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As a growing number of citizen snitches report misdeeds like hit-and-runs via cell phone, it seems technology may be taking a "byte" out of crime.

In the first part of the 21st century, cell phones have become so ubiquitous the gadgets are already changing the way law enforcement responds to crimes, particularly those that take place on roadways, with witnesses quickly calling in details to 9-1-1.

"It's not just hit-and-runs, it's everything across the board," said Sgt. Shawn Paul of the Missoula Police Department's traffic division. "People are reporting DUIs and erratic driving. They're calling in if they see a truck drop something in the roadway, or someone running from a house. These days, so many people carry cell phones, and they're making observations throughout the day and calling in crimes."

Whereas telephone tattlers previously had to find a landline before they could report a crime to 9-1-1 dispatchers, witnesses now have the advantage of reporting a crime while it is in progress, leading to swift responses by law enforcement agencies.

"It's had a significant impact on timely responses by us," Paul said. "In the past, there was less of a chance for us to find out about those crimes in progress, let alone respond in a timely manner. Cell phones have definitely had a significant impact."

Deb Ogden, manager of Missoula's 9-1-1 dispatch center, said many of the complaints that dispatchers field turn into a three-way discourse between citizen, dispatcher and patrol officer.

"We have eyes on the scene, so to speak," Ogden said. "It's made life easier in that people tend to call and report a crime that is in progress, rather than calling after the fact. In the old days, people actually had to get to a telephone. Now they call while they are in their vehicles witnessing something."

Ogden said Missoula's dispatch center received 73,000 complaints by telephone in 1998. The number jumped to 90,103 calls in 2005, about the time that most people started carrying cell phones, she said.

In a similar contrast, the Missoula Police Department issued 383 DUI citations in 2001, but wrote 873 citations last year. That's not because there are more drunk drivers, but rather because police have gotten more vigilant, and citizens are able to report.

"We first took note of this with DUIs," Paul said. "Someone calls us and says, 'Hey, I'm behind this erratic driver, I think he's drunk.' We had a call the other day where someone was following a van, watching a man and a woman just beating each other up. We were able to respond immediately. Without the cell phone, we never could have resolved that complaint."

Paul was quick to point out that inattentive driving is the primary cause of accidents in the nation, and doesn't want to encourage reckless driving. He encouraged drivers to use hands-free units.

"If you're able to pull over and make a phone call, pull over," Paul said. "But at the same time, you might need to follow that vehicle, or else there's not much we can do."

Ogden said 9-1-1 centers will likely start accepting text messages and camera phone images in the near future, which would allow people to take pictures of fleeing drivers and provide police with great evidence.

Text messaging, which involves typing short messages using a cell phone's key pad, then transmitting the messages to another cell phone, remains the preferred means of communicating for people younger than 30.

That technology, called Next Generation 911 technology, is still being developed, Ogden said, but could be available to dispatch centers in Montana before year's end.

"We are actually involved in some testing of that technology here in Montana," she said.

Ogden said the Helena dispatch center will begin conducting field tests in July, and Missoula County has been invited to sent two of its dispatchers for training.

"That's a big part of the next generation technology," said Ogden, who has worked at the dispatch center for 28 years.

"We're extremely happy about cell phones because they've made our lives easier as well," she said. "It allows us to ask more specific questions of the caller. Instead of dispatching information about a blue car, we can find out that it's a light blue car, obtain a license plate number and the direction of travel. It's made a big difference."

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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