The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses the slogan, “If You See Something, Say Something.” However, an increasing number of Americans are unwilling to speak to the police.
The United States is losing an information battle wherever law enforcement do not have a good rapport with the community they serve. In these jurisdictions, people are reluctant to get involved with the police, which creates a disconnect between those with potential information and those who can do something about it. The slogan, "If You See Something, Say Something" has meaning only if those who seesomething are willing to say something.
It is undisputed that police-community relations are necessary for effective law enforcement. A lack of community cooperation interferes with law enforcement’s ability to prevent, solve, and prosecute crimes. It also compromises law enforcement’s integral role in homeland security efforts. Police are fundamental to homeland security, not just because they serve as first responders, but also for their ability to collect local intelligence from the public. In addition, law enforcement are directly wired-in to fusion centers—the primary conduit between frontline personnel, state and local leadership, and the rest of the homeland security enterprise—and the Joint Terrorism Task Forces led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The United States has a population of approximately 323 million people, which includes 765,000 sworn state and local law enforcement officers. DHS’s “If you See Something, Say Something” campaign rests on the understanding that communities play a critical role in keeping our nation safe. A tremendous intelligence opportunity is overlooked when tense police-community relations prevent the average citizen from reporting information relevant to homeland security. We must build intelligence gathering from the bottom up in order to improve police-community relations to the point where citizens want to talk to the police.
The police must be honest, open, trusted, and approachable. They must also understand the complexity of individual communities within their jurisdictions and be able to relate to them. We must encourage civilians to trust and rely on the police and encourage them to want to participate. One way to increase police-community rapport is for the police to interact with and to become more “human” to the public. This can be accomplished through small gestures, such as banter and smiling with all members of the community.
The community includes everyone: hippies, drunks, drug users, prostitutes, runaways, street criminals, the homeless, and the disenfranchised. We must not miss people who live on the outskirts of society, since they too live in the community, and can see and hear things which many others in the community do not. Engaging with the disenfranchised can play a crucial role in encouraging the public to be more involved in homeland security.
For example, an officer could cite or arrest someone for drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana in public, or even jaywalking. Alternatively, the officer, absent any other problematic behavior, could ignore it. It is arguably more important that this person feel comfortable talking to the police about a serious offense than worry that they will be arrested or ticketed over the smell of marijuana or an open container of alcohol in a paper bag. The key is to focus on the bigger picture and on what is important.
Increasing trust and rapport with police will help law enforcement, and will open up a vast source of potential homeland security information. Bottom up information gathering through the American public will greatly expand the information collectors from just the 765,000 law enforcement officers to include the other 322 million citizens across the United States.
Martin Alperen, a former police officer, is an attorney practicing in San Francisco. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security, and author of Foundations of Homeland Security, Law and Policy (2nd Edition expected 2016).