Editor’s note: This is the final article in a series dedicated to Crime Stoppers month:
Crime Stoppers may be a household name nowadays, but it had a rather humble beginning 23 years ago in the Penticton area.
“I’d be surprised if we had 30 tips that first year,” said South Okanagan-Similkameen Crime Stoppers regional co-ordinator Al Sismey, the non-profit organization’s only paid staff member.
“No. 1, our phone maybe wasn’t answered like it should be because it was just sort of a phone in the police station and there really wasn’t anybody taking responsibility for it. Sometimes it was unplugged, sometimes it was in a drawer,” he said.
“And not having any money, certainly we didn’t have the ability to go out and hire somebody.”
That was 1992 and Crime Stoppers was still a relatively new program created two decades earlier in the U.S. to generate tips for police based on the promise of cash rewards for anonymous callers.
Sismey, a retired Mountie and local business owner, was among a group of Penticton residents asked by then-city councillor John Jordan to form such a group here.
Once the first board of directors was assembled, Sismey stepped forward to lead it, before later shifting into the position of co-ordinator when it became apparent there was a need for a staffer to provide a consistent level of service to tipsters.
“It had a lot to do with building trust with the citizens, because if they phone the number and don’t get any answer, I don’t know how long they’re going to do that before they give up,” he said.
Sismey said the local Crime Stoppers group’s next big leap forward was in 2006, when it acquired a small car for the program’s exclusive use.
“You were actually driving a Crime Stoppers car, which in my mind helped people understand the separation between the police and Crime Stoppers,” he said.
The latest jump ahead was the evolution of technology that allowed tipsters to report through text messages and a dedicated website.
“In that people then saw that this isn’t a mom-and-pop operation operating out of some corner, these guys are actually keeping up with technology,” said Sismey.
Through the program’s first 22 years, it generated 6,729 tips that helped police recover 75 weapons, plus $1.8 million in stolen property and $14.8 million worth of drugs, according to its most recent annual report.
“I don’t care how you slice that pie: That’s a lot of tips and that represents a lot of work,” Sismey said.
Bob Ogden, the current president of South Okanagan-Similkameen Crime Stoppers, said Sismey himself deserves a lot of the credit.
“He’s done some absolutely great work,” said Ogden.
“Our program probably isn’t one of the bigger ones in the province…. but we’ve managed because of him to have great support.”
Ogden said Crime Stoppers will focus this spring on a project aimed at school kids, plus its annual golf tournament in June, which raises funds for the program’s ongoing operating costs.
Visit www.sostips.ca for more information on Crime Stoppers and to learn about volunteer opportunities.