Citizens Asked to Tip Off Feds on Terror Activity

New federal initiatives have put a post-Sept. 11 spin on a famous declaration: Ask not how your country can protect you, ask how you can protect your country. 

That sentiment, expressed by President Bush and a number of top federal officials in recent months, reflects the belief among many that the best source for tips and information about possible terrorist attacks will come not from Washington, but from citizens themselves.

The USA Citizen Corps, established in January as a branch of the Freedom Corps, has already generated "an amazing response" among ordinary Americans, according to spokeswoman Cindy Ramsay. More than 22,000 people have registered to volunteer for Citizen Corps programs, and the Web site has registered more than a million hits.

"One of the reasons the president created Citizen Corps is after Sept. 11 a lot of Americans were asking 'What can I do?' and 'How can I prevent this from ever happening again?'" Ramsay said. "The interest to protect both family and neighborhood is very strong."

Protecting neighborhoods has been the goal of Neighborhood Watch groups for 30 years. But a $1.9 million grant from the Justice Department aims to double the 7,500 branches of that program, and provide the education to help spot possible terrorist threats and not just street crimes.

"Everyday citizens can assist local law enforcement by playing an active role in their communities and neighborhoods," U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said earlier this month, in announcing the grant. "Our children are safer, our homes are more secure and our communities are stronger when Americans participate in community policing."

But incidents of racial and ethnic profiling have some concerned with public policing.

"We don't object to citizens being vigilant," said Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "But we have heard from both our constituents and law enforcement officials that following Sept. 11 there were a lot of complaints and reports based solely on ethnicity or race.

"It is important that citizen involvement with law enforcement programs contains mechanisms to avoid ethnic fingerpointing from becoming more common," he said.

Education is a key element in creating or updating existing programs to be more sensitive to the threat of terrorism, Ramsay said.

For example, the Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) has worked in the Los Angeles area since its creation in 1985 to help officials respond to natural disasters. Those programs will now be supplemented with a 7-week, 18-hour course that includes training in terrorist threats. CERT hopes to double the 200,000 current volunteers in the program over the next two years.

There are a number of other programs designed to increase the public's involvement in anti-terror awareness.

The Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), developed by the Department of Health and Human Services, seeks practicing and retired physicians, nurses and other health professionals willing to volunteer in times of emergency. The program starts in August, but interested parties can sign up now.

The Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) helps supplement local law enforcement agencies with mainly administrative tasks to free up officers for active patrol. A few police departments have already instituted VIPS programs, which will roll out across the country in May.

In Henderson County, N.C., one of those areas where a program is already in place, VIPS volunteers serve subpoenas, run metal detectors at the courthouse, give tours of the Police Academy, and participate in search-and-rescue missions. 

Another program, Operation TIPS, relies on volunteers who observe a routine as part of their every day job, such as mail carriers and delivery truck drivers. Their repetitive tasks put them "in a good position to recognize when things are out of the ordinary and spot suspicious activity," a Justice Department spokesperson said.

Each TIPS volunteer gets an information sticker and a toll-free number to affix in a prominent place. The program is being piloted in 10 cities in August with hopes of expanding nationwide shortly thereafter.

The Justice Department has repeatedly stressed the ability of every citizen to remain vigilant.

"It's going be one person that sees something, reports it and that tip may lead to the apprehension of someone or the prevention of something happening," said one official.

And that's fine with anti-discrimination activists like Ibish — provided these programs maintain the proper safeguards.

"Hopefully people will be careful to take steps — educating and making it very clear to the volunteers what constitutes grounds for suspicion and what doesn't."