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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Are Americans “Seeing” And “Saying” Enough? Times Square Incident Offers Opportunity To Assess, Improve Public’s Role In Homeland Security

May 5th, 2010 · 1 Comment

It was clearly not the aim of the alleged Times Square bomber to spotlight the role of the citizen as part of the U.S.’s homeland security effort in one of the nation’s most high profile — and lit — places. But he did. The T-shirt vendors who tipped off a New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer to a suspicious Nissan Pathfinder Saturday night have already become national heroes and icons for the value of citizen alertness.

One of the vendors, Lance Horton, even put in a plug for public involvement when asked by a reporter what advice he would give his fellow citizens: “See Something, Say Something,” echoing the slogan of the New York transit authority’s ubiquitous information campaign.

Homeland Security Department (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano, who has made citizen engagement a major theme of her tenure, was among the government officials who cited the vendors’ actions as a model for all Americans: “What happened on Saturday shows the critical role that the American people play in the security of our country. If anybody ever had any doubt about it, this failed bombing attempt clearly shows the value of the saying, if you see something, say something.”

The attention given to this successful example offers a terrific opportunity to assess the public’s role in helping the authorities on terrorism. Are Americans “seeing” and “saying” enough? Most law enforcement officials I have talked to believe the “See Something, Say Something” and other similar efforts have been successful raising awareness, but that they have not fully tapped the huge asset that is the U.S. public for homeland security effort.

And, the concerns often expressed by political leaders and security officials about the need for citizens to be “vigilant” and avoid “complacency” as time passes since 9/11 seem to imply that authorities want more and better information from the general public. If so, that needs to be explained more explicitly. In fact, I think it would be helpful for officials to tell us what specifically does “be vigilant” and “don’t be complacent” mean for the average American.

Further, a major DHS survey last year found more work was required in this area. As one of the report’s conclusions stated: “Individuals believed they had a personal responsibility to report suspicious behavior, but greater collaboration between citizens and law enforcement is needed.”

“See Something, Say Something” is an easy slogan to understand and remember. But does it provide enough guidance on its own? This was a smoking car which is — not taking anything at all away from the actions of the hero vendors — a relatively evident potentially dangerous sign to spot. Could the public could use some more direction on what is suspicious and what is not?

The answer, according to an article in Slate by Noreen Malone, “If You See Something, Say Something? You’d never shut up. An afternoon observing ’suspicious activity’ in Times Square,” is probably yes. The piece half seriously but aptly illustrates that seeing and saying the right things is not all that clear cut for the typical civilian (or reporter). Malone set out for Times Square on Tuesday afternoon to try to identify “suspicious behavior” (following the “See Something” campaign’s instructions to “Be alert to unattended packages; Be wary of suspicious behavior; Take notice of people in bulky or inappropriate clothing; Report exposed wiring or other irregularities.”) She found a lot of unusual if not “suspicious behavior” in Times Square;” the difficulty was figuring out what (if anything) to report:

I met a Brazilian tourist who had way too many shabby bags in tow, and an off-duty Indian pilot who was carrying a grocery bag around his neck like a cape, food stains running down his shirtfront. I sidled up to a guy scalping Broadway tickets because he was wearing a sweatshirt in the heat. I eyed vendors covering their knockoff (or stolen) sunglasses display with a cloth—what if they weren’t worried about copyright law? What if they had a bomb under that cloth?

Malone ends her piece by asking for some guidance: “But I saw packages everywhere. Every tourist stands around looking lost, a big bag slung over their shoulder. How do you know what is truly dangerous? I would argue that government authorities need to answer that question more fully. In a playful way, the article does point out out that the public could use more than just “See Something, Say Something” to most effectively play the critical role officials say they play in homeland security.

Clearly, there is a limit to what can be disclosed without compromising intelligence sources and methods, but many security officials believe that more can and should be told to the public. In fact, a number of them have told me that they would like to offer more information so Americans understand the threat situation better. It makes their jobs easier, establishes more credibility, and may better innoculate the nation when/if something does happen. And it is in the interest of law enforcement to be candid with voters if they want them to urge their elected officials to continue to support government investments in preventing and responding to terror threats. A goal of that educational process should be highlighting how citizen involvement actually helps and more precisely what citizens should (and should not) be doing.

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In New York, the Police Department has set up a program to train and partner with private sector personnel, including those who work on the streets (ie. doormen), in reporting unusual behavior. (I don’t think vendors have been part of the program, though after Saturday night that might change). NYPD has smartly reached out to the concentric circles of society to assist them. The question is how the outside circle, the public, be best included?

Of course, the idea of expanding public involvement in homeland security can touch on some sensitive political areas. President Obama and Secretary Napolitano have said they don’t want to instill fear among Americans nor raise civil liberties concerns.  As Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson wrote in the Washington Post yesterday, “there is a delicate balance between vigilance and panic, resilience and over-preparedness, vigorous law enforcement and a police state.” It’s tricky line to walk, but it’s doable with leadership and communication.

Secretary Napolitano has called for Americans to be in a “state of readiness,” and she has pledged to treat the public as “an asset” in the nation’s homeland security as part of the “shared responsibility for preparedness.” As part of that shared responsibility, Napolitano has said, correctly, that the public should be viewed as part of the nation’s homeland security team. To continue the metaphor, if the public is to play its best as players on that team, they need more coaching as well as more info about the ‘game plan and the ’scouting report’. The difficulty is that the authorities don’t have easy, pat answers to what, how and when. Granted, that’s a tough communications challenge. Yet, I think the public will accept that uncertainty if the government is straight-forward and open with them.

For example, should Americans expect more improvised explosive devices (IED’s) along the lines of the Times Square incident as some experts have warned? At a panel at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute last month, the Washington, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said citizens have a primary responsibility in helping the authorities prevent IED’s here. Gallup’s Darby Miller Steiger released a survey reporting that “while 8 in 10 report familiarity with the term IED, this does not necessarily mean that the public understands the threat and how to respond.” Also, on the panel, Mark Mueller, Acting Deputy Chief of DHS’ stressed the necessity of providing concrete guidance to the public, and the role citizens play in providing key intelligence.

Part of the information effort should include ongoing followup with the public whether that be reporting on “See Something” tips (this is one of the only examples of a successful terror tip most of us have heard about six years after the campaign’s launch) or lessons learned from actual incidents (when the authorities complete their after action report on the Times Square evacuation, they should brief New Yorkers on what was learned, particularly regarding public action).

Though the response was widely regarded as very successful, they were some teachable questions. Why, for example, were guests evacuated and not allowed into the Marriott Marquis hotel while the police kept the audience in the theater downstairs in the same building locked down? (Of course, many of those in Times Square were tourists, but this type of discussion would be helpful nonetheless.) The evacuation vs shelter in place is something that deserves some attention from the authorities, because it will almost definitely come up again, maybe after an actual explosion.

One other important reason to focus on emergency communications between the authorities and the public is the proliferation of mobile communications devices and social media. This new technology offers great opportunities for a two-way information flow, but it also presents a challenge as well. Going forward, citizens have the ability to see and say things in many more ways. And, homeland security consultant David Stephenson has recommended that government should be “coaching us on what kind of information would be helpful in an emergency, and, when one happens, both factoring in real-time location-based info from the public into their actionable intelligence for responding, and using social media to guide us.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the City was “very lucky” to “avoid what could have been a very deadly event”. Giving citizens more information and making them closer partners in the homeland security enterprise may help them ’see’ and ’say’ more and in turn improve our luck in the future.

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Tags: Preparedness Ideas · See Something/Terrorism Tips

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Matt Rosenberg // May 5, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    A few months ago, I spotted a “suspicious” white bucket with small haz-mat markings on it next to an empty bus stop in Los Angeles. I moved away and called 9-1-1. Once LAFD arrived and determined it to be a bucket of concentrated soap, I felt as through they were less than happy to be responding to such a haz-mat. It certainly didn’t encourage my interest in seeing and saying in the future…

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