Why People Don’t Report Suspicious Behavior

Why refuse or rationalize away the call? By J.T. McBride I Guest Commentator Lt. Ed Sanow

targeted mass-shooting or terror-related incident occurs, investigators often discover people who had an awareness of the perpetrator’s intentions or potentially dangerous behavior prior to the attack. Given all of the publicity as- sociated with mass-casualty incidents since 2001, why are people so reluctant to report unusual behavior to the police? There appear to be at least seven primary reasons why citi-


zens don’t report suspicious activity until it is too late to pre- vent an attack. First, some people simply don’t realize that what they have witnessed might be a harbinger of future violence. The behavior captures their attention, registers on their scale of ‘unusual,’ and gets stored in their brains. After pondering whatever it was they saw or heard, they classify it as benign and unworthy of further attention. Once the incident occurs, however, they readily tell reporters and/or the police and often regret their decision to ignore the matter. Second, some citizens live in areas of town where ‘bi-

zarre’ behavior may actually be the norm. For them, the behavior would have to reach fairly high levels of ‘unusu- alness in order for them to make a phone call and report the activity in question. In the third category, we find individu- als who simply can’t afford to get involved with the police, no matter what the reason. People involved in illegal be- havior, wanted by the police, or who hate the police are not going to call 9-1-1 to report suspicious activity. Those in the fourth group are fearful of being labeled a

‘snitch’ by their friends and neighbors. In some cultures, reporting problems to the authorities is simply unaccept- able and anyone who elects to do so would be quickly os- tracized by family, friends, and neighbors. The fi fth group is populated by individuals who refuse because of fear. Some refuse to report to avoid being targeted by a law-

or more than a dozen years, public offi cials have been encouraging American citizens to report suspicious activity to the local police. Yet, when a

suit. Others fear retaliation by those engaged in the suspicious behavior, especially when they are reputed gangsters, terrorists, violent criminals, or ‘street people’ who have earned a reputation for being dangerous. Unfortunately, protection offered by local and state police, in return for cooperation, is only temporary. After the case is over, witnesses are on their own unless an individual can earn his/her way into the federal witness protection program where the likelihood of retaliation is rare. The sixth group of people includes those who refuse to get in-

volved in others’ business or who don’t see any obligation to con- tribute in any way to public safety. I recall one citizen encountered many years ago who exemplifi ed this type of attitude. “It’s not my responsibility. That’s why we pay you cops the big bucks!” Whatever happened to the concepts of moral obligation (duty) and shared responsibility for the common good? Perhaps the so- cial ‘transformation’ we’ve undergone in recent years has killed off some key values worthy of retention? That thought brings us to the last group of people, which includes those who fear being called ‘politically incorrect’ for reporting suspicious behavior on the part of individuals unlike themselves. Terrorist and targeting shooters rely upon these non-re- porting motivations and may understand them better than most of us involved in counter-terrorism, crime preven- tion, and homeland security. We can’t effectively motivate people to report unusual activity unless we better under- stand why they readily ignore appeals to do so. The need to spend more dollars on neuro-psychological research relat- ing to crime, violence, and terrorism has never been more apparent than it has become lately.

Chief J.T. McBride, M.P.A., C.L.E.E., teaches at Lakeland Community College (Ohio), is the co-author of K-PhD School and Campus Shootings Awareness and is a regular contributor to LAW and ORDER. He may be reached at

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“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” — Henry IV, William Shakespeare 6 LAW and ORDER I April 2016

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