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«Improving the Public’s Awareness and Reporting of Suspicious Activity Key Research Findings from Literature Review, Household Surveys, Focus Groups ...»

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Improving the Public’s

Awareness and Reporting of

Suspicious Activity

Key Research Findings from Literature Review,

Household Surveys, Focus Groups and Interviews

FEMA P-903 / /January 2012

FEMA P-903 February 2012

This project was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number 2010-RC-60-KOO2 administered

by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National

Preparedness Directorate.

Points of view or opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the United States Government.


In January 2011, three cleanup workers notified law enforcement of a suspicious backpack they found on a bench along the route of a parade honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Spokane, Washington. The backpack contained a live radio-controlled pipe bomb. Thanks to the timely report, law enforcement officers and bomb specialists were able to reroute the parade and neutralize the bomb before anyone was injured. This is just one of many examples that demonstrate the importance of the public’s awareness and willingness to report suspicious activity.

Members of the public have long served as the “eyes and ears” of the communities in which they reside and work. Community members have a vested interest in keeping their neighborhoods safe and are critical to support law enforcement’s duty to prevent and investigate crime and terrorism. Many law enforcement agencies are already implementing local programs to enhance their community’s awareness of reporting suspicious activity, yet there is little guidance or research regarding best practices to improve citizen reporting. Improving the Public’s Awareness and Reporting of Suspicious Activity: Key Research Findings presents research-based findings that can inform local officials in developing education and awareness campaigns.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Individual and Community Preparedness Division partnered with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) on a project to research and develop a strategy to improve the public’s awareness and reporting of suspicious activity. In early 2010, IACP conducted research of contemporary and historical practices intended to improve the public’s reporting of suspicious activity. The literature review showed that little research existed on the motivations and barriers that affect whether or not individuals report 1



information to law enforcement. To close this gap in data, IACP developed a three phase primary research strategy. This report provides an overview of key research findings and provides insights and recommendations that support national and local campaigns.

This research effort complements other national efforts like the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative (NSI) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something™” public awareness campaign. The “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign was originally used by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which has licensed the use of the slogan to DHS for anti-terrorism and anti-crime efforts.

As part of the campaign, DHS has partnered with multiple private sector partners, sporting teams, transportation agencies, states, cities, colleges and universities. Great strides have been made within the last few years to improve information sharing amongst law enforcement agencies and fusion centers via initiatives like the NSI; yet, more can be done to improve the quantity and quality of information that law enforcement receives from the public.

Residents know their communities best and are often the first to notice when something out of the ordinary occurs. With the onset of decreased resources and increased responsibilities, law enforcement is more reliant than ever on community members to provide accurate, reliable, and timely information regarding suspicious activities that may be indicators of terrorism.





Preventing terrorism is a responsibility of every American, and requires an alert and informed citizenry that is ready to report suspicious activity that may be indicative of a terrorist act or terrorism planning. With this core understanding, IACP began reviewing contemporary and historical research, literature, trends, and practices related to community-based terrorism prevention efforts in the spring of 2010. The goal of this effort was to identify successful strategies for implementing and maintaining state, territorial, tribal, and local initiatives that improve the public’s awareness and reporting of suspicious activity related to terrorism. Initial findings suggested that more information was needed to understand the psychological and social inhibitors and motivators of the public’s awareness of and willingness to report suspicious activity. To narrow this gap in data, the project team conducted and analyzed research in the summer of 2010.

Under contract with IACP, ICF Macro joined the project team and supported the design, data collection, and reporting of the research. The first phase involved a series of six focus groups conducted by telephone conference call with members of the public. This phase allowed the project team to obtain qualitative data in order to identify the predominant reasons people gave for reporting or not reporting suspicious activity. The second phase entailed a quantitative telephone survey of more than 800 randomly selected individuals. The final stage of the research involved gathering qualitative feedback from law enforcement and community experts via telephone conference calls.

Phase One: Focus Groups with the Public For this phase of research, focus groups were conducted among the general population. Each group consisted of six to eight participants. Focus group sessions lasted 60 to 75 minutes and were conducted via conference call.




To enroll individuals to participate in the phone-based focus groups, ICF Macro contracted with a recruiting firm. The firm conducted individual screening interviews with potential participants to determine their eligibility for participation. To qualify for the focus groups, potential participants had to meet the following criteria: Be at least 18 years of age, had not participated in a focus group in the past 6 months, and the participant or anyone in the participant’s household did not work in the advertising/market research or emergency response/preparedness fields. A screening instrument was used to recruit participants from diverse demographics backgrounds. Screening tool demographic results for the focus groups are summarized in Table 1.

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* Area type was self-reported by participants. No specific range was used.

Analysis of Focus Group Data Researchers conducted a notes-based analysis of the focus group data. Reflecting on the purpose of the study and the segmentation plan for the focus groups, the strategy for reviewing, examining,

and categorizing data was to identify:

• General themes across all of the focus groups;

• Similarities and differences between participants from different demographic settings (e.g., urban versus rural); and • Gaps in individual’s understanding/awareness of suspicious activity.

–  –  –

* Area type was self-reported by participants. No specific range was used.

Phase Two: Telephone Survey Quantitative interviewing of the general public—in this case, a telephone survey—enabled the project team to collect the answers from individuals via random digit dialing. Using the qualitative data from the focus groups, the project team tailored “closed” response options, which resulted in faster interviews, better sample respondent selection, and more focused, consistent data organization. During the telephone survey data collection period, interviewers made contact until the desired sample size was reached and used a computer-assisted telephone interview. In order to be eligible to participate in the survey, respondents had to be 18 years old or older and the telephone number had to be linked to a private residence. This report summarizes responses from 813 individuals.

Respondent Demographics The survey administrators requested demographic information from respondents. Those demographic results are summarized in Table 2. The sample was slightly skewed by age and location

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Analysis of Data Descriptive statistics, including frequencies, were calculated based on the quantitative data. For this report, the research team is only reporting on the “top box,” or highest scoring responses.

For a 4-point scale question, the “top box” response would be the highest response possible. ICF Macro developed and employed a code sheet to use when analyzing open-ended responses to the questions “Name one example that comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘suspicious activity’” and “What would make the reporting of suspicious activity easier for you and your neighbors?” Phase Three: Subject Matter Expert (SME) Panels For this research, the project team hosted two conference calls: one with experts from community organizations and another with law enforcement experts. Telephone calls lasted approximately 90 minutes.

Recruitment and Screening To enroll individuals to participate in the SME conference calls, IACP mailed letters, sent emails, and made follow-up calls to pre-selected groups of community stakeholders and law enforcement executives. SMEs were selected to represent a variety of state, territorial, tribal, and local agencies and community organizations serving a broad base of U.S. residents.

Analysis of Meeting Information The ICF Macro team conducted a notes-based analysis of the focus group data identifying general themes, similarities and differences between participants from different stakeholder groups, and gaps in awareness of suspicious activity and related initiatives.

1 As with any research methodology, the use of telephone surveys for gathering data has limitations that were carefully considered when design­ ing and implementing this study. In this study, only people with land line telephones were surveyed, and research shows that many households are moving towards using cell phones instead of land lines. Steps were taken to weigh the data to minimize the impact of this limitation.





Understanding of Suspicious Activity In order to better tailor messaging and programs on suspicious activity reporting, better understanding was needed on how the general population defined suspicious activity. Overall, participants tended to define suspicious activity as something out of the ordinary or out of place considering the location. In many cases, people gave their everyday environment as a normal setting where any deviation would set off an internal trigger—e.g., unknown people or cars loitering in their neighborhood or near their workplaces, particularly late at night. More than one in three survey respondents (36 percent) described traditional criminal activity, such as someone brandishing a gun or breaking into a car. Only a small portion (5 percent) described activities that may be indicative of terrorism. Urban and suburban respondents were more likely than rural respondents to mention an activity that may lead to a terrorist act.

Motivators to Report Focus group participants often referred to “their gut instinct” that was triggered when something in their everyday environment is out of the ordinary. Many participants indicated that it was conditional, based on the time and place. For example, one participant noted that if he saw a backpack left in a park where children play, he would not consider it suspicious because many children have backpacks.

However, if a backpack was left in a more crowded area where fewer children were expected, this would trigger that “gut instinct” that something was not right. As one focus group participant said, “In your gut you think about what the consequence would be if I didn’t [report suspicious activity].

If I was really fearful I might be more apt to report. I wouldn’t care if I felt foolish.” 7



Telephone survey respondents were asked what specific factors affect his or her decision to report suspicious activity (See Table 3). People tended to place the greatest reliance on possible future outcomes rather than what they were thinking or feeling at the time. According to respondents, the potential for harm (77 percent) and the belief that the information could be useful to police (74 percent) have the greatest influence on whether they will report suspicious activity. Personal observations (65 percent), others nearby agree (63 percent), and the respondent’s instincts (58 percent) were also rated highly by the majority of respondents when determining whether or not to report suspicious activity. More than half of respondents reported that they would be very likely to rely on a combination of all of these factors.


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