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How these new apps are helping citizens solve their own petty crimes

76.2% of abducted children who were murdered in the US were found dead within the first four hours.

It’s a terrifying statistic I recently learned listening to the podcast In the Dark, about the kidnapping and murder of 11-year old Jacob Wetterling in 1989.

In those first four hours, cars could have driven hundreds of miles, traces could have been erased, and bodies could have been buried.

It’s a no-brainer, of course: The sooner an investigation starts, the better the chances the perpetrator gets caught. This is true for missing person cases and for every other type of crime. And in a perfect world, the police would show up within minutes after every robbery or bike theft.

But we don’t live in a perfect world and police resources are limited. Which is why we need to tap into a mostly unused source to increase crime solving rates: the public.

Sharing police intelligence

Take missing person cases. Obviously, when a child gets abducted, the police takes immediate action, says Frank Smilda who’s the Head of the Intelligence Unit at the Dutch Police. But when it’s an adult who goes missing this can take up to 24 hours. Especially if there’s no reason to assume the person is in severe danger.

“Imagine someone you love goes missing,” Smilda tells me. “Even though chances are they will soon show up, those first hours are absolutely nerve-wracking. People who go through this experience tend to feel helpless and frustrated.”

So why not offer them the tools to take action right away, help them navigate those first hours before the police starts investigating? This will soon be possible in the Netherlands, with the app SamenZoeken (“searching together.”)

“The radius in which we need to look first depends on many factors  — whether the missing person is by car or on foot, whether they take medication, how old they are — which is common police knowledge,” Smilda says. “Through the app, we share that knowledge with the public.”

SamenZoeken, which is currently being tested and will be launched towards the end of this year, allows users to share their location and where they’ve already been searching, post pictures, and send direct messages to other users.

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