Los Angeles' iWatch Antiterrorism Program

Los Angeles police Chief William Bratton developed the iWatch program to provide a way for vigilant citizens to help fight terror. He calls the program the 21st century version of Neighborhood Watch. The program lists nine types of suspicious behavior to look out for.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

A new program hopes to be the anti-terrorism version of the community watch: iWatch gives people instructions on what to consider suspicious in their neighborhoods, and it makes it easier to report that behavior to authorities. If you see something, say something. Civil liberties groups question the program's usefulness and worry about profiling. In just a moment, we'll speak with William Bratton, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, who pioneered this program. And we want to hear from you.

What would get you to report someone or something? What's your bar for suspicion? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. We're expecting Chief Bratton on the phone in just a couple of minutes. I'll read you a little bit more about the iWatch program.

A store clerk's curiosity about why Najibullah Zazi was buying large quantities of beauty supply products indicated that something about the transaction wasn't quite right. And it's an example of the kind of citizen vigilance that can combat terror, a police commander said Saturday. A Los Angeles Police chief, Joan McNamara, cited this summer's incident as police chiefs, meeting in Denver, adopted a model for a nationwide community-watch program that teaches people what behavior is truly suspicious and encourages them to report it to the police. This, by the way, a story from the Associated Press.

Federal authorities alleged that Zazi, 24, tried to make a homemade explosive using ingredients from beauty supplies purchased at Denver area stores. He's jailed in New York on charges of conspiracy to detonate weapons of mass destruction in a plot that may have targeted New York City. Zazi denies the charges.

Zazi reportedly told an inquisitive clerk he needed large amount of the cosmetic chemicals because he had lots of girlfriends. While his purchases weren't reported to authorities, because suppliers often buy large quantities, police chiefs hope a coordinated publicity effort will make people think differently about such encounters.

And joining us now on the phone from Los Angeles is William Bratton who is the chief of police of Los Angeles Police Department. Nice to have you with us, Chief Bratton.

Mr. WILLIAM BRATTON (Chief of Police, Los Angeles Police Department): It's great to be with you. Thank you.

CONAN: And a lot of this seems to make common sense, given the Zazi plot. If somebody's buying large quantities of acetone, you might want to ask a couple questions.

Mr. BRATTON: Hydrogen peroxide in a garden supply store, phenomenal amounts of ammonium peroxide, any of the things that, in fact, might be indicators that there is - their use is going to be for something that is for other than it's usually prescribed for: Timothy McVeigh, for example, when he was gathering hundreds of pounds of the material eventually used to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City. In London, one of the janitors around one of the terrorist bombing plots, had found in a little Dempsey Dumpster in back of an apartment building a large number of empty bottles of the material that was eventually used to make those bombs and - which you would not normally find in a residential neighborhood.

It's all these little things that we're trying to educate - or I will attempt over time to educate the American public to just be aware of. Not be afraid, but be aware.

CONAN: And to report them if you can. How would that change under this iWatch program?

Mr. BRATTON: Well, the idea is not new to Americans who have had neighborhood watch programs going back to the '70s and '80s in response to the growing crime problems that were plaguing our country. And in the '80s in particular, we came to understand as police that there were never going to be enough of us, even with the explosion of private security officers. And we're going to have to work with the public to help us to be aware of people in their neighborhood that were behaving suspiciously.

And so, neighborhood watches were formed and community groups work with the police to be our eyes and ears, if you will. We're not looking for the public to take action against a suspected activity. There's a suspicious package, for example, in a workplace or environment where -that something of that nature should not be. Call us. Let us check it out. It's the idea that I watch, you watch, we watch together, but educating the public that if you have a suspicion or a concern, do what you've always done in the past, call the police and let us check it out.

CONAN: Among the indicators listed in the program are if you smell chemicals or other fumes, if you see someone wearing clothes that are too big and too heavy for the season, if you see strangers asking about building security, if you see someone purchasing supplies or equipment that could be used to make bombs. On the other hand, there could be perfectly innocent explanations for all of the above.

Mr. BRATTON: That's correct. And that's the idea of the member of the public not making the inquiry or the approach but rather, you know, contacting law enforcement. And we're not looking to basically create a nation of big brothers that - watching everything that's going on. It's just really the idea of awareness and attempting to educate the public that if you do see something, report it so we can check it out, and better to be safe than sorry, that old expression. And, once again, it is the idea that we're going to do all this legally, constitutionally, very mindful of the American expectation of rights to privacy. But in many respects, it's very similar to what we've always done in this country: watch out for each other.

CONAN: Here's a criticism - and I'm sure you've heard this too - American Civil Liberties Union policy counsel Mike German, a former FBI agent who worked on terrorism cases, said the indicators are all relatively common behaviors. He suspects people will fall back on personal biases and preconceived stereotypes of what a terrorist looks like when they make the decision to report someone to the police. This just plays into the negative elements of society and doesn't really help the situation, German said.

Mr. BRATTON: Well, I can appreciate what the ACLU is trying to say in this case. But if we're to follow that logic to its conclusion, then we would say to the American public, never report anything because it might be perceived as a bias, it might be perceived as a prejudice. And, you know, similar to neighborhood watches that - the concern about racial profiling, for example.

No, I think we're a more mature society than that. And, again, police have a responsibility to work with the community. And while I appreciate the ACLU concerns, I think they can be addressed. They've been certainly addressed over the years with neighborhood watches. And we are going to make sure that all of the actions with police as well as the education components of this are within the constitutional guidelines and frameworks. If anything, we all need to be aligned on the idea of not creating a society where we constantly live in fear, or that, you know, at the moment with the concerns about so much of the terrorist acts seemingly emanating out of certain parts of the world, that all we're looking for is people that seem to come from that part of the world. No, because terrorists can come like all - like criminals - in every size, shape, form, color, sex that there's no one-size-fits-all, if you will, in that capacity.

CONAN: One more question, then we'll get some callers in on the conversation. And by the way, if you'd like to talk with Chief Bratton, 800-989-98255, email us, talk@npr.org. And chief, are you aware of any plots that were foiled because of a citizen tip?

Mr. BRATTON: Over time that - in terms of - we'll be able to divulge some of those. That we, right now, within California, within our, what we call our (unintelligible) center, we are working a number of active investigations that a number of them emanated from a - seemingly unrelated bits of information coming into us. The idea is that to gather this information and hopefully make intelligence out of it, to either get an indication that something is happening or just to disprove our response to a fear that has been generated - so that there are a number of instances in which this has worked.

And probably the most famous out here in California was several years ago when a couple of detectives investigating a series of gas station and 7/11-type store robberies, did a, what they call a rollback warrant on two of the suspects. And in the suspect - one of the suspect's apartments, they found what appeared to be terrorist-related material. And that resulted in one of the most significant terrorism investigations - homegrown terrorists. An imam, basically working out of one of our state prisons, was recruiting followers who upon release were committing these robberies with the intent of raising money to buy weapons and explosives to attack U.S. recruiting stations, military recruiting stations and Jewish places of worship. And the detective, fortunately, had been trained in the equivalent of iWatch which is the SAR system, the Suspicious Activity Reporting system for police officers. So he was mindful that if you see something like this, report it. He reported it. It was investigated by the joint terrorism taskforce and very quickly responded to. And we had hundreds of agents and local police very quickly engaged in a very significant investigation which led to a number of arrests, including the main instigator of the - the leader of this group, a convert to Muslim - to the Muslim religion who was working on one of our state prisons.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Again, our guest is William Bratton, the police chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. Richard(ph) is on the line calling from Tucson.

RICHARD (Caller): Yes. Several years ago, there was a news item that the commentator though was very funny. Somebody had stolen several tons of waste cooking fat from - that had been collected from restaurants. I immediately called the FBI who were very interested because during World War II everyone was encouraged to turn in their waste cooking fat to - so that they could make nitroglycerine for munitions.

CONAN: And…

RICHARD: While this might have seemed like a ridiculous news item, the potential was there for somebody to easily convert this material into a very dangerous substance.

CONAN: Did anything come off it as far you know, Richard?

RICHARD: They didn't call me back. They didn't let me know about it. But they were very interested in it.

CONAN: Okay, Richard. Thanks very much for the call.

RICHARD: Thank you.

Mr. BRATTON: His incident would be somewhat common place because oftentimes we would not be in a position to get back to the caller…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRATTON: …that with the idea that possibly an investigation may have moved forward. So that is a - one of the potential problems, if you will, that we might not be able to get back to the individual as to what did we do with their particular piece of information. We would certainly thank them for taking the time to pass it along. But in many instances, you could understand if an investigation did get underway - would not be in the position to say to individual: Well, thank you. You just uncovered a terrorist plot and we're investigating it now.

It's a - it would not make any good investigatory practices, but what the reporting person might find farther down the line, if a case were made that there might be the need to see about their willingness to be part of the evidence process in the development of the case. So his case is very interesting because I remember reading somewhere along the line about that issue in World War II, one of the benefits of gathering of cooking fats.

CONAN: We're talking with William Bratton of the Los Angeles Police Department about a new program called iWatch. It's been adopted by large police forces from around the country. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from Patrick(ph). As a hobbyist who likes to construct fiberglass armor based on popular video games such as Halo, I'm certain many of my activities would appear suspicious to many bystanders. My friends and I will gather to work on our projects at his apartment complex which happens to be on a college campus. I'm sure the two of us working on the balcony with gas masks to protect us from the resin fumes would raise an eyebrow as well as an alert.

So this is a perfectly innocent activity, and he's afraid he's going to be reported to the police and have somebody knocking down his door.

Mr. BRATTON: Well, it goes back, again, to the neighborhood watch programs that oftentimes that, you know, common senses going to move a day, if you will. From time to time might somebody that has a suspicion, ask the police to check it out, and police knock on the door and check it out. And they find that it is relatively harmless, that, you know, no harm done in the sense that - other than the idea of - in some instances it might not be harmless. There is no absolute, perfect answer here.

The reality is that we're living in very difficult times. Law enforcement officials - both federal, state and local - all need the public's assistance with 700,000 public police, two and a half million security officers, many of whom increasingly are being trained in these types iWatch types of initiatives, and about 40,000 to 50,000 federal agents - that is not enough to deal with, not only the international threat, but the likelihood of homegrown threats.

CONAN: Sure. Let's get Casey(ph) on the line. Casey calling from Oakland.

CASEY (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Casey. You're on the air. Go ahead please.

CASEY: Yeah. I think that this is a prime example of giving up your liberties for safety in which case - there have been quotes saying that if you give up your liberty for safety, you don't deserve either, and I think…

CONAN: What liberties would you be surrendering, Casey?

CASEY: Well, I wonder what the checks and balances are, because, like the gas mask comment previously - what stops then the police from saying, we'll that's not a problem, but this other thing is an issue. And you're just giving them license to all the sudden come into your house with maybe not a warrant. The warrant with wiretapping we've seen has not produced anything but spying on Americans for the most part. It's just…

CONAN: Well, not quite clear on that, but the constitutionality remains to de decided. But anyway, William Bratton, there are many concerns that people have about their privacy, about being, well, you know, about big brother, to tell you the truth.

Mr. BRATTON: And they need to have those concerns, and that's one of the benefits of living in our society, that we have the protection of our laws. We have the protections of our system of government, of a Supreme Court guidance and decisions. That the idea that we would not be able to go into a house without a warrant. When we knock on the door and ask a question, that we received information that was of some concern, certainly. And that is allowed within our system of government, that at all times here, both in the training of our officers and in the practices that we would engage in, it is all to be done within constitutional guidelines that are so much a foundation of our country. And you've mentioned earlier, the ACLU concerns, well, they exist to express those concerns. But those concerns are oftentimes, in a sense, expressed but they are not supported by the constitutional rights that are given to police in this country.

Case in point: ACLU has expressed continuously and fruitlessly, for years, concerns about cameras and public spaces, and the growing use of cameras in public spaces not only publicly, by public agencies, but by literally every 7/11 store you have has cameras that face their parking lots, public parking lots, and in the stores themselves. And there is no expectation of privacy or right to privacy. The Supreme Court has ruled that consistently over the years if the ACLU keeps raising that as a concern. Nothing wrong with raising the concern to make sure anything has being done according to constitutional guidelines. Similarly here, it is a healthy debate for people to express concerns, because it requires the police to respond to those concerns and ensures that we're not operating in a vacuum outside of constitutional guidelines.

This is something that we're not doing in the middle of the night. We're doing it in the bright light of day. We're announcing it publicly. We're seeking to educate the public. We're seeking to generate just what we're doing here. Just having a debate that people can voice their concerns, hopefully have them answered. It's one the great strengths of living in this country. Police don't have the ability to just implement programs that are not going to stand up to constitutional muster.

CONAN: Chief Bratton, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. BRATTON: Thank you. Pleasure being with you.

CONAN: William Bratton is the police chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, president of the Major Cities Chiefs organization. His department developed the iWatch program. You joined us on the phone from his office in Los Angeles.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, Political Junkie Ken Rudin will also be talking with Taylor Branch who met 79 times with President Clinton during his time in office to talk about history, Monica Lewinsky, the war in Kosovo, health care. Be with us. This is NPR News.

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