Officer Nate Nickelson, pictured above, has been program coordinator for the HPD’s Crime Stopper program for 12 years.
The homicide investigation has nearly disappeared into the cold-case files. But a Crime Stoppers TV segment yields something tiny, a description of a vehicle that had been in the area. Suddenly, investigators have a door cracked open …
A dispute erupts in gunfire. A car with one of the principals speeds down a busy street toward the hospital, sideswiping five other cars. Barely has the 9-1-1 call come in, Crime Stoppers is contacted with a license number and description …
A man sees himself on the Crime Stoppers’ segment on a Monday night. By Thursday morning, he is at the Huntsville Police Department, asking for Officer Nate Nickelson. Says the man, offering a surrender, “Nick, take me off TV” …
The Huntsville Police Department boasts one of the country’s most decorated and successful Crime Stoppers programs, and that’s partly because of Huntsville as a city.
“Since 1984, our two most successful programs have been Crime Stoppers and Community Watch,” says HPD Chief Mark McMurray, “because it bonds us and the community together for the same purpose, improved quality of life. Looking for people who are victimizing others is a group effort.”
Crime Stoppers gets criminals out of neighborhoods and off the streets with a stunningly impressive success race – a thousand or more arrests per year — and with national recognition.
Last fall, Nickelson was named Crime Stoppers USA National Coordinator of the Year and the HPD program, in conjunction with media partner WAFF-TV Channel 48, won the Best Public Service Announcement Award.
“It’s making a difference in the community each and every day,” says Jonathan Kirby, past president of the Crime Stoppers board. “Nick has taken the program that was good already and turned it into a great program.”
According to Nickelson, there is a 91 percent success rate in apprehending criminals who have appeared on the Wednesday night Crime Stoppers segment. There is a 97 percent success rate in apprehending those who are on the five-person Monday night “Valley’s Wanted” list.
Each time that happens, “It’s a high-five moment,” says Mark Thornhill, who hosts the Crime Stoppers segments on WAFF.
There’s no denying that the potential for some reward money encourages people to offer tips and information. However, that’s proven to be a great return on the investment.
Nickelson says that some $30,000 was doled out in 2016 to those who offered tips that led to the arrest and conviction of criminals. In making those arrests, nearly a $500,000 in stolen merchandise and drugs was recovered.
The reward money does not come from taxpayers’ pockets. An annual auction – it’s May 13 this year – and other fundraisers provide the money.
Citizens who may recognize someone from the televised segments and want to offer a tip can telephone 256-53-CRIME, submit a website report, or use the new P3Tips app downloadable on either Android or iPhone platforms.
Huntsville Police have worked with WAFF for some 16 years, with Thornhill leading the effort. He’s been so connected to Crime Stoppers, criminals have actually shown up at the station to surrender to him.
“I couldn’t ask for a better media partner than Channel 48, and Mark has become the face of it. It’s become an ownership thing with him,” Nickelson says.
Such is the awareness of the Crime Stoppers program, Nickelson estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of criminals apprehended come from tips offered well before the stories are broadcast or posted.
Nickelson is a 51-year-old from New Hope who spent 10 years in the U.S. Marines before joining HPD. He and wife Susan are parents of two (Nathan Jr. and Heather) and grandparents of quadruplet girls born to Heather three years ago.
He initially was a uniformed patrol officer for HPD, then worked as a court officer and in narcotics before joining Mickey Brantley with the Crime Stoppers effort, and stepping in as coordinator of the program 12 years ago.
“As I got involved and met Nick and saw his personality and the enthusiasm he shows if you have any sense of community he draws you in,” says current board president Tim Brumlow.
Crime Stoppers is a non-profit organization run by a board of directors and Nickelson works with 13 other local agencies in capacity with HPD. He is a rarity. Nationwide, only eight percent of the program coordinators are active-duty police officers; in most cases, they are civilian workers.
“That makes a huge difference,” Nickelson says. “If I get a call, I can roll immediately and get to the scene with other officers.”
Crime Stoppers has some 1,400 member groups across the U.S. The Huntsville Police Department program began 33 years ago this month, with the initial program being launched in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1976.
The national organization meets annually, and when Nickelson isn’t collecting awards, he’s drawing crowds.
“They’ll corner him and ask him what we’re doing in Huntsville,” Thornhill says. “’What’s the secret?’
“All I know is this whole organization, from Nick all the way through, runs like a machine.”