Programs Strengthen Suspicious Activity Reporting to Combat Terrorism

The Los Angeles Police Department’s iWatch program taps the community to help fight terrorism, while a national program standardizes suspicious activity reporting.

by Corey McKenna / April 5, 2010
U.S. Navy photo illustration by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class R. Jason Brunson

The curiosity of a clerk at a Denver beauty supply store as to why Najibullah Zazi bought large amounts of products containing hydrogen peroxide, one of the ingredients of the explosive triacetone triperoxide, helped authorities track him down and prevent an attack on the New York City subway.

That’s an example of the kind of suspicious activity Los Angeles’ iWatch program encourages residents to report to police, said Mary Grady, public information director for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). “That’s not something that’s related to a crime — that’s not like somebody peeking in a neighbor’s window,” she said. “But it’s something that clearly raises suspicion.”

The iWatch program was launched in October 2009 as a Neighborhood Watch-style program to educate residents about suspicious behaviors they should report to police that could be connected to terrorism. “If they see something, they smell something, they hear something that they feel just not quite right, iWatch gives them a place to report it, and then the experts will decide,” Grady said.

Residents can file suspicious activity reports by calling the local police department nonemergency number or going to and clicking on the iWatch logo. The form asks for contact information in case an investigator has questions about the report. Pertinent information includes the time of day, where the incident took place, what happened, a physical description of the people involved, a description of any vehicles involved including the license plate number, and whether this activity had occurred in the area before.

The department’s Major Crimes Division investigates the reports, and those suspected of having a connection to terrorism are forwarded to the Joint Regional Intelligence Center.

Part of the program is educating staff of establishments like hobby shops, home improvement stores and storage facilities behaviors that constitute suspicious activity. One report came from a home improvement store where employees were suspicious after finding a box containing a kitchen appliance that had a detailed drawing of a commercial airliner cockpit on the inside of it.

“What you will find in many of these cases,” Grady said, “[is] it’s not just one tip. It’s not just one lead. It’s many that are like pieces of a puzzle that once you begin to put it all together you get a very clear picture.”

The iWatch program has generated several dozen reports from the public so far, Grady said. In April, the department is looking to expand the program by translating literature and public service announcements into Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and Mandarin. 

In addition to educating the public, in March 2008, LAPD officers started reporting suspicious activity as part of crime and arrest reports. Prior to that, Grady said, officers may or may not have reported suspicious activity because they didn’t know what was suspicious or they lacked a single place to report it.

National Standards

To facilitate information sharing between jurisdictions across the nation, the federal government launched an initiative to develop a set of common standards that would define suspicious activity and the information the reports would contain. The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI) is based on the National Information Exchange Model. The four general data elements defined in the standard are people, vehicles, location (including proximity to critical infrastructure) and behaviors.

“This whole program is predicated on and based on behaviors,” said Tom O’Reilly, director of the NSI Program Management Office and a senior policy adviser at the Bureau of Justice Assistance. “It is not based on race, color or ethnicity.”

These behaviors were identified after examining more than 400 terror incidents around the world and then verified in field tests with the LAPD in 2008. Initially the LAPD identified about 100 behaviors it considered suspicious, which were whittled down to 24 in collaboration with the Bureau of Justice Assistance with feedback from religious and ethnic advocacy groups.

Initially pilot sites included fusion centers in Florida, Virginia and New York. “After we started to get engaged with them, there was an interest expressed by the Major Cities Chiefs Association that indicated that in many cases the populations that were residing in some of the urban areas might be people who are aware of anomalies or aware of activities occurring in their community that in fact might be precursors to terrorist events,” O’Reilly said.

Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami-Dade, Fla., Houston, Las Vegas, Seattle, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., were added to the pilot to comprise the 12 sites of the Information Sharing Environment-Evaluation Environment. Since then the pilot has been concluded and the program has been expanded to 10 additional sites. The goal is to roll the program out to all 72 fusion centers by September 2012. 
[Photo courtesy of Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class R. Jason Brunson/U.S. Navy.]

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