Given people’s reluctance to get involved, you’d think the hard part would be persuading the public to do the right thing.
But the hard part, apparently, is getting someone in authority to pay attention when the public tries to do the right thing.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, citizens across the land have been urged repeatedly, by any number of public officials, to report suspicious activity.
Since 2010, the Department of Homeland Security has been pounding the slogan, “If you see something, say something.”
DHS lays it out this way: “If you see something suspicious taking place, then report that behavior or activity to local law enforcement or, in the case of emergency, call 911.”
Among those who have heeded that advice is Beth Cevasco of Tallmadge. Here’s what happened when she did:
“My husband and I went on a hike at Sand Run Park [in Akron],” she wrote.
“We had just started out when we rounded a corner and encountered a sketchy older guy, half-hidden behind a tree, dressed head-to-toe in camo, wearing a backpack, drinking from a canteen. He also had a bike, which is not allowed on the trails.
“Normally we would walk a little faster, but we just came from hearing President Obama speak at our son’s graduation [at Ohio State] about citizenship and being diligent when we see something abnormal. And with the recent events surrounding the three young women kidnapped in Cleveland, we decided to call the park ranger.
“My husband pulled out his smart phone and found the number for the Summit County Metro Parks rangers. The call went directly to voice mail. So we called the Akron Police Department’s direct line — not 911, because this wasn’t an emergency. The phone rang about 20 times before we finally hung up.
“We visit other big cities and see signs that say if you see something different, report it. We tried.
“How hard would it be to post the rangers’ direct number on some of the 1,000-plus signs that mark the trails? The Boy Scouts could even earn a merit badge by wood-burning it.”
Not necessary, says Nathan Eppink, spokesman for Metro Parks, Serving Summit County.
Eppink says contact numbers are posted in the park’s kiosks and are also available online. The Cevascos’ call might have gone into voice mail if the ranger on duty was involved with another visitor, but it would have been returned promptly, he says.
And, he adds, someone wearing camo in Sand Run Park could have been one of the University of Akron ROTC students who often hike the trails.
Cevasco counters by saying few people arriving for a hike note a phone number in a kiosk. She says her husband, using the number he found online, made three attempts in half an hour, each time getting a recording that led them to believe their call might be returned as late as the following business day.
As for the camo guy: She hasn’t seen many ROTC students in their 50s — especially riding bikes where they’re not supposed to.
Eppink’s turn. He says park-users should program the park’s contact numbers into their phones ahead of time, along with the numbers for the local police and sheriff’s departments. “That takes seconds to do, and you’ll always be prepared, like a Boy Scout.”
He also thinks the aging camo guy, if not an ROTC student, could be an ROTC instructor or a member of the National Guard.
Not sure why somebody like that would be riding a bike illegally, but — whatever.
“It’s not realistic to think we can (or should) add signs and contact numbers everywhere, in multiple places along 125 miles of trails and in 11,500 acres,” Eppink says. “These are natural-area parks. The information is posted in kiosks and readily available.”
The fact remains, though, that if the guy in camo had laid down a big backpack and hustled away, these mainstream park-users would have struggled to promptly reach a ranger or the police.
Part of the problem, of course, is that our definition of “suspicious activity” runs the gamut. Some members of the public figure the only activity worth reporting is a blatant crime in progress. Other folks panic if they see a person of Middle Eastern descent walking down a sidewalk.
(I personally don’t trust anyone who doesn’t watch Modern Family.)
As Eppink notes, “One person may think it’s ‘sketchy,’ but it’s not illegal to dress in camo and go for a hike. Different? Yes, but not illegal.”
In other words, the qualifications for “suspicious” are themselves “sketchy.” We don’t want to return to the McCarthy era, but we don’t want to ignore another attempt to blow up the state Route 82 bridge, inept or otherwise. There’s a lot of territory in between.
When asked whether the type of scene the Cevascos observed rises to the level of a 911 call, Akron police spokesman Lt. Rick Edwards replies:
“If someone calls the non-emergency number and it appears that no one is answering the call in a timely manner, and they feel their issue is urgent, I would suggest they call 911.”
Edwards says the non-emergency lines for police and fire are answered by the same folks who handle 911 calls, so it’s not unusual for those lines to go unanswered for extended periods of time.
Part of the problem is that the national penetration rate for cellphones now stands at 102 percent — more phones than people. As a result, a minor crash on the Akron Expressway can bring a dozen or more calls to Akron police, most of them via 911.
But Edwards doesn’t want people to shy away from calling 911 “if you see something suspicious.”
In other words, you might have a tough call to make even before you place your call.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.