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Why some Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) can be suspect themselves

Author: Libby Stengel

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-06-12
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Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) has drawn the attention of law enforcement across the nation because of its ability to capture, categorize and catalog important data for analysis of specific patterns of criminal activity as it occurs and during its planning stages.

Determining when non-suspect activity becomes suspect activity can be difficult to ascertain, however.  For example, tourists in big cities take photos of infrastructure – buildings, roads, tunnels and bridges. They’re not necessarily breaking the law.  Usually, no crime is being committed. But how do you determine those engaging in pre-operational surveillance from those interested in great shots for the family album? That’s a big challenge. Nonetheless, officers or other citizens detailing these observations, coupled with data examined by trained analysts, can lead to developing “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity.  

The dynamics between the reporting party of a SAR and the potential suspect can give those trained analysts in-depth understanding and valuable insights.  In particular, SARs from known associates, employers, and anonymous sources should be examined with the utmost care.  These groups could have their own agendas for submitting SARs related to the suspect involved.

As analysts go about their jobs connecting the dots of potential criminal activity, they should keep the following recommendations in mind:

  • Check the background of the reporting party of a SAR in any situation, especially when personal, or frequent, relationships are involved. Everyday relationships consist of a spouse, family member, work colleague or neighbor, among others.  When working up a SAR, analysts searching basic RMS (Records Management Systems)/CAD (Computer-Aided Dispatch) data can glean a lot of information about the types of people with whom potential suspects surround themselves.  Specifically, domestic violence, custody dispute and assault incident reports are rich in information.  Is the relationship reciprocal?  Do both parties participate to an equal extent?  Is it a volatile relationship?  If the reporting party is family or an ex-significant other, then how valid is the data provided? 
  • Proceed with extreme caution when dealing with anonymous sources.  Analysts have their hands full when dealing with anonymous reporting because they do not have anyone to re-contact for more information nor context into the motive and validity of the reporting.  Anonymous reporting can run the scale from objective to biased.  There are many reasons why individuals do not want to be identified as the SAR reporting party, including a desire to avoid police involvement, or the wish to get someone else in trouble, or anxiety about other people in the community finding out about their SAR.
  • Check out employer sources of SARs as you would do in any other situation.  Employers reporting suspicious activity on an employee generally possess greater objectivity than reporting by family or anonymous sources.  Still, an analyst must be cautious of motives.  Are they searching for ways to get rid of a problem employee?  Are they looking to draw suspicion to a person that police involvement would bring?  Following up on a SAR with an employer is imperative to ascertain additional facts about a potential suspect and the validity of the data.

It is imperative that law enforcement officials vet the tips and leads received to confirm their accuracy and validity.  Failure to do so can be harmful to the organization and its credibility.

Keeping these suggestions in mind can help analysts prevent crucial information from falling through the cracks and, even more importantly, prevent the next terrorist plot or crime.

Libby Stengel is a Principal Consultant for SAS.  Stengel is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer with four years of active duty, and has served in Iraq working all levels of intelligence including debrief, interrogation, analysis, and also served as a criminal intelligence trainer.  She can be reached via email here .

For more information on SAS see


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