ST. PETERSBURG — Bullets flew as a teenager and a police officer pointed guns at each other in front of hundreds of teens.
Javon Dawson was fatally shot by an officer, authorities say, after firing into a crowd of teens and then taking aim at the officer.
But the investigation into what happened that chaotic June night ran into a troubling roadblock: Few stepped forward to say what they saw.
Part of the problem is cultural, police believe, because teens fear being labeled a "snitch." It could be apathy, too.
It also could be something else: Maybe police and teenagers don't speak the same language.
Teens, after all, let their fingers do the talking these days. And that's exactly why police hope teens will use a new text message tip line to pass on information.
They can text police anonymously at (727) 420-8911.
Gibbs High School student Justin Greene thinks it might work.
"They'll feel more comfortable knowing nobody knows they sent it," said the 17-year-old junior, "that nobody knows they're a snitch."
It wasn't just the Dawson shooting that spurred police Chief Charles "Chuck" Harmon to now implement the text tip line, which was first proposed last year.
Large gatherings of teens have led to brawls and left few witnesses to help police, Harmon said.
"So we asked ourselves, how do we reach these kids?" Harmon said. "It might be easier for a kid sitting there who doesn't want to call us, but they'll text us about what's going to happen after school or after a football game."
The cost is minimal: one Blackberry in the communications center.
Text message tips are sent by e-mail, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to the appropriate officers, with the originating phone number stripped away.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is about to launch its own text tips line: text TIP144 to 274637. But the St. Petersburg Police Department is advertising its text tips line with posters in libraries and recreation centers. Soon, school resource officers will put up posters in their schools.
It's not meant to replace 911, of course. But police hope it will help them reach a demographic that doesn't seem to be calling the old fashioned tip line at (727) 892-5000.
Kids prefer to text each other — constantly.
"That's how information spreads quickly when something happens," said Gibbs High principal Antelia Campbell. "If one person forwards to five people, they forward it to five more.
"Within minutes, they've reached several hundred people."
Maybe by making inroads into that culture, police say, they can overcome other roadblocks.
"By making it easier we might overcome some of those cultural or societal 'Don't be a snitch' syndromes that prevents us from getting involved, especially in that age group," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.
Make no mistake, the "stop snitching" movement — enshrined in pop culture and music, and practiced by more than just criminals — holds a powerful sway over teens.
Many of his fellow students aren't apathetic or uncaring, Greene said. But they also don't want to be known as snitches either. They want to help, he said, but maybe they just need a better way of doing it.
Greene is an explorer with St. Petersburg Fire Rescue. He thinks a text message tip line might work because teens already text him when someone at school needs help.
"I've got people now, if something's about to happen, they'll text me."
So maybe now they'll text the police, too.
"Sometimes we have an investigation where we don't have a single lead," Proffitt said. "In those cases some of those tips can be very helpful. Maybe they give us one piece of the puzzle. "No matter how big or small you think it is, giving us that information, you never know if that might help put someone in jail."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.