‘See Something, Say Something’: A Post-9/11 Experiment in Citizen Policing Endures

September 11th and NYPD: The Legacy
In this 20th anniversary series, WNYC/Gothamist is exploring how the September 11th attacks fundamentally changed the NYPD, its approach to policing and the city’s relationship with the nation’s largest municipal police department. For links to all of the stories we’ve published and for more about how WNYC, Gothamist and New York Public Radio is recognizing this anniversary, scroll to the bottom of this story.


The most ubiquitous crime-fighting phrase to emerge in the aftermath of September 11th almost never made it into the American vernacular.

The U.S. Department of Justice rejected it outright. It was only when the MTA launched a public safety campaign that the slogan “If You See Something, Say Something” caught on and spread. Now a version of the campaign is used by more than 300 businesses, agencies and municipalities across the country.  It is also present in at least nine countries, including Australia and Singapore

It’s arguably one of the most ubiquitous anti-crime statements present in modern-day America. There’s even a national If You See Something Say Something Day on September 25. That’s because, according to law enforcement experts, the reminder has been a key tool in the fight against crime in general and terrorism in particular.

The phrase is used so frequently in the post-9/11 world, it’s easy to forget that it was created as a way to prevent a terror attack in the vulnerable subway system.

While the phrase is mostly associated with the MTA, it’s the brainchild of advertising executive Allen Kay. Before 9/11, he was best known for creating a memorable Xerox ad that aired during the 1977 Super Bowl.

After the attacks, Kay said he wanted to help. “I decided to do something that was like, an ounce of prevention.” He came up with “If You See Something, Say Something,” wrote it down on an index card and took it to a meeting with the non-profit Ad Council in October 2001. 

The Ad Council has experience launching national campaigns during previous national emergencies. During WWII, it came up with the “Loose Lips Sink Ships” campaign. It launched ads touting the polio vaccine. And it was behind Smokey the Bear’s phrase “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.”

Hoping to thrust Kay’s post-9/11 phrase into the public consciousness, a representative from the Council took it to the U.S. Department of Justice .

“They turned it down cold,” Kay said.

Kay remembers being told it might scare people and that the government wasn’t ready for an influx of random tips.

It wasn’t until a year later that the MTA, one of Kay’s clients, asked him if he had any thoughts about a new public security campaign. 

That’s when the transit agency officially launched the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, along with a phone number. 

The See Something Say Something poster

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The original “See Something, Say Something” poster

MTA

In 2008, the MTA updated the campaign with new videos and signs. According to its records, in the previous year, 1,944 people called the NYPD because they thought they saw something suspicious. The New York Times found only 109 were related to the subways. And while there were 18 arrests, none were for terrorism. 

A See Something Say Something sign says that 1944 NYers Saw something and Said Something last year

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The campaign hasn’t received uniform praise. Chris Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, points out, the public isn’t well-qualified to identify suspected terrorists or terror plots. 

“It’s opened the door to asking civilians—who bring all their biases to the way they look at people and their behavior — to start calling things into the police, and into law enforcement,” he said. “And, is really very little more than rank-profiling based upon race and ethnicity.”

The NYCLU represented a Columbia University student of Indian descent who sued the NYPD after he was detained and interrogated for taking pictures of trains. “It just perfectly illustrates the biases that surfaced after 9/11, and the tendency of Black and brown people to be singled out as suspicious characters,” Dunn added. 

The case was settled out of court for $15,001 and legal fees, according to the plaintiff Arun Wittia, who spoke to Gothamist afterward. Dunn says there are many others just like it, which he says shows the phrase “If You See Something, Say Something” has done more harm than good.

Then there are the rare attacks that supporters say proves the value of the campaign. In 2010 when Faisal Shahzad parked a van loaded with firecrackers, propane tanks and a pressure cooker in Times Square, police were alerted to the van—not by security cameras or anti-terrorism police, but by two food vendors who spotted the smoking vehicle. 

The crude bombs never detonated. Later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised one of the vendors: “He did what you should do, if you see something, you say something.”

After September 11th, the FBI created the Joint Terrorism Task Force to coordinate local and national law enforcement efforts. Carlos Fernandez was the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York City from 2015 until 2017 until, and he points to numerous cases in which calls to the See Something, Say Something hotline produced useful information.

“That really helped us early on, talking to individuals, having investigations, that we were able to build relationships with these individuals that oftentimes led us to mitigating certain threats that the city was facing at the time,” Fernandez said.

Still, it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of the program. It is inconceivable that the FBI and NYPD were able to chase down every abandoned backpack or respond to every phone call from the public. 

Since “See Something Say Something” launched in 2002, the NYPD says it investigated 42,000 tips. 

“There certainly were a lot of dead ends,” Fernandez said. “The volume was huge, especially in a city the size of New York.”

The campaign hasn’t stopped every attack. In 2017 during the morning commute, a terrorist strapped a pipe bomb to his chest and detonated the bomb in a transit passageway between the Port Authority bus terminal and Times Square. Only a few people suffered injuries and the terrorist, who lived in Brooklyn, was not killed. It was a reminder that New York City remains a target and the vast transit system is hard to completely secure, officials said.

“Thank god the perpetrator didn’t achieve his ultimate goals,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference shortly after the attack. “We can’t say it enough times, when you see something, say something. This is the difference maker, we see it time and again.”

But the city’s use of the slogan on subway ads and other materials wasn’t the only step the city took to prevent another 9/11-sized attack on the transit system. There was a major investment in policing at all levels of government. The NYPD’s budget for intelligence and counterterrorism was $83 million in 2006, the earliest year that records are available. According to the Independent Budget Office, that number ballooned to nearly $350 million in 2020.

John Miller, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism, said the investment in police has been worth it, citing at least seven terror plots aimed for the subway that were prevented.

He said the investment has also proven to be a deterrent. He points to a conversation in 2008 between a top Al-Qaeda leader and Bryant Neal Vinas, an American from Long Island who went to Pakistan to train with Al-Qaeda and later pleaded guilty to aiding the terror group.

After his arrest, Vinas acknowledged that he had advised Al-Qaeda that it should plan an attack on the Long Island Rail Road, rather than the subways.

“He said too much security, too many cameras, too many cops, too many random bag checks and swaps for explosive residue,” Miller recounted. “It’s a high risk environment for the perpetrator.”

A commuter opens his brief case for police officers to examine its contents

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A commuter’s bag is checked at the 42nd Street-Grand Central subway station in 2014

Peter Foley/EPA/Shutterstock

Amid a spike in some crimes in the subway during the pandemic, the MTA installed more security cameras. It currently operates more than 8,000 cameras in its 472 stations. Only about half are monitored in real time. 

Over the past 20 years, another tool has evolved in the arsenal of subway surveillance: social media. The MTA says one of the fastest ways it can respond to an incident is by getting a tweet from an alert straphanger. Tagging a tweet with @NYCTSubway gets the attention of the MTA’s social media watchers. 

So now it may be more relevant to say: If you see something, tweet something.


September 11th Special Coverage
New York Public Radio has extensive programming planned to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. It includes news analysis and coverage on WNYC radio and Gothamist, special live coverage of the memorial on September 11, news coverage in the days leading up to September 11, and music of reflection and commemoration on classical station WQXR. Details follow:

September 11 and NYPD: The Legacy
About this series: Dozens of journalists and engineers in the WNYC newsroom came together to produce this series for Gothamist and WNYC radio. The series, which ends on September 11, explores how the terror attacks 20 years ago fundamentally changed the NYPD. The 20th anniversary comes amid another critical moment in U.S. history: a reckoning over race and policing, here in New York City and across the country. Over the last two decades, the NYPD has undergone a dramatic transformation, growing in capacity, reach, and power. Those changes are evident today in virtually every aspect of policing in New York City — from the department’s enforcement around street protests, to its vast international network, to its presence on mass transit, to its all-round philosophy of public safety.
Day One: NYPD’s history from founding to 9/11
Day Two: How NYPD’s Powers Expanded After 9/11
Day Three: A Legacy of Police Surveillance (Part One and Part Two)
Day Four: See Something, Say Something
Day Five: America’s Mayor and NYPD
Day Six: Living with Trauma: COVID-19 and 9/11
Day Seven: The Sacrifice of Survivors

Live Memorial  Coverage
On September 11, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer will host special live coverage of official memorial ceremonies starting at 8:35 a.m. At 11 a.m., WNYC will air “Blindspot: The Road to 9/11,” a two-hour radio documentary adapted from the nine-part podcast hosted by WNYC’s Jim O Grady.

WQXR
Classical music station WQXR also has special programming planned throughout the day on September 11. The program includes a asegment on John Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning composition “On the Transmigration of Souls,” the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the New York Philharmonic.For other radio news programming planned during the week click here.

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