Torin Monahan & Priscilla M. Regan, Fusion Centers Information Sharing: Revisiting Reliance on Suspicious Activity Reports
Comment by: Ron Lee
Workshop draft abstract:
Interviews, with fusion center officials, conducted as part of our NSF funded research, reveal that Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) are often mentioned as a way of collecting and sharing information. Law enforcement has been using some form of SARs for decades, collected through a variety of mechanisms including hotlines, 911 calls, neighborhood watches, schools and community centers, etc. The value and reliability of such reporting have often been questioned, especially as their use expands in ways that will likely result in an overload of information of dubious quality requiring a large investment of time to investigate. (Nojeim, 2009; Randol 2009, ACLU 2010) Despite these concerns, SARs have persisted as a tool of community oriented policing and as a practical tool for collecting information and raising public awareness (Steiner 2010). Since its creation, DHS has adopted SARs in its counter-terrorism activities, with the newest SARs version being Secretary Napolitano’s, “If You See Something, Say Something Campaign.”
Our interviews indicate that SARs reporting is labor intensive and generally does not yield useful information. An official at one state level fusion center stated “A lot of our activity on the counter-terrorism side is responding to suspicious activity reports…I would say an overwhelming majority of the reports that we get are, once we do a little bit of checking, we can determine that they, that the person had a reason to be doing what they were doing – and those get closed out and we don’t pursue those any further.” An official at another center estimated that the center received “in the realm of four hundred to five hundred SARs a year…the SARs are not necessarily all terrorism, but some are.”
Notwithstanding the widely recognized limitations of SARs, they do continue to be used. This paper will investigate why they continue to be used in intelligence gathering, how and when they are be used in fusion centers, what the policy landscape for their use currently is, what revisions to that landscape might be necessary, and what intelligence gathering alternatives to SARs exist.