[Tallahassee, FL] A push continues at both the national and state level to get everyday Floridians to turn over lawbreakers to the proper authorities.
Armed (supposedly) with nothing more than a cell phone and good intentions, citizens of the Sunshine State are being asked to do help the police and investigators do their work.
Call them citizens on patrol.
That governmental nudge even points out there are rewards and official pats on the back for those who go above and beyond merely calling into an anonymous tip line. But is it really a good idea to create an army of overly suspicious suburbanites? Do we really want to live in a snitch state?
Whether driven by budget cuts or a desire to put the state’s criminals behind bars, these campaigns have been launched to get citizens more involved in fighting crime by cutting down the police work load. Catch a terrorist, win a prize! Report your neighbor to keep your taxes low!
In 2011, the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign was launched by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and promoted by Gov. Rick Scott. The campaign continues to resonate on many of the state’s official websites, albeit less prominently than when Gov. Scott said this:
“Today we encourage Floridians and visitors to stay aware and alert, and to contact authorities when you witness something you know is out of place,” Scott said at the program’s launch.
I wonder if Gov. Scott has ever really taken a good hard look at the people of Florida when he is out and about. Despite most people being being well-meaning, law-abiding citizens, good judgment seems to be in short supply these days. Racism and stupidity abound. We watch TV shows starring Kim Kardashian.
Photo: Gov.'s Office
Gov. Scott wants citizens on patrol “to stay aware and alert”
Can the average person really be called upon to decide if behavior is criminal or not? Scary thought isn’t it?
Nevertheless, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Communications Director Gretl Plessinger, the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign is still in full swing.
“In the month of March, we have 21 total billboards being displayed in cities like Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Ocala,” Plessinger told Sunshine Slate. “We have mall displays in Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Tampa and Orlando.”
And that’s not all.
“In addition, the campaign is featured during major Florida sporting events like Daytona 500, NBA Finals and the Grand Prix,” she added. “Public Service announcements continue to run on radio and television stations,” said Plessinger. “We urge citizens to report suspicious behavior and situations.”
Aimed at getting people to do just that, ”If You See Something, Say Something” was originally created by the New York City Transportation Authority in 2002 and has since spread to several states and also gained the support of businesses like Wal-Mart and organizations including the NBA, NFL and the NCAA.
So how is it doing?
“As you know, citizens are urged to call local law enforcement or 1-855-FLA SAFE to report suspicious behavior,” offered Plessinger. “Since the campaign began, the FLA SAFE number is averaging 5 calls per week. Call volumes increase during sporting events.” (note: calls to local law enforcement are not tracked.)
Citizens on patrol: Still from one of the DHS’ commercials
Forget about the watchful eye of Big Brother, it is now your actual brother spying on you. And it is not just the DHS, FDLE or Gov. Scott who is asking Floridians to monitor the activity of others in the state. The state’s Chief Financial Officer is also getting into the act.
In his latest email, Florida CFO Jeff Atwater showboats the citizens on patrol efforts of three individuals who collectively received $25,000 in cash awards for providing information on those breaking the law.
While the announcement was made, the names of the individuals who turned in the criminals were kept secret for obvious reasons. While there weren’t any over-sized, cardboard Publishers Clearing House-style checks being handed out, that didn’t stop Atwater from praising the do-gooders for their personal sacrifice in bringing criminals to justice.
“These individuals had the courage to come forward and report suspected insurance fraud ultimately helping protect their fellow Floridians from this costly crime,” Atwater said. “Without their assistance these fraudsters would still be on the streets, stealing your hard-earned dollars,” said Atwater.
Yes, these mega-excellent citizens helped the Florida Department of Financial Services Division of Insurance Fraud uncover almost $560,000 in fraudulent insurance billings and, yes, they enabled the authorities to make 10 arrests. And yes, the state is better off for it.
And so are the bank accounts of the more than 40 citizens on patrol who have collectively pocketed $275,000 as part of the state’s Anti-Fraud Reward Program.
CFO Jeff Atwater rewarded his citizens on patrol with $275,000
But what is being downplayed in all of this is the potential for harm or even death when a citizen goes beyond merely making an anonymous phone call to report “an unattended backpack or someone trying to break into a secure area,” as suggested by Plessinger and the FDLE.
What if that citizen actually becomes physically involved in fighting crime.
What if, when you see some suspicious activity – you know, someone using a crowbar to pop open a door at the airport - you call the police. But what if, when you call the police, you are standing right next to that someone’s partner in crime, and you just called in the cavalry on their little operation. Now your life is in danger.
People tend to take things too far, it is human nature for many. There are those who eat too much cake and others who drive too recklessly. Then there are those people that get way too involved in situations best left to the properly trained authorities who actually get paid to do that sort of thing.
For example, one citizen who earned a $10,000 cash award from Atwater’s office actually obtained audio and video evidence for investigators, going as far as “taking time from his job and personal life to assist fraud detectives.”
Noble? Indeed. Dangerous? Absolutely.
What if the citizen was caught trying to videotape the fraudsters? What if the fraudsters were part of an organized crime ring that wouldn’t think anything of killing anyone who got in their way? Is that worth your life? Is that worth $10,000? Is that worth saving 15% on your car insurance?
Photo: Michael Melchiorre
Citizens on patrol: Police work is dangerous business, leave it to the pros
There is one family that would easily have paid any amount for their daughter to not have agreed to help in a police investigation.
Rachel Hoffman was a 23-year-old graduate of Florida State University who was pressured into acting as a confidential informant after police found drugs in her apartment. Tragically, she was murdered in 2008 during a drug sting gone bad, leading to allegations that Tallahassee police acted negligently.
Yesterday, Gov. Scott signed a bill authorizing the City of Tallahassee to pay Hoffman’s parents $2.4 million for their loss.
OK, they found drugs in her apartment – does that mean that Hoffman had to now engage in an even riskier activity at the behest of the police, putting herself in harm’s way to do a little police work? She certainly wouldn’t do it again, that is, if she was still alive.
Would you want your family member working undercover, doing the job of the police knowing that his or her life could be on the line? Would you want every citizen nosing around, trying to find some dirt on you – real or imagined – to earn a reward from the state?
There is a reason that the “If See Something, Say Something” drew criticisms from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, who said the program will inevitably result in profiling and spurious tips.
“These ‘turn in your neighbor’ programs produce unreliable information and are little more than a government sponsored invitation to view everyone as a potential criminal and act on racial and ethnic stereotypes,” said Howard Simon, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida, back in 2011.
I guess George Zimmerman didn’t get that memo before he shot Trayvon Martin in Sanford while on neighborhood watch patrol.
“Reporting suspicious behavior can be invaluable to law enforcement, but it’s the job of law enforcement officers or intelligence analysts to investigate and follow-up on leads,” Plessinger told Sunshine Slate. “Citizens should never take unnecessary risks or act in the role of law enforcement.”
An example of what citizens on patrol are supposed to look for
As the Trayvon Martin case has shown, citizens on patrol involved in crime fighting and police work can possibly lead to additional crimes and consequences even more serious than what the citizen’s original effort or involvement was meant to thwart. And all of that legal heat will fall on the citizen, not the state.
Mr. Zimmerman is now facing a huge legal bill and possible jail time for doing the work of the police.
After all, there are stark differences – both legally and societal – between a paid professional officer of the law and, say, your Uncle Bill living down the street keeping an eye on the neighborhood. One is reasonably trained, legally bound and knows the consequences of their actions.
Then there’s Uncle Bill – you know the type, every family has one – with his concealed weapon, always open container and well-known hatred for “Ricans,” “faggots” and “anyone who drives a Prius.” Do you want that guy – or one of the many thousands just like him in this state – deciding who looks suspicious?
Do we really want the George Zimmermans of this country making life and death decisions that reflect on all of us?
And as budgets continue to be slashed and the legal enforcers fewer, the state will continue to lean on its citizens on patrol to pick up the slack left by inadequate staffing of police, regulators and investigators. It is a road we are going down, and the less-government-is-better-types are at the wheel.
I say for a better and safer society, let’s stop this madness and pay a little extra in taxes if need be so that the police work is handled by the properly trained and legally authorized among us. Let’s pick up the ball and run with it, not fire the referee and get someone from out of the bleachers to finish calling the game.
You don’t want to give the whistle to Uncle Bill.
By: Mark Christopher/Sunshine Slate. The News Service of Florida contributed to this story
Lead image: Michael Melchiorre
citizens on patrol