USA Today Reports: CodeBaby online, virtual officer answers non-emergency crime reports

July 17, 2014

By Lindsay Powers, USA TODAY

Someone has broken into your car. Glass is everywhere, your radio is gone, and there is no evidence to suggest who has done it.

Alarming and inconvenient as that may be, it is not considered a police emergency. And, in a time of shrinking resources, some police departments are turning to a new kind of officer to help out in non-emergency crimes.

The online talking, animated Virtual Officer aims to guide people who choose to file a non-emergency crime report on a police department’s website rather than by phone or in person. It can also assist with basic site navigation with the help of a pop-up menu.

Although it would be ideal to “have a face-to-face interaction,” Lt. Mohammad Rafaqat of the Reno Police Department said, the software should help the department — currently facing staffing shortages — avoid reviewing a report multiple times and help its site users avoid frustration.

Among other functions, Reno’s Virtual Officer, which was introduced earlier this year, informs individuals if they need to report to a different police department or that the crime is serious and needs to be reported in person, two main errors that Rafaqat said are often found in online reports.

In North Carolina, the Winston-Salem Police Department currently “employs” Virtual Officer, which it has named Officer Maria Evans. Benjamin Tuttle, an information systems analyst, said CodeBaby, the company that developed the software, asked him what he wanted to name the character, and he pulled a name out of thin air.

Since the program was added in May 2011, Tuttle said, there have been fewer e-mails and calls from people with questions about the website, including how to file a crime report. The site lists crimes such as aggressive driving, identity theft and stolen property that can be reported online.

The Colorado Springs Police Department, the first to use Virtual Officer in 2009, removed it after about two years because of budget cuts. Yet Lt. Patricia Feese said that, while it was in use, it enhanced the online reporting process.

Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, said more police departments have taken advantage of their websites in light of budget cuts in recent years, and that something like Virtual Officer may cause “people to be more comfortable with reporting online.”

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