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Do Cash Rewards For Crime Tips Work?

Kisha Stansberry's son Isiah Scott was fatally shot in March. Stansberry is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the shooter's arrest.
Cheryl Corley
Kisha Stansberry's son Isiah Scott was fatally shot in March. Stansberry is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the shooter's arrest.

Remember those old "wanted" posters on TV Westerns? They offered rewards for handing over a person to law enforcement. In more recent times, rewards are less about bounty hunting and more about persuading people to provide information that can help solve a crime. It's an attempt to use money to overcome fear and apathy, and sometimes that can be difficult.

Recently, on a corner outside a Family Dollar store in Maywood, Ill., a suburb west of Chicago, a crowd of relatives, friends and activists gathered and held up pictures of 19-year-old Isiah Scott. They also distributed flyers offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person who shot and killed Scott last March. He had just talked to his girlfriend on the phone about going to prom.

Scott's mother, Kisha Stansberry, says she raced to the parking lot of the Family Dollar after she saw her son strapped to a gurney on a live social media feed. Stansberry says she knows people saw what happened to her son. She says the suspected shooter threatened other kids, and they were afraid to go to school.

"It's shameful that I would have to put $5,000 out there for somebody to do what's right," said Stansberry. "That was the most horrific thing I've ever been through — to watch your child take his last breath on Facebook, on Snapchat. They got him on a gurney on Snapchat. Tubes down his throat."

Stansberry says lots of people helped her raise the reward money in an effort spearheaded by Michael Pfleger, an activist Chicago priest, and a support group of parents of murdered children. Pfleger says they've had some success — paying out rewards in nearly 30 Chicago cases after arrests were made and police verified the information was useful. He says in other instances, rewards haven't worked but it's important to continue to offer them.

"I've had people, three years after a murder, come with the reward flyer crumpled up that they've kept all that time and they say, 'I'll talk.' So whenever," Pfleger says.

Law enforcement agencies have a long history of offering rewards in an effort to solve crimes. The FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list has been up and running since 1950, when the agency first teamed up with a news wire service to publicize the toughest criminals it was trying to capture. The FBI now offers a minimum — a reward of up to $100,000 for information leading to a direct arrest of anyone on that list.

In the 1970s, Crime Stoppers, a new effort that used reward money, the media, and citizen help, got underway. It lets people call in anonymous tips to Crime Stoppers programs across the United States. Typical rewards, up to $1,000 funded by public, private and corporate donations, are offered if a tip leads to an arrest. Larger rewards are offered for more heinous crimes.

Barb Bergin, chairwoman of Crime Stoppers USA, says the prospect of higher rewards for cases that receive more publicity may increase the number of tips or calls. That doesn't necessarily mean those tips help solve the case or lead to higher rewards being paid out.

"Nationally we are seeing programs who are paying out as little as 15 to 20% of their available rewards," Bergin says. "I think the highest that you'll see around the country is somewhere around 60 to 70% of their rewards get collected."

The measure of success, Bergin says, is not how many rewards are paid out, but how many cases are closed, arrests made and crimes prevented because of tips that come in from Crime Stoppers.

Loyola University criminologist Arthur Lurigio co-authored an evaluation of Crime Stoppers during its early years.

"Our studies showed that it was getting an award that mattered, not so much the exact award figure," Lurigio says. It's impossible, Lurigio says, to determine how much of a factor Crime Stoppers' rewards play since tips and payouts are anonymous.

He says even with a reward, people are often hesitant to report a crime if it can cost them. For example, he says, some don't want to be considered a snitch by turning in a relative, neighbor or friend. And even if there's guarantee of anonymity, says Lurigio, the person with incriminating information weighs the reward against the risk of possible retaliation.

"People's houses are shot up, their relatives are shot at. They're killed. Witnesses are killed," he says.

Even if rewards are not wildly productive, Lurigio says he understands why people offer them, especially in high crime areas.

"Putting out a reward gives them some sense of 'I'm doing something that's concrete' rather than 'I am helpless,' " he says.

That's exactly why Kisha Stansberry says canvassing the neighborhood where her son died is so important. So before it gets dark, she and others including one of her son's longtime friends, Juan Ortega Perez, hand out reward flyers in their push to get an arrest.

"People are traumatized. This hurts," Perez says. "It's all a moment of time, so even without the reward money, it will happen. We'll find justice for Isiah."

Stansberry says that if the $5,000 reward doesn't do it, she's willing to offer as much as it takes in reward money since she knows there are people out there who can offer valuable information.

Dean Stansberry, Kisha's husband and stepfather to Isiah, was killed July 30 — a week after the news conference was held — in a drive-by shooting that left Stansberry and another man dead. Police say Stansberry appeared to be an unintended victim.

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Corrected: September 16, 2019 at 9:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story misspelled Kisha Stansberry's first name as Keisha.
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.