Indy to enlist citizens in terrorist watch program

Indianapolis Star | October 4, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS A store clerk's curiosity about why Najibullah Zazi was buying large quantities of beauty supply products is an example of the kind of vigilance that can combat terrorism, a police commander said Saturday.

Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Joan McNamara cited this summer's incident as police chiefs meeting in Denver adopted a model for a nationwide community watch program that teaches people what behavior is truly suspicious and encourages them to report it to police.

Michael Spears, chief of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, attended the meeting and discussed implementing the program in Indianapolis, where it would be called "Indy Watch," said department spokesman Lt. Jeffrey Duhamell. It's not clear when the program will begin because much of the planning is in the beginning stages, Duhamell added.

Federal authorities allege Zazi, 24, tried to make an explosive using ingredients from beauty supplies purchased at Denver-area stores. He has been jailed in New York on charges of conspiracy to detonate a weapon of mass destruction in a plot that may have targeted New York City. Zazi has denied the charges.

Zazi reportedly told an inquisitive clerk he needed a large amount of cosmetic chemicals because he had lots of girlfriends. Although his purchases weren't reported to authorities because suppliers often buy large quantities, the police chiefs hope a coordinated publicity effort will make people think differently about such encounters.

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, who developed the iWatch program with McNamara, called it the 21st century version of Neighborhood Watch.

iWatch would have provided an easy way for that Colorado store clerk and others to report suspicious activity so police could have launched investigations earlier, McNamara said.

"That clerk had a gut instinct that something wasn't right," she said.

Using brochures, public service announcements and meetings with community groups, iWatch is designed to deliver concrete advice on how the public can follow the oft-repeated post-Sept. 11 recommendation, "If you see something, say something."

Program materials list nine types of suspicious behavior that should compel people to call police -- and 12 kinds of places to look for it.

The program also is designed to ease reporting by providing a toll-free number and Web page the public can use to alert authorities.

"It's really just commonsense types of things," Bratton said, adding that his department is providing technical assistance to other agencies that want to adopt the program.

But American Civil Liberties Union policy counsel Mike German, a former FBI agent who worked on terrorism cases, said the indicators are all relatively common behaviors. He suspects people will fall back on personal biases and stereotypes of what a terrorist looks like when deciding to report someone to the police.

"That just plays into the negative elements of society and doesn't really help the situation."

An Indiana Civil Liberties Union official agreed.

Ken Falk, legal director of the ACLU of Indiana, said he was concerned about whether participants in the program would be adequately trained.

He said he feared a focus on preconceived notions of what a terrorist suspect is supposed to look like and "not on what an intelligence person who is highly trained would view as a terrorist suspect."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration proposed enlisting postal carriers, gas and electric company workers, telephone repair people and other workers with access to private homes in a program to report suspicious behavior to the FBI. Privacy advocates condemned this as too intrusive, and the plan was dropped.

Bratton and McNamara said privacy and civil liberties protections are built into this program.

"We're not asking people to spy on their neighbors," McNamara said.

If someone reports something based on race or ethnicity, the police will not accept the report, and someone will explain to the caller why that is not an indicator of suspicious behavior, McNamara said.

The iWatch program isn't the first to list possible indicators of suspicious behavior. Some cities, such as Miami, have offered a public list of seven signs of possible terrorism. Federal agencies also have put out various lists.

Other efforts encourage the public and law enforcement to report such signs through dozens of state-run centers across the country. One such center, the Colorado Information Analysis Center, has a form on its Web site to report suspicious activity.

Bratton hopes the iWatch program becomes as successful and as well known as the Smokey Bear campaign to prevent wildfires.

"There he is with his Smokey the Bear hat. Similarly here, we hope that this program, even though it's in its birthing stages right now, in a few years will become that well known to the American public."