John Negrete was frustrated.
Someone had broken into a woman’s car, stolen her purse and used her credit card at a Des Moines convenience store.
Negrete, a detective with the Polk County Sheriff’s Department, obtained a photo of the thief from the store’s surveillance cameras. He forwarded the photo to local law enforcement agencies, but nobody recognized the subject. What he needed was an easy, quick and efficient way of distributing the photo to the public to see if anyone recognized the person.
That technology now exists. It’s called Snitch’n, a new phone app available as of today. Snitch’n allows citizens to scroll through photos of people wanted by police and then send anonymous tips directly to the officer investigating the case.
The app, with the idea coming from Negrete was created by a team of students at Simpson College working through the school’s new venture accelerator, EMERGE@Simpson. This is the first app built solely by Simpson students working in the accelerator. Snitch’n is one of 32 projects currently being worked on by EMERGE@Simpson.
“I knew we would see great ideas come to market using only teams of Simpson students,” said Chris Draper, Director of EMERGE. “I had no idea it would happen now. EMERGE has grown our capability for this to happen much faster than I expected.”
The Snitch’n app was unveiled Oct. 17 during the grand opening ceremony at Simpson College for the Gerald R. Edwards Entrepreneurial Center, the home of EMERGE@Simpson. The public launch of Snitch’n was scheduled to occur during the I/OWA Conference closing party, hosted by EMERGE, which begins Friday afternoon at The Lift in Des Moines.
How Snitch’n was developed shows the tremendous potential of EMERGE@Simpson and why prospective students and their parents are expressing interest.
It began with a question. Emma Negrete, a senior at Simpson, had heard her father’s frustration about the woman’s stolen purse. Shouldn’t there be some way, she wondered, for police to go to citizens directly for help?
“I heard about EMERGE previously through various professors, a tour of EMERGE through a class, and Simpson College Enactus,” Emma said, referring to the student business organization. “Later, a meeting was set with Chris Draper and a few people involved in EMERGE. They agreed to take on the task of creating a phone app to help law enforcement with this issue”
That was in the fall of 2013. After meeting with Emma and her father, Draper had intern John O’Brien, then a high school senior at Des Moines Roosevelt, and Eric Nelson of the Meidh company create the test version that won over the 5th Judicial District. The production version of the app became possible when Simpson students Thomas Klein from Monticello, Iowa, and brothers Scott and Mike Henry from Phoenix, Ariz., saw the potential and joined the team.
“The research is pretty clear,” Draper said. “If you blanket an area with information about an individual within their home community, people will come forward. This should help police capture criminals quicker.”
John Negrete explained that Polk County holds 3,000 outstanding warrants, and 800 of those are felony warrants. There are also cases, like the stolen purse, in which a crime is committed and there is a photo or video of the perpetrator, but no quick way to solicit the public’s help. Local TV stations will occasionally show a suspect’s photo, but only in rare cases.
“Generally, if you have a suspect and you don’t know who they are, your case is pretty much at a dead end,” he says.
Snitch’n would change all that. After downloading the app, which is free, citizens can scroll through screen after screen of suspect photos. If they recognize someone, they can alert police, anonymously if they choose.
It’s like having the U.S. Postal Service’s “Most Wanted” list at your fingertips, or having every crime suspect’s photo appear on television.
“This is that on steroids,” Draper said. “This is a revolutionary way of helping police departments engage the community. It came from Simpson because of our unique program that no one else has.”
Because it was their idea, John and Emma Negrete now own Snitch’n. Their arrangement with EMERGE@Simpson allows the Simpson students who worked on the project to get paid for their time or to become equity partners in the venture. Mike Henry graduated in May; the other two students remain at Simpson.
“It’ll definitely be more than minimum wage,” Scott Henry joked. This is exciting, but it’s not like I had to do anything special to get this to happen. I showed up, talked to Chris and then it was, ‘Go do it.'”
Said Draper: “One of the great things about our accelerator is that no one can take the idea away from you. EMERGE helps you build a team without running the risk of them taking your idea and running.”
Revenue for the app is generated from fees charged to police departments or other entities that use the service. The 5th Judicial District in Iowa has signed a two-year agreement, and Draper says police departments in Des Moines and Kansas City, as well as Negrete’s Polk County Sheriff’s Department, are interested, but waiting to see how it works elsewhere.
Draper says more than one million officers nationwide could benefit from the app, and at $1.99 per officer per month, the initial version alone could be worth more than $20 million per year.
Negrete says he hopes Snitch’n will provide a valuable service to police departments, providing assistance that goes beyond what’s currently provided by Polk County Crime Stoppers and the Des Moines Police Department’s “Metro’s Most Wanted.”
“I’m just trying to help,” he says. “I think we can do a better job than what we’re doing now.”
His daughter praised the EMERGE program: “All contributors to this project have gone above and beyond our expectations. My Dad’s idea would have never happened without the efforts through EMERGE. It’s amazing to see the progress that has been made since we first started.”
The phone app is currently available through Google Play and Amazon for Android users, Draper said, and should eventually be available to Apple customers. In the meantime, they can go to www. Snitchn.com on their phones.
If the phone app proves successful, Draper said there’s a good chance that Emma Negrete will earn enough to cover the cost of her college education.
“Snitch’n is something that happened because an individual came in, knew the problem that needed to be solved, yet didn’t have the team,” Draper said. “We assembled their team, and every team member will be fairly compensated because of EMERGE.
“We’re just touching the surface of what’s possible here. We’ve got projects going right now on everything from concrete with LNR to dog food with BOGO Bowl to programming with GFEX. We’re assembling teams that are building companies. It’s exciting. When other people learn that they can do something like this, they’re going to want to start their future at Simpson College.”