Creating Public Support for SARs

By Matthew Harwood

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.



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