CHAMPAIGN – A U. of I. Student Patrol Officer was the first-ever winner of the Dave Benton Outstanding Champaign County Crime Fighter Award presented on Thursday by Crime Stoppers of Champaign County.
Michael Hao, a junior in computer engineering, was honored primarily for his efforts in developing the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign SafeWalks mobile app, which makes it more convenient than ever to request a walking escort to reduce students’ likelihood of being targeted by a criminal at night.
SafeWalks is a free service provided by the U. of I. Student Patrol, of which Hao is a member. The trained students walk with students, faculty and staff to ensure that no one has to walk alone at night on campus, which is a key step in reducing the opportunity for criminals to take advantage of isolated individuals. Student Patrol seems to be a good fit for Hao, a former lifeguard, who said he has always had a deep interest in public service.
The app allows students to quickly and conveniently request a SafeWalks escort without placing a phone call. Instead, the app uses GPS technology to locate the student and a request for Student Patrol Officers to provide a safety escort is made with a simple push of a button.
The app took Hao about six months to develop.
“This experience has not only taught me general programming skills, but it has more importantly shown me that these skills can be used to make our lives safer,” Hao said. “I am very grateful to have had an opportunity to be part of something like this.”
Hao was nominated by Campus Security Coordinator Ryan Johnson, who said he wanted to improve the SafeWalks program and asked Hao to develop the mobile app.
“We believe the app will have a huge impact on campus for international students with poor English skills, incoming freshmen who are not familiar with campus, and intoxicated students who need help getting home from bars and house parties,” Johnson said. “Mike’s skills and abilities with technology have proven to be a difference maker within our community. His app, which is now owned and operated by the U. of I., will help make the campus community a safer place to live, work and study.”
The Outstanding Champaign County Crime Fighter Award was named after longtime WCIA-TV anchorman and Crime Stopper board member Dave Benton, who lost his battle against cancer in May. Benton was a staunch supporter of the Crime Stoppers mission and advocated for its cause in his news segments and programs.
At the same meeting on Thursday, Benton was named the Crime Stoppers of Champaign County Board Member of the Year. His wife, Terri, was present to accept the award on his behalf.
Since 1986, Crime Stoppers of Champaign County has provided a secure, anonymous reporting line for people who want to provide information about crimes in their communities. Calls are routed to a third-party answering service – not the police – and are electronically stripped of all caller ID information. Cash rewards are paid for information that leads to an arrest.
Tipsters may also send the tip anonymously via text message by texting CCTip plus the information to 274637 (CRIMES) or online at 373tips.com.
Since its inception, Crime Stoppers has received tips responsible for solving more than 1,400 cases in Champaign County.