Defining 'Suspicious Behavior' Without Bias Is Harder Than You Think


Protestor Soren Mcclay, 14, (C) demonstrates outside a Center City Starbucks on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Police arrested two black men who were waiting inside the Center City Starbucks which prompted an apology from the company's CEO. Mark Makela/Getty Images

We live in the age of "If you see something, say something." What started as a public anti-terrorism campaign in the wake of the September 11th attacks has morphed into a state of vigilance for any kind of suspicious behavior.

And sometimes it pays off. In 2016, a day after 29 people were injured in a string of New York City bombings, two men saw a suspicious bag with wires sticking out of it left on a dumpster in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They alerted police, which used robots to disarmed five pipe bombs. Later that night, another 911 call led police to a man sleeping in a tavern doorway, who turned out to be the bomber.

But for every report of suspicious activity that leads to an arrest, there are many others that are, unfortunately, not based on any kind of criminal act, but on bias.

Airline passengers of Arab descent have been pulled from flights or not allowed to board when fellow passengers notified flight attendants of "suspicious behavior" that included reading the news on their phone. Black and Hispanic shoppers are routinely followed by store security personnel or asked to leave if they haven't bought anything (aka shopping while black).

And most recently, Starbucks landed in hot water (not the caffeinated kind) after one of its store managers in Philadelphia called the police on two black men waiting for a friend. The men were handcuffed and escorted from the cafe for behavior — asking to use the bathroom and not buying anything — that witnesses said would never have drawn attention if they were white.

Which made us wonder, if ordinary Americans have been tasked by law enforcement to speak up when they see "something," then what's the definition of "something"? And how can they check our racial or ethnic biases when making mental calculations of who and what is truly suspicious?

What is Suspicious Behavior, Really?

Sergeant Robert Parsons is the public information officer for the Dunwoody Police Department outside Atlanta, Georgia. When he and his fellow police officers talk with community members about reporting suspicious activity, they start with this message: people aren't suspicious; behavior is suspicious.

"Context is really important," says Parsons. "Just because someone's walking down the street and you may not recognize that person, it doesn't mean that they're suspicious."

Instead, the Dunwoody Police and departments nationwide instruct community members to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior that's indicative of actively planning or committing a crime. Sketchy behavior includes:

  • Someone walking down the street looking into multiple car windows and trying the door handles
  • An unknown person trying to forcibly enter a neighbor's house while they're out of town
  • Someone claiming to represent a utility or security company without a uniform or an ID

Parsons says that calls from the community are invaluable, and often the only way to solve crimes like burglaries and car break-ins, but that only goes for tips that identify clearly suspicious behavior. In some cases, he says, it's "undeniable" that bias is a factor.

"We have gotten those calls. 'I don't recognize this person. He doesn't live in this neighborhood.' Unfortunately, it puts the officers in a bad position, because we have to respond to the calls we're given. And we have to stop people," says Parsons. "People rightfully get offended. 'I'm out walking, I'm jogging, I'm not doing anything suspicious.'"

Signs like this are common at airports and train stations in the U.S. But what should the public be really looking for?
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, thinks that the risks involved with police responding to bias-based tips go much farther than people getting offended.

"Black men in particular live under a constant cloud of suspicion and fear," says Shuford, who is black. "I think that endangers our lives, because often those situations escalate into violence and we end up dead."

While a lot of attention over the past few years has been focused on the dangers of biased policing, from controversial stop-and-frisk programs to multiple police shootings of unarmed black men, Shuford believes that biased reporting of suspicious behavior by average citizens is equally troubling.

"These eyewitness accounts of what constitutes suspicious behavior are unreliable precisely because we are a culture that's steeped in racial bias," says Shuford. "Much of it is implicit. Sometimes we don't even know that we're harboring racial bias, but sometimes it's explicit. Either way you look at it, it's dangerous for private citizens to use their concept of suspicion to engage the police."

Checking for Bias When Reporting Suspicious Activity

Bias training is now mandatory at many police academies and police departments nationwide, and Starbucks announced that it will be closing all 8,000 of its U.S. stores on May 29 for an afternoon to educate employees about racial bias. But what about educating the general public? Some would like to see the police take a more active role.

Curtiss Reed, Jr is the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, an organization working to make Vermont an attractive destination for people of color. For the past 15 years, Reed and his group have conducted bias training for state and local police, government officials and business owners.

In Vermont, says Reed, police dispatchers are trained to engage 911 callers who want the cops to come and check out "three black guys standing on the corner." Basically, the dispatcher will simply ask what the guys are doing. If they're not engaged in any suspicious or criminal behavior, the dispatcher will explain that to the caller, decline to send a cruiser and offer to transfer them to a supervisor if they have more questions.

When Reed looks at what happened at the Starbucks in Philadelphia, he sees a missed opportunity for the police to educate community members that "being black is not a criminal offense."

"If I were the officers sent to that Starbucks, I would have asked the manager, 'What criminal behavior were the two black men engaged in?'" says Reed. "I would have asked them, 'Was their behavior any different than any of the other patrons who frequent that Starbucks?' Because ultimately it's the perception of the manager that needs to be changed. And who better than these officers coming in and asking those very questions?"

Dunwoody police officer Parsons says that beyond spreading the message that "people aren't suspicious; behavior is suspicious," the department doesn't provide any public education on the role of bias in community crime reporting, "but it may be something that we do in the future."


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