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Creating Public Support for SARs

AS THE NATIONWIDE Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI) continues to mature, its federal managers and its state and local stakeholders are trying to perfect the message and mechanisms to elicit more potential terrorism-related information from the public, which is not entirely sold on the program.

“The public doesn’t really understand what suspicious activity reporting involves and what it really means” says Mike Sena, deputy director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center and president of the National Fusion Center Association (NFCA). “The public hasn’t received the education on what NSI is.”

A study from earlier this year bears this out. In February, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) released a report on the public’s awareness of suspicious activity reports (SARs). Sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), it was based on a survey that asked 800 randomly selected individuals about whether they recognized and reported suspicious activity.

The survey provides insight into the thought processes of people who are deciding whether to report suspicious activity. Three out of four people surveyed said they would report suspicious activity if they witnessed something that could either harm the public or would be useful to law enforcement.

But the survey discovered that almost half of the respondents would think twice before calling the police about suspicious activity for fear it could get innocent people in trouble. The second most cited concern, most often voiced by women, was fear of retaliation.

Other concerns had to do with how the respondents perceived police or how police would perceive them. Twenty-seven percent of people surveyed believed police would not take their call seriously, and 23 percent simply feared law enforcement. The younger the respondents were, especially if male, the more likely they were to have issues with police.

The survey also shows that the public doesn’t understand what suspicious activity is. One in three respondents described traditional criminal activity—such as break-ins and robbery—as suspicious activity. Only 5 percent described activities that matched what the NSI considers suspicious activity, which is activity reasonably associated with preoperational terrorist planning. Three quarters of respondents said they would dial 911 to report suspicious activity although suspicious activity rarely qualifies as an emergency, according to subject-matter experts the IACP spoke with.

Based on its finding, the IACP recommended that police departments and local organizations build up public awareness of SARs and educate their communities about what constitutes suspicious activity and how best to report it in that locality.

On the federal level, the NSI-Program Management Office (PMO)—which is responsible for developing and maintaining the standards, policies, and processes to ensure that SARs are shared across all levels of government—is already addressing many of the concerns and recommendations found in the report in partnership with the IACP and others, says its director, David Sobczyk.

In a March “call to action,” the NSIPMO along with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and associations, including the IACP, advised that all NSI partners should use the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign to raise the public’s awareness of suspicious activity indicators.

The difficult portion of this effort is educating the public on what constitutes suspicious activity. According to the NSI, there are 16 behaviors and indicators potentially associated with terrorist activity. That’s an unwieldy sum, says Sena, and one hard to communicate to the public in billboards and public-service announcements.  Some local and state law enforcement and homeland security agencies have distilled the list into a more manageable seven or eight and have produced videos explaining those, he says.

The NSI-PMO, in cooperation with the IACP and DHS, has also developed guidance for community leaders under the Building Communities of Trust (BCOT) Initiative to help chip away at any distrust between police and the communities they serve so that people feel more comfortable reporting suspicious activity. They want to dispel the fear that the government is compiling dossiers on everyone. “That’s not what we do,” says Sena.

The BCOT guidance provides various recommendations to community leaders, such as advising them to communicate their community’s cultural and religious practices to local law enforcement to improve relations and to minimize the potential for misunderstandings.

As the guidance notes, this is important because immigrant and minority communities historically have had poor relationships with law enforcement, something the NSI-PMO wants to change. The NSI-PMO always stresses that suspicious activity reporting should be based on behaviors—“the ‘what,’ not the ‘who,’” says Sobczyk.

One process issue that continues to be debated is how to get SARs from the public to the appropriate agency in the most efficient way possible, says NFCA Director Ross Ashley.

A solution pitched to DHS was a standardized “See Something, Say Something” application for smartphones, he says. “It would be universal,” Ashley explains. “It would be aware of where you are, and it would instantaneously take the information in a common standard format and send it to the fusion center wherever the person was.” This way people wouldn’t have to know where they were or know how to contact the nearest and most appropriate law enforcement agency. The solution, however, was rejected primarily for two reasons, says Ashley.

First, DHS and the NSI-PMO didn’t want to make it a federal initiative. “These are state and local initiatives that need to have grassroots relevance,” explains Ashley. Second, federal SAR partners didn’t want to create the perception that it will collect and store a vast array of data on the American public and give the government another powerful surveillance tool.

The potential for using social media “is something that each individual fusion center and locality will determine based on their own state and local policies and regulations,” says Sobczyk.

Some cities and states have. During the 2010 Super Bowl, the Dallas Police Department unveiled its iWatch app to report suspicious activity. In West Virginia, a SAR app allows users to report suspicious activity, along with photos and geotags, directly to the state’s fusion center. Tipsters can remain anonymous, potentially decreasing fears of retaliation.

The NFCA continues to advocate for a standardized app platform that citizens in any locality could use to report suspicious activity and receive emergency information from local law enforcement, such as an active-shooter situation nearby. Sena argues that the easier the process is for citizens, the more traction SARs will receive.

No matter how many SAR apps are developed, the NSI-PMO knows that some people will continue to call 911 to report suspicious activity. For that reason, the NSI-PMO has also developed training for 911 operators to ensure that SAR tips are routed to the appropriate law enforcement entity or fusion center.