POLK COUNTY -- The Polk County Sheriff's Office spent part of 2011 discussing whether to allow citizens to file reports of certain property and petty crimes over the Internet.
The system, an online questionnaire that once finished, sends an e-mail to a deputy, debuted in January.
It has been used once so far -- on March 5, when a West Salem resident reported a pressure washer missing from an outbuilding at his residence.
The theft actually happened in August.
To be honest, the chances of solving minor crimes like these, where there's no suspect, witness and little evidence "are slim to none," Polk Lt. Jeff Isham said.
Still, the system served its purpose, he continued. The victim gave all available pertinent information that a deputy would have gained face-to-face. Submitting it online saved the agency gas, travel and interview time.
"Typically, these are the cases where people want case numbers for insurance purposes," Isham said.
When resources are limited, you seek out advantages where you can find them. During the last few years, law enforcement agencies have turned to some no-cost online tools to leverage personnel or improve communication with the public.
The prospect of budget cuts was one reason for offering online reporting. The sheriff's office could lose two patrol deputies during the next budget cycle, Isham said.
"I know it sounds corny, but it's kind of the old saying, `work smarter, not harder,'" Isham said. "If we have less people, we don't want to send them all over, tying them up responding to minor crimes."
One example is crimereports.com, an online mapping network now commonly used by police department across the country.
Regionally, every call that ends up in the PRIORS records management system -- it serves most Willamette Valley departments and sheriff's offices -- ends up as a pin on a county or city map on the crimereports.com website.
Click on the icon and the date of the call and the type of crime appear. The cost for an agency to enroll is low. And any computer user can access the map for free.
It's not detailed information, but enough to give a person awareness about police responses in their neighborhood and keep them vigilant, said Independence Police Chief Vern Wells.
"The more information we can share, the better. I think it tends to prevent crime when people know what's going on out there," said Wells, noting it would be too time intensive for his department to put together a map on its own.
Nearly everybody has a Facebook page. So do most law enforcement agencies. Sgt. Mark Garton said the sheriff's office started its own page to communicate with neighborhood watch groups. Any notice on crimes, road closures, or serious accidents gets posted there.
If a user has hit the "like" button on a department's page, they'll receive notification via status updates on their home account.
"It's an easy medium to send out press releases," Garton said. "I get notes from people asking if a case is still open, and if I'm on it at the time I answer right away."
The online tools are easy "because people are already online anyway," he said.
Garton monitors the online reporting system. He said he recently responded to a call regarding personal items stolen -- or believed stolen -- from a vacant home in the Pedee area.
A round trip to the scene, an interview with the victim and time to fill out a report might collectively take two to three hours, Garton guessed.
"If I had gotten this e-mail with the info, I could have had a report finished in under an hour," he said.
Isham said the online setup for property crimes is "just an another option." If somebody calls the sheriff's office, a deputy will be dispatched, regardless of the crime.
But for minor incidents, it's becoming a standard practice in major cities. Chicago and San Diego take reports online. Portland just recently expanded the assortment of crimes it will accept through its system.
"I can see it being more useful to rural agencies," Isham said. "A deputy getting to the outskirts of the county to take a call, with gas at $4 a gallon, with the report having a slim chance of getting solved, that adds up."
With economic cutbacks,
online reports help police
The Polk County Sheriff's Office responded to 578 incidents that fell within the 10 types of crime that are considered reportable in the online reporting system. Those include thefts of items worth less than $1,000, burglaries in unoccupied buildings, criminal mischief and graffiti.
Deputies made arrests in 128 of those.
"The majority of them have no suspects, the incident happened when nobody was home or nobody saw it," said Lt. Jeff Isham.
The U.S. Department of Justice published a report in October detailing the effects of the economic downturn on police agencies.
* Eighty-six percent of surveyed police forces across the country utilize social media to communicate directly with residents, the report said.
* Twenty-five percent of 23 major city police departments surveyed suffered budget cuts that impact service. As a result, 43 percent and 30 percent of them have increased crime reporting over the telephone or online, respectively.