See Something, Say Something | What’s up with that?

Does the CTA’s poster campaign do nothing?
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By Jake Malooley |
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CTA signs advise: if you see something, say something. The something I see most often are those signs. Is the campaign as effective at catching criminals as it is at inspiring paranoia?—B.A., Wicker Park

After September 11, 2001, See Something, Say Something was trademarked by NYC’s MTA and licensed to the Department of Homeland Security for a national campaign. The CTA adopted the poster program in 2003.

“Its effectiveness cannot be measured by the narrow criteria of ‘number of reports received,’ as it’s not designed or intended to have dedicated resources or channels for funneling and tracking reported incidents,” CTA spokesperson Catherine Hosinski says via e-mail. “Although CTA does not measure,” she adds, “we can say that we have had no reports of explosive devices and incendiary materials having been discovered on our system. Also, we have no reason to believe a possible terrorist has been caught.” That’s reassuring.

The answer doesn’t surprise Harvey Molotch, an NYU sociology professor who lays out a case against the MTA’s public-awareness strategy in his recently published Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger (Princeton University Press, $35). “It uses up a lot of police time as they follow up on reports and find nothing,” he tells me. The $250,000 in DHS funds the CTA received for its program, Molotch says, could be better spent on life-saving “strategic agents”: better lighting and ventilation, and wider corridors.

“[See Something] risks the boy who cried wolf,” potentially desensitizing station agents to credible threats, says Noah McClain, an IIT sociology prof and Molotch’s collaborator. (One MTA employee told McClain of a fearful rider who reported powdered-doughnut sugar on the floor of a train car as if it were anthrax.) “Subways have too many people and things that could be considered suspicious,” he says. “Transit systems are dependent on riders to not get overwhelmed at the sight of an unattended McDonald’s bag on the ground. They are universal.”

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