THE MAGAZINE

Suspicious Activity Reporting

By Joan T. McNamara

This piece is Part III of Security Management's 9-11 Anniversary Special Focus. In this issue we examined the evolving terrorist threat and the progress made in understanding and countering it (Part I). In Part II, ASIS leadership recount how they dealt with events on that day; and in Part IV, we review the prospects for the newest attempt at a trusted traveler program.

The inspiration for suspicious activity reporting occurred in May 2007. I had just settled into my new office in downtown Los Angeles, recently promoted to commander in the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Counter Terrorism Bureau, when I saw then Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff on the television describing the nation’s 750,000 police officers as “a cloak of security across America.”

“No they are not!” I shouted at the TV, knowing full well that my fellow officers did not have the knowledge or training to detect and disrupt terrorist attacks with any uniformity. The enormity of my new job hit me. I had been given the responsibility of protecting this sprawling community, encompassing 460 square miles, from an act of terrorism. Secretary Chertoff’s description of police officers was inaccurate at the time, but he clearly understood the potential. I thought there should be a way to harness that potential so that local law enforcement could play a significant homeland security role.
I began asking myself basic questions, bringing me back to the 9/11 Commission Report: How does information sharing between agencies really work? How do police officers share vital clues with each other as well as with federal law enforcement and vice versa?

My epiphany was that there was no means by which federal, state, and local law enforcement and community members could share information that might help uncover a terrorist plot, such as aspiring pilots who were not interested in knowing how to land an airplane. It was obvious police needed a standardized approach to sharing such information.

To fill that hole, I helped create the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program at the LAPD. Less than four years later, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) at the Department of Justice, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal partners, has taken the program national. This is the story of how the SAR program came to be, where it is today, and its revolutionary potential for detecting and disrupting terrorist conspiracies.

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