On March 21, 2007 Ms. Lindsey Young was in the backyard of her Riverside, California home overlooking a large open area of uninhabited land when she noticed a van parked below her home at the end of a desolate dirt road. A white male adult was walking outside the van, seemingly innocent yet something attracted her attention to his man and his van. She took more notice when the man opened the back door and looked inside as if he was talking to someone. For whatever reason, Ms. Young found this odd and called the police. A patrol Deputy arrived on scene however the man and the van had already left.
Shortly after the Deputy left, the van came back and again Ms. Young took notice. While she could not exactly describe what was suspicious about him or the situation, in her opinion, it was and she again called 911. This time the man and his van were still there when the Deputy arrived. As Ms. Young described it, "I saw the Deputy motion to the man to open the back door of the van and as soon as he did, the Deputy jumped back, drew his weapon and pointed it at the man and then handcuffed him." Inside the van the Deputy found a middle aged woman, bound and gagged laying inside a specially built box designed to keep an adult sized human captive. This past week, more than two years since the day he was captured, the kidnapper was finally put on trial and convicted of multiple felony charges including kidnapping and will soon be sentenced with the DA's office asking for life without the possibility of parole. So what does the above story have to do with this article? Everything.
On October 3, 2009, at the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference in Denver, Colorado, Chief of Police, William Bratton, head of the Los Angeles Police Department, unveiled the department's new iWATCH anti-terrorism public awareness campaign. The program was developed to educate the citizens of Los Angeles regarding what is considered suspicious behavior as it relates to possible terrorist acts in the planning and/or pre-implementation stages while asking them to call and report the same.
While the idea of a public education campaign is not new, one thing that sets iWATCH apart is its tie in to the LAPD's recently implemented internal Suspicious Activity Reporting System, aka, SARS program. In its simplest form, SARS was designed to help bridge the gap between standard crime reporting to now being able to track and potentially correlate what in the past may have appeared be regular, everyday crimes to possible acts of terrorist planning in the works.
Take for example a report of trespassing on private property; in this case the property could be an oil and gas refinery. In the past, a patrol unit would arrive on scene, search the area for the trespasser and if no subject was found, the unit may simply report it as "Suspect GOA" (Gone on Arrival) and go on to the next call. However since the implementation and training of officers on the SARS program, the officers may now also tag this as a SARS report because the trespassing occurred at a major oil refinery - a possible terrorist target. A copy of the report would now be forwarded to the appropriate unit within the agency whose mission is anti and counter terrorism activities to review and take appropriate action as needed.
Following the flow of this report, if an area law enforcement agency later receives information from a credible source suggesting a possible terrorist attack may be in the works at a large chemical or gas producing facility in or about their area, the local agency, now using SARS can go back and look for any trends that may help substantiate the report. Reports could include suspicious activities taking place on or about these facilities reported by not only their own officers via SARS but also members of the community via the new iWATCH program. Perhaps in addition to the trespassing report, which could have been a dry run to see how long it takes police to respond, an area neighbor also reported a suspicious van parked near by occupied by two men who come and go all day but never get out of the van - possibly surveying the site to determine the best covert entry point bomb placement. Using this information from multiple sources, local law enforcement agencies can now take appropriate actions to help protect this potential target with more certainly than in the past.
While not unexpected, upon hearing of the new iWATCH program, the ACLU and other self proclaimed law enforcement watch dog groups immediately called for a suspension and review of the program. Their concerns were proper safeguards are not in place to ensure that people would not be negatively affected by potentially overzealous members of law enforcement acting upon anonymous tips from the public regarding possible terrorist activities.
Having personally been involved in the development of one of these public outreach programs, I can tell you with 100% certainty that a major concern of law enforcement is that citizens may not watch for suspicious actions of individuals that programs like iWATCH teach, but rather let their predisposed notions of what a terrorist should look like guide them. Profiling people versus actions could play right into the hands of terrorist as they work to recruit average looking American citizens to carry out their plots hoping they will not attract suspicion. Keeping that in mind, one can see how these agency programs are actually working to achieve the goal of not profiling people for which watch dog groups are accusing them of potentially doing.
While the LAPD's iWATCH program is new, others are not. New York States MTA has had in place its "See Something, Say Something" campaign since 2003 which also encourages the public to do exactly as the slogan says: "If you see something suspicious, tell someone in a position of authority so they can investigate it" and provides a list and general photos of suspicious activities and things to be aware of. Denver, Colorado recently released a PSA featuring former Bronco's quarterback, John Elway, which also hopes to help educate the public about what is considered suspicious activity and what to do. For example, suicide bombers, as the name implies, wear a bomb strapped to their bodies and to be successful they must hide the bomb to get to their target location. In order to do that, they would typically wear a large, bulky jacket or outer clothing to cover the bomb. If it's 95 degrees with 90% humidity in the middle of summer in New York and someone is walking around the subway station dressed like this, probably sweating, with a determined or angered look on their face, no one should feel guilty or silly for alerting the police to suspicious behavior.
Sadly some watch dog groups have implied that that anyone who exhibits this behavior and is approached by the police, only to be found okay, is being harassed with their civil rights potentially violated. I and many others would argue that our right to stay alive and not be blown apart by a bomb would be violated if the police are prevented from doing their job, based on reasonable and probable cause, to make contact with individuals who most would agree display suspicious behavior in today's society.
I think it would be helpful for some of these law enforcement watch dog groups to take a seat at a major city's dispatch center some day and listen in to how many crazy calls are received where a patrol car is not dispatched because the trained, professional dispatchers know what deserves a response and what does not. The same goes for the dedicated anti-terrorism professionals who review the various incoming tips about potential terrorist threats. They know the questions to ask and how to separate the substantial tips from generic fear of certain individuals for whom the caller may have a bias towards. Not giving our local, state and federal authorities the chance to prove these programs will work is like saying you're guilty of prejudice before any proof is offered. It's kind of like saying you're guilty until proven innocent; a little backwards and in violation of our basic civil rights if you ask me.
It's time for the ACLU and others to give law enforcement the credit we deserve.
Clearly groups such as the ACLU are passionate about their work and believe in their mission and goal of helping to protect all American's civil rights. No one can argue that they have done some good work in the past and I'm sure they love our country just as much as we all do. However, 9/11 has changed the way we live and there is no going back. No one would argue that we must continue to respect and enforce the rights of everyone and not throw away certain rights because of 9/11 however at some point logic must prevail.
It's been said more than once that when it comes to protecting our nations cities, we have to get it right every time; the terrorist only have to get it right once. When looking back at the criminal case described above involving the kidnapped woman in the back of the van, what if Ms. Young didn't take the time to follow up on her suspicions and didn't call the police? What if the van used to the kidnap the woman was instead filled with explosives and the kidnapper was instead a terrorist, parked there to give the van to a suicide bomber that was going to drive the into a large occupied building? What if...?
I had the pleasure and honor of presenting Ms. Young with the NACOP Citizen Action award for her efforts which resulted in at least one life saved, if not more. I've equally had the pleasure of presenting this award to Ms. Linda Olsen and Ms. Amber Deahn, the Denny's employees from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, who noticed a suspicious man with a young girl at their restaurant and called the police. Their tip led to the safe return of eight year-old Shasta Groene who along with her nine year old brother Dylan had gone missing from her home six weeks earlier in Coeur d'Alene when the man she was now with, killed her family and later killed her brother Dylan in front of her; to Mr. Conrad Malson who offered his remaining pizza to a man standing next to him at a restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada and felt there was something odd about his behavior. Further study of his face lead him to believe this was the face of the "Ohio Highway Sniper", whom he had seen on TV, wanted for murder in a state thousands of miles away. After following the man back to his hotel room and contacting police several times to report his suspicion, he was proven right when they arrested the man who was convicted of the crimes; to Ms. Anita Dickerson and Ms. Nancy Montoya of Utah who unknown to each other, exited a local printing shop when each one noticed a man with a young girl acting odd and dressed peculiar. After some thought, they both dialed 911 within one minute of each other to report they believe the man they just saw was the same man in a wanted poster sketch from six months ago responsible for the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, not realizing the little girl with him was in fact Elizabeth Smart because she was covered up. Within several hours of acting on their suspicions, Elizabeth was back in the loving arms of her family because these women were not afraid to act and made the critical phone calls that made all the difference in the world.
I know from talking to all these above average citizens that they really didn't know what was wrong initially, but they felt something was and they acted on their intuition to call police. Our human senses don't tell us, this is a terrorist related suspicion versus a criminal activity suspicion. All we know is based on our life experiences, coupled with our intuition and now with good information from programs like iWATCH, "See Something, Say Something", and others, that if something doesn't seem right, we need to let someone in law enforcement know about it and let them determine what, if anything, needs to be done.
Regardless of the name of the campaign, asking the citizens of Los Angeles, New York or wherever to be on the watch for suspicious activities, based on the solid information provided to them by these programs is not asking citizens to violate others rights; it's simply another tool for law enforcement to help keep us all safe. In the end, I think most would agree that asking others to keep a watchful eye out for suspicious behaviors and actions is the best way to protect our civil rights because without this protection, we may lose our life and rights to those who wish to bring down our great nation!