieces of information or other investigative leads,” Rotert said.

Rabern described the tip as “a piece of the puzzle” that law enforcement can use as part of an investigation, much like a Crime Stoppers tip.

“The tip alone is not enough to arrest; it is only part of the investigation,” she said.

When asked whether there are any safeguards in place to ensure someone couldn’t abuse the system by sending in multiple anonymous texts about someone in particular to try to put them “on the radar” for law enforcement, since falsely reporting a crime can result in a criminal conviction but Project Stand Up allows tipsters to remain completely anonymous, Rabern answered, “Right now we have seen very few tips that have not been legitimate. Since it is anonymous we cannot locate. A message does come up warning users of this (falsely reporting a crime). I would have to just say that agencies us these as part of the total investigation; those that are no(t) legit will get weeded out in the process.”

“We know as an agency that we have to corroborate any information that we get,” Rotert said, reiterating that a tip alone does not allow law enforcement to make an arrest. “That part of it has been true forever and ever, and that will stay the same. I look at this (initiative) as just a way to keep the dialogue open in the new digital frontier.”

As of mid-October, Project Stand Up has received 350 tips identifying 250 individuals in 43 communities in South Dakota.

“We have only a couple arrests at this time, but what is so important about this program is that many times it is only a piece of the puzzle, so there are many active investigations,” Rabern said, explaining that at the six-month mark of the initiative’s release, updated data would be provided, as new tips are submitted.

The initiative has not required any taxpayer monies to date; Sanford Health donated $100,000 in both funds and in-kind printing and designing of promotional materials to get the word out about Project Stand Up, Rabern explained. The only costs are the promotional products, including posters, brochures, bookmarks, window clings, etc.; implementation of the anonymous texting software; and the third-party service.

The program is a partnership with the S.D. Sheriffs’ Association, S.D. Police Chiefs’ Association, S.D. Department of Public Safety, the Attorney General’s Office, and Sanford Health, and there was full support from these entities before it was launched in May 2017, Rabern said.

Joe Kosel, a criminal defense attorney at Johns and Kosel in Lead, said that the initiative is another tool for law enforcement to use in a time when criminal drug activity is not a rarity.

“The courthouse is jam-packed right now. It really is — we’re at a scary time with methamphetamine and some of these opiates,” he said. “It’s really scary. Any tool is kind of a neat thing to get people help.”

Kosel doesn’t see issues with the initiative, from a legal standpoint, given that law enforcement has to establish independent probable cause and can’t make an arrest just based on an anonymous tip. The initiative allows “something in addition for people to try to address a problem with everyone,” he said. “It would be nice if we had other treatment options and things like that that would be more helpful (for people with drug abuse/addiction problems), but this is a way to kind of get at it. … I think it’s just another tool to try to get people some help, maybe.”

He described that on the one hand, the program has potential to get more people providing tips because of the anonymity, but there’s always a concern about the harshness of the law, from the defense perspective, he added, since the possession of certain drugs in the South Dakota is a felony offense: South Dakota State Law Chapter 22-42 references controlled substances and marijuana, and the unauthorized manufacture, distribution, counterfeiting, or possession of Schedule I, II, III, and IV substances, substances with high potential for abuse that may or may not have accepted medical use in the U.S., are felony offenses in the state.

A tip through Project Stand Up does not guarantee that any action would be taken pertaining to the subject matter of the tip, however.

“Law enforcement has to do their due diligence on this. An anonymous text isn’t going to get anybody arrested, in and of itself,” Kosel said.

Rotert said that he thought overall, the program would be helpful.

“This is something that’s already been out there in the world for decades as far as people calling or people coming in, yet saying, ‘I want to be anonymous,’ whatever it happens to be. This type of thing has been around for decades,” he said. “What’s different is, the world changed electronically to where current generations are communicating more in this fashion. This keeps pace with that and gives us the ability to stay connected to the community. The community now, we’re all moving around functioning via this digital frontier that we’re all in. This (initiative) gives us the same ability to communicate that used to happen with phone, or in person, or whatever. It’s just another step.”

The Attorney General’s Office is excited to get the statewide initiative up and running, and for communities and individuals to get involved, Rabern said. Her hope is that the message about Project Stand Up will continue to spread and that communities will take ownership of the program and really promote it from within.

“To date, we have had five community kick-offs and would really like so see that number grow over the next year,” she said, adding that there is an educational component of Project Stand Up for high school students that focuses on the consequences of illegal drug use, and the office is still working on getting that up and running.

There is no timeline for how long the program would be in place, Rabern said.

“This is truly a grassroots efforts to get the word out, by placing the messaging in high traffic (areas) including state and local offices like driver’s licensing, state parks, job services offices, courthouses, other places like YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, universities, schools,” she said, and the office is now working with businesses to access digital messaging boards to get the word out, as well.

Anyone interested in promotional materials about Project Stand Up should call the Attorney General’s Office at (605) 773-3215.

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