How Well "See Something, Say Something" Actually Works
I’ve written about the “War on the Unexpected,” and how normal people can’t figure out what’s an actual threat and what isn’t:
All they know is that something makes them uneasy, usually based on fear, media hype, or just something being different.
If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.
Yesterday The New York Times wrote about New York City’s campaign:
Now, an overview of police data relating to calls to the hot line over the past two years reveals the answer and provides a unique snapshot of post-9/11 New York, part paranoia and part well-founded caution. Indeed, no terrorists were arrested, but a wide spectrum of other activity was reported.
In all, the hot line received 8,999 calls in 2006, including calls that were transferred from 911 and the 311 help line, Mr. Browne said. They included a significant number of calls about suspicious packages, many in the transit system. Most involved backpacks, briefcases or other items accidentally left behind by their owners. None of them, Mr. Browne said, were bombs.
There were, however, 816 calls to the hot line in 2006 that were deemed serious enough to require investigation by the department’s intelligence division or its joint terrorism task force with the F.B.I. Mr. Browne said that 109 of those calls had a connection to the transit system and included reports of suspicious people in tunnels and yards, and of people taking pictures of the tracks.
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.
Then there were the 11 calls about people counting.
Mr. Browne said several callers reported seeing men clicking hand-held counting devices while riding on subway trains or waiting on platforms.
The callers said that the men appeared to be Muslims and that they seemed to be counting the number of people boarding subway trains or the number of trains passing through a station. They feared the men might be collecting data to maximize the casualties in a terror attack.
But when the police looked into the claims, they determined that the men were counting prayers with the devices, essentially a modern version of rosary beads.
None of those calls led to arrests, but several others did. At least three calls resulted in arrests for trying to sell false identification, including driver’s licenses and Social Security cards. One informer told the police about a Staten Island man who was later found to have a cache of firearms. A Queens man was charged with having an illegal gun and with unlawful dealing in fireworks.
A Brooklyn man was charged with making anti-Semitic threats against his landlord and threatening to use sarin gas on him. At least two men arrested on tips from the hot line were turned over to immigration officials for deportation, Mr. Browne said.
And as long as we’re on the topic, read about the couple branded as terrorists in the UK for taking photographs in a mall. And this about a rail fan being branded a terrorist for trying to film a train. (Note that the member of the train’s crew was trying to incite the other passengers to do something about the filmer.) And about this Icelandic woman’s experience with U.S. customs because she overstayed a visa in 1995.
And lastly, this funny piece of (I trust) fiction.
Remember that every one of these incidents requires police resources to investigate, resources that almost certainly could be better spent keeping us actually safe.
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