Forty years ago in 1976, a police detective in Albuquerque in the US State of New Mexico was becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of information coming from the public about a murder at a petrol station. Greg MacAleese believed apathy and fear of retribution by local residents was hindering the investigation.
His brainwave was to ask the local TV station to televise a re-enactment of the murder, guaranteeing that anyone who called with information could remain anonymous and would be eligible for a reward. By next morning the crime was solved and the Crime Stoppers concept was born.
Almost a decade later in 1987, Geoff Wilkinson brought Crime Stoppers to Australia. A former crime reporter for the Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne and the founding media director for Victoria Police, Geoff visited the United States for a Churchill Fellowship study tour and discovered what has become the most successful community crime-fighting program ever.
Geoff says the Churchill Trust, which provides opportunities for Australians to travel overseas to conduct research in fields often not readily available at home, deserves the credit for getting Crime Stoppers to Australia.
Geoff “stumbled upon Crime Stoppers” when he met Lieutenant Pat Harnett, head of the relatively new Crime Stoppers unit at the New York Police Department. Geoff quickly realised it was a concept he could take back to Australia, a simple and effective means of getting information from those who have it to those who need it. Drawing on examples from the US, Canada and the UK, Geoff returned with his hybrid version of Crime Stoppers, which was introduced in Victoria and later adopted in every Australian State and territory.
On his return, Geoff and his colleague Ken McKenzie – the first police coordinator of Crime Stoppers in Victoria – frantically fundraised $120,000 from 35 sponsors to cover rewards, promotion and marketing. All three partners essential to make the program work – the police, the media and the public – were very supportive, and the Victorian government soon came on board with funding to support the new crime fighting initiative.
Back in 1980s America, 30-40% of callers were motivated to contact Crime Stoppers to collect a reward. Interestingly, Geoff says, this has never been the case in Australia, where confidentiality seems more important than cash.
The reach of Crime Stoppers should not be underestimated. Geoff recalls the time when a passenger plane heading to Europe from Melbourne was flying over the coast of WA when the pilot was directed to turn back – not for mechanical reasons but because a call to Crime Stoppers in Melbourne had provided police with enough evidence to arrest one of the passengers for murder. Another time, a call to Crime Stoppers WA was responsible for the arrest of the killer of a female real estate agent in Melbourne.
Geoff returned to daily journalism in 1989 and won many awards and honours during his long career, including an Order of Australia medal and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Melbourne Press Club. But he says his “most significant and satisfying achievement is no doubt the establishment of Crime Stoppers.”
Having served on the Crime Stoppers Board until 2013, Geoff is now enjoying retirement but still serving the community as a director of the Sentencing Advisory Council in Victoria and a member of the state’s Adult Parole Board.
You can read more about Crime Stoppers: The Inside Story in this recently released book.
Thanks to Geoff Wilkinson for talking to Crime Stoppers WA and reminiscing about his involvement in bringing the concept to Australia.