At airports, train stations and other public places across the nation, the Department of Homeland Security’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign has encouraged people to report suspicious activity in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks. But a recent government survey found citizens are not jumping in to report others.
Forty-three percent of respondents said they were worried about getting innocent people in trouble, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s G.W. Schulz and Andrew Becker, reported in a story today for California Watch, a journalism project of the center. The survey was released by the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and the International Association of Chiefs of Police in February.
“Some of the respondents were uncomfortable judging their fellow citizens, while others worried that ringing up the police could turn out to be a waste of resources. A portion mistrusted law enforcement to begin with,” Schulz and Becker write. “The findings lay bare a critical question at the core of [Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano’s initiative: How can anyone be truly certain that his or her neighbor is suspicious enough to notify the government?”
Last year, NPR — together with the Center for Investigative Reporting — obtained and evaluated 125 suspicious activity reports at the Mall of America. Many of the shoppers were stopped for trivial activities such as taking photographs or losing their cell phone. And as our Under Suspicion investigation found, it was often easy for ordinary people to become listed on police and FBI databases of suspicious persons.
In today’s report, Schulz and Becker interview Mike Sena, deputy director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center and an expert on the role local police play in counterterrorism. Sena says the public has to be better educated on suspicious activity.
“That’s the hardest thing. We want people to understand we’re not trying to create a nation of informants,” Sena says. “The most concerning thing from the survey was that such a high percentage of respondents just didn’t trust law enforcement. That worries me more than anything.”
(Alicia Cypress is an editor on NPR’s investigative unit.)