Call for Public Vigilance Ahead of 9/11 Reaps Rewards in New York

The New York Police Department says that its program to protect the city against a terrorist strike by asking people who “see something” to “say something” is helping to protect the city against a specific, but unconfirmed terrorist threat against NYC and Washington.

Senior police officials said that thanks to the NYPD’s civilian vigilance campaign, the number of reports of suspicious packages and vehicles today was double to triple the daily average.

Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne, police commissioner Raymond W. Kelly’s communications chief and a key adviser, said that as of this afternoon the number of suspicious package reports throughout the city, which normally total about 15 a day, stood at 45 for the past eight hours – about three times the average number of reports.

Reports of suspicious vehicles, he said, which normally total about 100 a day, stood at 200 by mid-afternoon, or double the daily average.

“This shows that the ‘if you see something, say something’ campaign is working,” Browne said. “This is just what we wanted.”

None of the reports have turned out to be connected to terrorist activity, he said. But that was less important that the fact that New Yorkers were helping spot unusual or suspect activity.

Mr. Browne said that the bomb squad was called out to check on a report of unusual activity on the 59th Street Bridge sometime after 8pm on Friday night. A passenger in a vehicle that was traveling slowly across the bridge due to the checkpoints at both the entrance and exit of the bridge spotted what he considered an unusual cluster of gadgets and wires attached to one of the bridge’s girders. After taking a picture of the suspicious cluster on his cell phone, he showed it to a policeman at a checkpoint on the Manhattan side of the bridge, Browne said.

The police officer, in turn, summoned the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit, who then called the bomb squad to check out the suspicious wire-laden girder. The bomb squad quickly determined that there was no explosive material in the gadget and that the device was connected to some restoration work underway on the bridge. “But that’s precisely what we want,” Browne said.

By asking to New Yorkers, in effect, to serve as the police department’s civilian eyes and ears, he said, millions of New Yorkers were potentially bolstering the effort of the city’s roughly 50,000 employees, 34,000 of whom are uniformed officers, to spot suspicious activity.

Since Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly held a 10 p.m. press conference two days ago, the police department has flooded the city with an army of cops aimed at spotting suspicious activity and deterring a terrorist strike on the city. The show of force has elicited a torrent of complaints from citizens about snarled traffic, extra bag and backpack checks at subway and train stations, and checkpoints on major bridges, tunnels and entry points to the city. But Browne insisted that the city had no choice given what federal officials were characterizing as a “credible” threat that three Al Qaeda car bombers were bound for New York, Washington and perhaps as many as five American cities to carry out a terrorist strike during the 9/11 anniversary commemorations.

The city’s reliance on its “if you see something, say something” campaign is seen as highly effective both by city officials and independent counter-terrorism experts who have studied the program. Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security incorporated the New York injunction as part of the Federal counterterrorism effort.

And a soon-to-be published report by the Madison Policy Forum, a group of New York-based security experts, concludes that the campaign is not only enormously cost effective, but a force multiplier for the police.

“The program costs very little but effectively involves the public in its own defense,” Michael Sheehan, a former NYPD deputy commissioner for counter-terrorism and an author of the study, said. “Tip-offs” from a concerned family or community member have proven to be an enormously effective counter-terror tool, he said.