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Improving the Public's Awareness and Reporting of Suspicious Activity

NCJ Number
Date Published
February 2012
24 pages
Since a literature review showed that there has been little research on the motivations and barriers that influence whether or not individuals report suspicious activity to law enforcement agencies, a three-phase research strategy was developed and implemented; this report presents an overview of key research findings together with insights and recommendations for national and local campaigns.
Regarding how survey respondents and focus group participants perceived "suspicious activity," 36 percent described traditional criminal activity, such as someone brandishing a gun or breaking into a car. Only 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. Focus group participants often referred to "their gut instinct," which was triggered when something in their daily environment was out of the ordinary. Telephone survey respondents were asked what specific factors would affect their decision to report a situation or activity to police. The respondents tended to rely on judgments about possible future outcomes from circumstances or observations and whether the police might be interested in what they would report. Focus group participants identified several barriers that may prevent them from reporting suspicious activity. The most frequently cited reason was fear of retaliation. When any observation was not clearly criminal activity, some participants reported not knowing what qualified as "important enough" to report. They were concerned about being wrong or appearing "foolish." The importance of educating the public about suspicious-activity reporting was emphasized throughout the research. In order to provide such public education, study participants mentioned public service announcements; presentations at school, work, or community meetings; billboards and posters; and community Web sites. Based on study findings, recommendations are offered. Survey and focus group methodologies are described.