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Suspicious Activity Is Hard To Pin Down

While at a nearby recreation facility, Burke resident Barbara Schweitzer thought something wasn't right when she saw someone of ethnic origin loitering there, but she was reluctant to contact the police.

"He looked exactly like one of the guys in the paper, but we didn't report it," she said.

Schweitzer had seen the Northern Virginia Regional Commission's Emergency Preparedness Guide, but the section on "reporting suspicious activity" wasn't that clear-cut to her.

To Springfield resident John Sfara, citizens are put in a tough situation when they're asked to report suspicious activity. His friends were in a similar bind.

"A couple of days ago, my friends saw some guy loading stuff in a van, a Middle East guy, but they still didn't call anybody," Sfara said. "They might not be doing anything wrong, but then again, if a bomb blows up the next day, you would feel bad. It's a question of, are they going to report every time they see something out of the ordinary?"

Page seven of the Emergency Preparedness Guide, "Reporting Suspicious Activity," warns against hesitating.

"Many people fail to act because they are not sure if what they are observing is worth reporting. When in doubt, call the police immediately," the guide states.

Dr. Pary Karadaghi, executive director of the Kurdish Human Rights Organization, noted the profiling that's been going on since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"All the people from Iraqi decent have been profiled. Women with head scarfs find it difficult to get jobs, that is not American. It has created a lot of stress," she said. "Suspicious activity could be anything."

Fairfax County Police crime prevention officers Phil Edwards and Sherry Cook encourage neighborhood participation. They work at the Franconia station and interface with Neighborhood Watch groups on a regular basis.

"That's a staple of Neighborhood Watch material," Edwards said. "One of our favorite lines is 'You can't bother the police department too much.'"

"Anything they see that's out of the ordinary," Cook said.

Edwards recalled one incident in which a resident saw two people outside the window in the parking lot late at night and called 911. It turned out to be more than just a case of loitering and led to the officers’ finding a truck full of stolen auto parts. In the end, the suspects were charged with 20 counts connected with that.

"Someone saw them looking into cars," Edwards said.

To some, though, reporting suspicious activity resembles paranoia. Fairfax resident Allison Gallagher got the guide in the mail.

"It's good for people being aware, but you can't be paranoid. You can't live your life like that," she said.

Sfara said that the guide could lead to nosiness, too.

"People are very wary about nosing into other people's business," he said. "They wouldn't want anyone nosing into their stuff."

Fairfax County emergency information officer Cathy Simmons has gotten a good response since the manual came out.

"All the comments I have gotten have been extremely complimentary," she said.

According to Simmons, the manual is available on the Fairfax County Web site (www.fairfaxcounty.gov) in five languages, including Braille.

STEREOTYPING is one concern connected with the vagueness of reporting suspicious activity. With the war going on in Iraq and the 911 suspects of ethnic backgrounds, stereotyping could be a problem. Springfield resident Tyler Hines referred to it as "profiling."

"There's a lot of profiling," Hines said. "They stare at Middle Eastern or Indian people. It's kind of wrong to single someone out."

Hines pointed to the bombing in Oklahoma City as an example. At first, he had heard that the suspect was an Indian person, but "it turned out to be some yokel."

Karadaghi thought it was similar to the period after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

"Some said it felt like the times that the Japanese-Americans went through," she said.

Fairfax County Police public information spokesperson, Officer Jody Donaldson, didn't think the amount of calls increased in recent weeks.

"No more than usual, we get suspicious calls several times a day," he said.

Threat alert level codes can change and there are more police officers on the street since the war with Iraq started. They are working 12-hour shifts, which Donaldson thinks will continue for a while.

"We have gone to our wartime shift that has put more officers on the street," he said.