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Sunday, October 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Profiling evident in citizen reports

By Christine Willmsen
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, law-enforcement officials have encouraged the public to be their eyes and ears and report anything suspicious. What they get is information often colored by prejudices and preconceptions of the lay observer.

The FBI has collected 157 reports of suspicious activity from passengers, ferry workers and other law-enforcement officials. Of those, there were at least 36 citizen reports of suspicious events on the Washington State Ferries, and 26 mentioned the person appeared to be from the Middle East or had dark skin.

The alleged suspicious activities varied from someone talking on a cellphone to taking photographs of the vessel, according to a review of incidents gathered by the FBI since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Such watchfulness smacks of racial profiling, said Barry Steinhardt, technology and liberty-programs director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Law enforcement hasn't defined what activities it considers suspicious, leaving citizens to draw their own conclusions, he said.

"They're turning the average person into a spy," Steinhardt said. "Just because someone has dark skin and is taking photographs doesn't mean he's a terrorist. The government has been encouraging this tendency to act on our impulses and prejudices. The only instructions given are vague and sometimes appeal to ethnic and religious prejudices."

For example, in one report, a passenger on a ferry headed to Sidney, B.C., advised officials of what was perceived to be three Middle Eastern men playing cards in the galley and speaking Arabic.

Still, the public's perception of what a terrorist looks like may be valid considering arrests that have been made and media coverage, said Brian Jenkins, a former adviser to the National Commission on Terrorism and a senior adviser for the RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank.

"We aren't looking for tall men with beards, like the Vikings," he said. "They [terrorist suspects] are associated with the Middle East so it's understandable that people will focus on one aspect of ethnicity, however relevant or irrelevant. ... So the question is, can you exhort people in a useful fashion and involve them in surveillance which has benefits without condoning traces of racism that may come along with that?"

Counterterrorism officials say they are acutely aware of those issues but note they have a duty to investigate instances that might involve terrorism.

"It's the activity, not the person," said Scott Crabtree, the assistant special agent in charge of the Seattle FBI and head of the Seattle Joint Terrorism Task Force. "We have to look at this and say, 'A tourist isn't going to do that.' "
 
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Authorities investigate incidents such as one in January 2003 involving Martin Dronsfield of Brighton, England, who had been visiting Washington state.

A citizen saw a man on the beach videotaping near the Kingston ferry and reported the license-plate number to police. Law-enforcement officials contacted the car's owner, telling her the car and driver had been singled out because it was parked in a dead-end street and had an Arabic bumper sticker.

But that bumper sticker was really a Hebrew phrase signifying peace, said Dronsfield who had been driving his friend's car that day and didn't have a camcorder.

"It points out how scared people are," he said.

Christine Willmsen: 464-3261 or cwillmsen@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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