Report All Poaching hotline helps connect conservation officers with the public
Jan. 9, 2015
The sign - Law Enforcement Communications Section - is as nondescript as the standard office door on an unadorned white wall deep within the recesses of Constitution Hall in the state government building complex in Lansing, Michigan. But inside that secured door is a non-stop center of activity: the RAP Room.
The RAP (Report All Poaching) Room is staffed 24/7 by as many as seven personnel at a time. It is the main link between the public and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Law Enforcement Division.
The Report All Poaching hotline was created in 1980 when the state Legislature designated a small percentage of the money raised by hunting and fishing license sales toward developing an easy method for citizens to report illegal hunting and fishing activity to the DNR. It has grown into a 1,000-square-foot room, outfitted with the kind of high-tech equipment one often finds at county or state regional dispatch centers. At each of the workstations, six computer screens give dispatchers as much information as they could possibly need to direct the state's conservation officers to the scene of a complaint - and what the COs need to know once they get there.
Computer screens display information on the current location of COs (through the GPS monitoring equipment on their patrol vehicles), as well as access to the state's Law Enforcement Information Network, the state's licensing records, the radio system, the Internet, and even the criminal history of those whom the COs contact.
"Our dispatchers try to gather the best information they can and send it to the officer as quickly as possible," explained Lt. Steven Burton, who runs the RAP Room as part of his duties.
Each of the roughly 6,500 criminal complaints that come in by phone call or the Internet into the RAP Room each year is recorded. Some of them are so vague or untimely that nothing can be done to resolve them, but the DNR's success rate in responding to these complaints is outstanding. So far, nearly 30 percent of the complaints (5,665 through the beginning of deer season) this year have resulted in an arrest.
"Recently, we've made quite a few illegal deer cases," Burton said. "We are well upwards of $50,000 in reimbursement to the state and many of those cases haven't been completed, as they are still under investigation."
As many as 50 percent of the calls that come into the RAP Room do not involve a criminal complaint, Burton said.
"We get a lot of calls about general rules or policy or people just seeking information," he explained. "When people want information they often call the RAP line. We encourage these types of callers to try their local offices first, as this frees up phone lines for ongoing criminal complaints."
"Our dispatchers are required to know all of our laws, rules and regulations - hunting and fishing, ORV, marine safety, land use - even environmental laws," Burton said. "Lots of laws."
The RAP Room is busiest from October through December, during hunting season, Burton said, with seasonal bumps during other periods of high outdoors activity - fish migration seasons, holiday weekends, snowmobile season, etc. Calls tend to come in most often during early-morning hours or the first hour or so after dark, he said, though they filter in all day long.
"Noon is busy, too," Burton said. "People who don't have cell phones and are out hunting in the morning might make their calls when they come in for lunch." Calls also come in after people return home from work for the same reason.
Dominique Clemente, a RAP Room emergency dispatch supervisor and an 18-year DNR veteran who has spent 16 years working at the hotline, calls it an interesting job. "It's never the same day twice," said Clemente, adding that the line receives a wide variety of complaints, including an occasional supposed Sasquatch sighting.
Sometimes it takes some coaxing to get the information they need out of callers, Clemente said. Callers are reminded to stay patient during the call as dispatchers ask very pertinent questions related to the specific crime being reported.
"They want us to know about something illegal that's going on but they don't want to be a snitch," she said. "I just remind them the violator is stealing from you and me."
Rewards also are offered by the Report All Poaching program. Information leading to an arrest for a hunting or fishing violation reported through the hotline can net a caller up to $1,500 or even more depending on the case.
Clemente said the staff's main concern is giving the conservation officers the best information they can to help them do their job effectively and safely, though they do their best to satisfy the customer, too. In many cases, that involves answering broad questions - such as where's a good place to fish - or advising some callers that their reported complaints are, in fact, not crimes. "The best we can do is point someone in the right direction," she said.
As with any other office, the RAP Room is constantly changing, taking advantage of new and emerging technology. Right now, Burton said, the staff is figuring out how best to take complaints sent in by text messaging. A person sitting in a blind may not want to make the noise of the phone call, but is willing to text in a complaint. Other states have adopted this method of reporting violations and have seen a surge in contacts with the public. "I think it will increase the timeliness of our response, as well," Burton said.
Besides interacting with the sporting public, the RAP Room also takes phone calls from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Pollution Emergency Alerting System. This line alerts the DEQ to emergency spills and releases in Michigan.
More than a dispatch center, the RAP Room is a lifeline for officers patrolling remote areas of Michigan, often participating in critical search and rescue operations involving lost children, hunters or imperiled boaters on inland waterways or the vast waters of the Great Lakes.
Being a conservation officer is a demanding job. It takes focus, dedication and professionalism. Every day a primary concern of the RAP Room is to ensure that all Michigan conservation officers return safely at shift's end to their families and communities. Those dispatchers play a vital role in Michigan's natural resources protection team.
To report a natural resource violation, please call the Report all Poaching hotline at 800-292-7800. To learn more about the work of conservation officers or to access the online RAP reporting form, visit www.michigan.gov/conservationofficers.