The National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI) encourages law enforcement agencies at the local, state, tribal and regional levels to share suspicious activity reports (SARs) with each other to enhance investigations and analysis.

This landmark initiative gives police the ability to search nationwide suspicious activity for clues – beyond CAD (Computer-Aided Dispatch) and RMS (Records Management Systems) data – to help piece together criminal conspiracies and prevent major crimes.

However, NSI’s recent transfer to DOJ-BJA from ODNI is causing confusion. While NSI is conducting training seminars on the dos and don’ts of the program, the shift in program leadership is creating impediments to the rules of engagement. Many law enforcement executives and chiefs are uncertain about the rules of engagement for SARs, what is permissible in handling these reports and how their agencies can best participate.

For example, many top officials have heard that NSI is targeted to counter-terrorism leads only, must meet requirements for reasonable suspicion and cannot reference unreliable sources. All these assumptions are false, and confusing directives aren’t clarifying these issues.

Another point that gets lost – NSI is not governed by 28CFR23, which contains guidelines for intelligence management system operating policies. There is no real threshold standard for collecting SAR data. NSI allows the sharing of Tips and Leads – even if there is no reasonable suspicion of a specific person or act; the SARs information doesn’t have to be related to counterterrorism issues; and it can tap sources that are perceived as unreliable.

To help agencies make sense of NSI, here are several tips for maximizing the benefits as originally intended by the initiative:

  • Attempt to make your program as true to the original goals of NSI as possible.  Identify suspicious activity, vet it where you can, but most importantly, share SARs. There is no requirement that a SAR translate into a full-blown investigation, and the information doesn’t have to be fully vetted to be shared.  Don’t let that fact inhibit sharing data, which may make sense to someone in another jurisdiction.
  • Participate in federal training and working groups, so that your law enforcement agency’s voice is heard.
  • This goes without saying, but never engage in racial, religious, or ethnic data gathering or profiling of any kind.

Following these guidelines for NSI can position state and local law enforcement to connect the dots, and improve crime fighting and counterterrorism activities.