Breaking the silence: Heading into 10th year, watchdog program still has bite

TRAVERSE CITY – Traverse City has long been considered a safe, quiet community-a refuge for residents and tourists from the country's more dense, high-crime areas. But members of the Silent Observer, a TC Chamber of Commerce watchdog program and anonymous crime-tip hotline, understand all too well how easily the illusion of safety can be shattered.

Their mission? To put back the pieces if-and when-crime occurs.

The TC Area Chamber of Commerce organized the program in 1998 for just that purpose. Traverse City was rocked at the time by the brutal murder of Kalee Bruce, an 18-year-old girl who was savagely beaten to death at a local hotel. A board of 13 members representing various local industries-hotels, retail, banking–and an advisory board of 15 members from assorted law enforcement agencies worked together to sponsor a reward for information leading to an arrest in Bruce's murder. The tips they received were critical in solving that case, officials later reported.

Nine years later, nearly half of the original members remain on the board and the program continues to play a vital role in bringing area criminals to justice.

"Our main objective is to assist law enforcement," said Silent Observer Chairman Nancy Haller, who also works at Traverse City State Bank. "If a case goes cold, they can utilize our program to get the word out they're looking for help. In the long run, our goal is to hopefully reduce crime in the area."

Since Silent Observer accepts reports on "any type of illegal behavior," according to Haller, the program has helped solve everything from shoplifting and petty theft incidents to major crimes like drug dealings, sexual assaults and homicides. Haller estimates the program has received nearly 400 calls since its inception, "85-90 percent of them useful to law enforcement." Approximately 30 arrests have been made as a direct result of a tip provided to the hotline.

A successful tip can reap a reward of up to $2,500, based on the size of the investigation and the relevance of the tip to the case. But according to Haller, many callers never claim their reward money. Silent Observer has paid out just $5,850 in rewards since 1998-a small sum compared to the actual number of arrests made.

"People don't typically do this for the money," said Haller. "They often just want to help, or to see a crime solved. For a variety of reasons-maybe they know someone involved, or don't want to get tangled up in the case-they need a way to do that anonymously. Our program gives them that avenue."

Anonymity is a crucial component of Silent Observer's operation, says fellow board member Nick Trahair, president of the Grand Traverse Area Hotel & Motel Association and general manager of AmericInn.

"At the beginning of each call, responders ask, 'Are you willing to give your name?' If the caller replies no, the question is never raised again," said Trahair. "Instead, the caller is assigned a number. He or she can use the number to check in on the case, report further information in future calls, and, if the investigation is successful, even claim a reward anonymously through a drop at a local bank."

Rewards, like the rest of the Silent Observer program, are funded entirely through grants and donations. Occasionally, a business or individual that's been aided by a tip will finance part or all of a reward. Other times, the board will receive anonymous donations earmarked for particular cases. Both Haller and Trahair stress how important these donations are to the continued success of the program.

"Funding is always a challenge," said Haller. "We're doing OK right now with the call volume we have, but if that volume were to increase or if a major case came up, it would definitely be an issue."

Beside its fundraising efforts, the board is also focused on raising awareness of the program in Traverse City and the surrounding areas. A recent survey taken by the local United States Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) chapter revealed a majority of area residents didn't recognize the program's name or understand its purpose. Silent Observer is currently partnered with the Jaycees, a group that trains young professionals in civic duties and community service, to try and help promote the program locally.

Trahair, who coordinates promotional events like August's presentation at Friday Night Live, is optimistic the message will get through.

"We have a new website up and we've created new marketing materials. We even have shirts now," he laughed. "With all these elements, we're starting to put together the whole package that explains to the community what S.O. is and what we do. We hope it catches on, because this program is first and foremost a service for those who live here."

To learn more about Silent Observer, or to report a crime, visit www.947-tips.com or call 947-TIPS (8477). BN

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