After being the victim of a bank robbery years ago, Deby Bakos devoted her life to crime prevention.
When the Marion County Sheriff’s Office asked if Bakos, now president of Crime Stoppers of Marion County, wanted to join its new crime alert system, the First Avenue National Bank vice president didn’t hesitate.
“There’s nothing worse than reading in the newspaper two days later that there was a bank robbery, and you’re going, ‘Oh my! I didn’t even know that had happened,’” said Bakos, who added that the First Avenue National Bank has never been robbed.
The county’s new crime alert system, named “Business Sheriff Alert For Emergencies,” or “B-SAFE,” sends free text messages and emails to businesses that are in the same industry as the original victim.
The alerts include details of the crime, suspect profiles, photographs and other identifying information that could help prevent further crimes in the county and potentially catch offenders.
The program officially started Jan. 20, and since then, more than 500 business owners have subscribed to the alert system, according to Marion County Deputy Paul Bloom, who helped implement the program.
Though crime is down 10 percent in the county and only 26 robberies have occurred in the past two years, the sheriff’s office is trying to continue to reduce that number, Bloom said.
The program increases transparency and promotes community involvement, he added, but most importantly, it helps residents in the community that he knows personally.
“These are friends of mine,” he said.
Bloom said the community has been supportive of the program and that 1,500 volunteers helped get businesses signed up for the program.
Two criminology experts at the University of Florida told WUFT that they see few downsides to the new program.
“I would think that even one conviction, in and of itself, evidences that this is a valuable program,” said Richard Hollinger, a UF sociology and criminology and law professor.
UF Professor Read Hayes, director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, said that initiatives like the Marion County’s could help local business owners be aware of crime trends, offender information and tips on what they should look out for.
However, Hayes said that he’s found that meeting personally with local business is also effective.
Meanwhile, in Alachua County, there aren’t plans to implement B-SAFE specifically.
But the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office already utilizes a smartphone application, various social media outlets and a new video-surveillance-registration program to get in contact with community members, according to spokesperson Sgt. Brandon Kutner.
The mobile application, “Alachua County Sheriff FL” in Google Play, is similar to the new Marion County program and allows the public to see inmates, look up local sexual predators, submit tips and push out alerts whenever a major crime has been committed.
Although the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have the alert system for industry-specific crimes that B-SAFE offers, spokesperson Sgt. Arthur Forgey said that adding email and text notifications in would be overkill.
“It’s almost a redundancy,” Forgey said. “We believe we’re already [issuing alerts], so it’s not something that we need to do again.”
All crimes are reported in annual crime statistics and are available online to residents, Forgey said. He added that he also doesn’t want to overwhelm residents with updates to the point they might dismiss critical information.
Forgey also noted the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office program “CodeRED,” which sends out voice alerts about major events to landline phones and those who have signed there cell phone up online. Such events include bio-terrorism, missing children and the need to evacuate.
Additionally, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office is scheduled to have an open meeting for residents early next month.
Starting Wednesday, Feb. 3, from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., residents can meet with local officers from the sheriff’s office at their “Coffee with a Cop” event at the Chick-fil-A on Archer Road. The event is advertised as seeking to “break down the barriers between deputies and the citizens they serve.”
Forgey said that the sheriff’s office regularly meets with new businesses in areas with higher crime rates to talk about prevention measures owners can take.
Adrian Sinclair, an assistant store manager for the Ross Dress for Less on Archer Road, met with the sheriff’s office and said that his relations with the deputies there are good.
“Anytime we have any issues that we have to call, they’re here promptly,” he said, adding that if Alachua County had a similar program to B-SAFE, he would sign up.
But Hayes, the council director, said Alachua County may not need to implement such a program because of its existing efforts.
“It’s not always what you do,” he said, “but how you do it.”