Instilling Vigilance or Promoting Paranoia?

“If you see something, say something.” It’s a trademark slogan of the US Department of Homeland Security that we in North America have heard and seen often. You can find it in railway stations and bus terminals all over the USA, often accompanied by a graphic of a large eye or a phone number for reporting suspicious objects or behaviour.  This slogan has even made it into presidential speeches.


This campaign is meant to instill vigilance. Critics, though, claim that it promotes paranoia and fires up irrational fears. Both may be true.


Either way, does it actually work? It’s up to police to investigate reports that come to them. But are ordinary citizens capable of spotting and reporting suspicious items or people so that police can do their jobs?


Leeds in the United Kingdom has among the most effective and realistic approaches in the world.


In researching my book Safer Cities of the Future, I discovered that many urban emergency plans are inadequate and that discussion of suspicious activity is usually vague and insubstantial.  What are we to look for and whom should we tell?


The “See Something, Say Something” campaign offers little direction.  It refers to “a vehicle parked in an unusual location,” unattended packages, or “other out-of-the-ordinary situations.” But none of these things is well defined. How can American cities count on their citizens to report suspicious things with only this level of vague direction?


This is why I was so intrigued by Leeds City Council’s campaign called “If You Suspect It, Report It.” This campaign involves specific and detailed descriptions of suspicious behaviours and items.


What’s a “suspicious package?”  Leeds is taking no chances.  It isn’t relying on diverse citizens guessing at the definition.  There is a detailed description and even pictures of what a suspicious package looks like.  It’s unusually heavy, tied up with string, oddly shaped or lopsided, hand addressed, with too much postage and perhaps even leaking oil.  There are instructions and a checklist for businesses and mailrooms advising processing all in-coming mail at one place only, training and briefing mailroom staff, and ensuring that workers have protective equipment such as latex gloves and face masks.


And what’s a terrorist look like.  What’s a terrorist’s daily routine?  What are we looking for?  A section of Leeds’ plan is called “Reconnaissance and vigilance at work.” This includes warning about persons with large quantities of mobile phones, people who buy large amounts of chemical products for no obvious reason, or who have multiple pieces of identification.  Does how and where they live raise suspicions, or how they use bank machines?


Business are advised to keep proper audit trails for all aspects of business, to check employees’ references carefully, and to keep computer systems secure – in other words clear and specific proactive, as opposed to reactive, measures.


Very few, if any other urban emergency plans studied are this specific.  Only Louisville, Kentucky advises citizens to be extra careful on special anniversaries—the Roe v Wade Supreme Court abortion decision, the anniversary of the storming of the religious compound in Waco Texas, the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, tax freedom day, and such.  These are uniquely American milestones, but there are similar ones in other cultures.


It’s not a bad idea to take emergency preparedness right into our families and homes.  When teenagers start driving, parents aren’t content to hand over the car keys with the advice “drive carefully.”  Most parents get specific—“don’t speed…keep eyes on the road…both hands on the wheel…pull over if tired” and so on.  Cities emergency plans need to be more like thoughtful parents, rather than conduits for advertising slogans.  Leeds proves this is both possible and the safe route to go.  

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