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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

To Strengthen ‘See Something, Say Something’, Public Should Know Something More

May 11th, 2010 · 1 Comment

All three cable news channels offered blanket coverage Friday afternoon of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) investigation of a “suspicious” package in Times Square. It was only one of several phone tips that the NYPD’s Bomb Squad had checked out that day. Each turned out to be a false alarm but clearly more people are ‘Seeing and Saying Something’ in the aftermath of last week’s bombing attempt. And it has put more focus on the role of the citizen in homeland security.

Politicians, newspaper editorial pages and fellow citizens have all rightly celebrated the campaign and the T-shirt vendors over the past week. But there has still been little discussion about whether “See Something, Say Something” and citizen involvement in homeland security in general are working as well it could. And if not, how it might be improved?

NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the number of reported suspicious packages was up about 30% since last Saturday, according the New York Daily News. There were 145 calls to the NYPD on Thursday, Kelly said, up from the typical 90-100 per day. And, many experts say that the City and the nation may need to prepare for more of these attempts as terrorists shift their strategy to smaller less-sophisticated violent attacks on soft targets.

Law enforcement in New York and around the U.S. will continue to be receiving and relying on the kind of “See Something, Say Something” tips that helped short circuit the Times Square car bombing. However, I would argue that presently there is not a very good understanding of these citizen tip programs, both among the citizens themselves as well as the media. (In fact, during Friday’s coverage more than one news anchor who seemed surprised by the volume of tips that come in regularly to the NYPD.)

The Police Department and other security officials don’t speak much about citizen tips (other than asking for them), which is understandable due to the sensitivity of the subject. But I think it would be helpful to them to brief the citizenry a little bit more — both in giving more guidance but also in helping understand the work of law enforcement in homeland security. I wrote on this topic last week but wanted to elaborate a bit.

The lack of attention on and public/media knowledge of the subject of citizen tips was underscored in a 2008 New York Times article by William Neuman about the transit authority’s “See Something, Say Something” subway and bus campaign posters that featured the tagline: “Last year, 1,944 New Yorkers saw something and said something.”: Neuman had a couple of questions.

But the new posters, also placed in the commuter railroad trains, left out two things: What, exactly, did those 1,944 New Yorkers see, and what did they say? Presumably, no active terror plots were interrupted, or that would have been announced by the authorities.

Neuman wasn’t able to find the answers:

“[The Metropolitan Transit Authority's Christopher] Boylan said he did not know exactly how the authority had come up with the number. “I don’t want to say that the accuracy of the number is secondary to the message,” Mr. Boylan said, “but the message that we wanted to get across is that those calls are, in fact, having an impact.”

For the article, the Times requested the (theretofore undisclosed) “See Something, Say Something” statistics from NYPD:

The hot line received many more calls in 2007, possibly because of the authority’s advertising campaign, Mr. Browne said. Through early December, the counterterrorism hot line received 13,473 calls, with 644 of those meriting investigation. Of that group, 45 calls were transit related. Indeed, no terrorists were arrested, but a wide spectrum of other activity was reported.

In fact, one reason I would guess why authorities have kept these numbers close to the vest is that it might seem as if the program is not succeeding in helping fight terrorism. But I would contend that’s actually an opportunity to underscore that public involvement for terrorism prevention is not so different than civic vigilance on street crime — that terrorism awareness is just another part of general community resilience.

NYPD evacuates Times Square for suspicious package.  A camera grab from Times Square shows the area around W. 46th Street and Broadway cleared.

Communicating with the public in this area is a careful balance. Authorities want to: encourage tips but don’t want to make it an obsession, keep citizens vigilant but not frightened, and not overstate the terror threat but not understate it either. Yet more information would be useful in providing the public with more context and a better understanding of how they fit into the nation’s security effort.

Among the questions that could be addressed: Is law enforcement satisfied with the current level of public input? Do they think it could be improved? When reporting tips, do the authorities rather citizens err on the side of calling if they’re not sure? When citizens offer tips, are law enforcement officials encouraging and positive even if the tip doesn’t pan out? And is there follow up with citizens when possible?

Further, are there other ’success stories’ of citizens getting involved resulting in arrests that can serve as models, guidance? Are there more specific things beyond just “See Something, Say Something” that citizens can look for? (The campaign suggests: “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,” but are there other signs based on previous terror incidents here and abroad?)

It is clear that terrorism will continue to be with us for the foreseeable future, and the public’s role in combating the threat will continue to be central. (which has been underscored that the last two known terror attempts in the U.S. — both in Times Square and on Christmas Eve  – were stopped by civilians.) President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan reinforced the point on “Fox News Sunday”. ”We rely heavily on vigilant citizens,” he said.

Further engaging with those citizens and making them feel part of the country’s homeland security effort will not only bear more and better tips, but it will also make citizens feel more like active participants and less like helpless victims.

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