“They say…”

Written by Greg Ellifritz

Topics: News and Tactical Advice

  • SumoMe



It was a sunny autumn afternoon. A woman called police to report a “suspicious person” in a city park. Cops arrive and the woman points out this “suspicious” man. He was simply sitting on a park bench enjoying the sunny day. The woman told police that this conduct was suspicious because he was a single man and he should be working at this time of day. Furthermore, there was a girl’s cross country team running in the park. The caller was worried that the single man was “watching the girls run.”


The man hadn’t approached or spoken to any of the girls. He wasn’t following any of them. He wasn’t touching himself while staring at them. He was simply sitting in a city park on a sunny afternoon. Officers explained to the caller that the man wasn’t doing anything suspicious; and certainly not doing anything illegal.


The woman replied: “Better safe than sorry. THEY SAY that you should report suspicious people.”


Another day. Another call. Another “suspicious” person.


The elderly male caller reported a suspicious person moving through several neighbors’ back yards. The only description he provided was that the suspicious person was a black male. Officers arrived and found the man. He was wearing a neon green sweatshirt with the words “METER READER” written on both the front and rear. He had a tablet computer in his hand and was moving from one external gas meter to another through the yards. The caller didn’t bother telling the cops that part of the description.


When police officers told the caller that he had reported the meter reader, the caller said: “He still doesn’t belong here. THEY SAY that you should always call the police whenever you see someone who doesn’t belong.”


One more day. One more call. You guessed it. One more “suspicious” person.


A woman called police to report her neighbor as a possible terrorist. It seems that the man (a Russian immigrant) who lived in the apartment next to the caller for more than two years without incident, had purchased a new vehicle. The man bought a flat bed truck and had a large tank full of water mounted in the back. It seems that he had just started a commercial landscape irrigation company.


The caller told police that she feared that her Russian neighbor was covertly developing a system to spray aerosol bioweapons through the neighborhood. When officers asked if she had seen the neighbor spraying anything, ordering or mixing strange chemicals, or doing anything at all that would support her theory, the woman said:


“No. But he’s Russian and I’ve heard that Russians are terrorists. He barely speaks English. He fits all the profiles of a terrorist. THEY SAY that when you see something, you should say something. I saw something so I called.”


All of these calls were real. All of them involved “suspicious” people who really weren’t doing anything suspicious, let alone illegal. All the callers justified their irrational fears by using the same term : “They say….


My question is “Who exactly is THEY?


Police officers depend on information from the public to successfully capture criminals. The vast majority of our arrests are the direct result of information we receive from crime witnesses. People reporting “suspicious” people, getting descriptions of thieves and robbers, and writing down license plate numbers from fleeing criminals are critical to our success in the law enforcement profession. Without people calling the cops and getting good descriptions of criminals, our arrest rates would be abysmally low. Our residents help us solve crimes every day.


Then we have another class of people who call the police. The “THEY SAY” people. People who are essentially nothing but busybodies, hoping that the police will act on their “suspicions” and harass or detain the folks that are of a different race, ethnicity, or social status from the caller. You know, those people who “don’t belong.” They say that you should always call the police when you see something that doesn’t belong….


“They” are absolutely wrong. You should call the police when you see someone breaking the law. You should call the police when you see someone doing something that puts themselves or others in life threatening danger. You should call the police if you see something truly “suspicious.” And by that, I mean something other than a black man walking through your neighborhood reading gas meters.


The legal standard that cops must abide when detaining a “suspicious” person is the standard of “reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime has occurred or will soon occur.” There are three key points in that phrase:


– “Reasonable.” That means that your suspicions aren’t crazy. That means that another person would likely have the same suspicions. That doesn’t mean that you call the police because “All Russians are terrorists.”

– “Articulable”- That means that you should be able to use words to describe exactly why someone’s behaviors are suspicious. Here’s a hint. If your sole articulable suspicion consists of the words “THEY SAY,” it isn’t enough.

– “Crime”- That means criminal activity. That means breaking a law. That doesn’t mean “sitting on a park bench on a sunny afternoon.”


If you are calling the police and you don’t have reasonable articulable suspicions that a crime is being committed, you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.


You see, every time police have to respond to calls generated by your racist views, your irrational xenophobia, or just your desire to be a busybody, it keeps them from catching the real criminals. Stop it. You are making the crime problem in your neighborhood worse.


As a cop, I want you to call me when you see something truly suspicious. I promise that I’ll show up quickly and check it out. But I can’t do that if half my day is spent checking out “suspicious” meter readers just because they are black and walking through a predominantly white neighborhood.


If you can’t articulate to the police dispatcher exactly why you think a person is “suspicious,” perhaps they really aren’t “suspicious” and don’t require police attention. Think before you call.







*The above words are the opinions of an individual police officer. Nothing written here should be construed as advice given by any police agency or government entity. These writings (and likely everything else on this site) have not been endorsed by my employer or police department. They are the personal views of a single police officer who is trying to better educate folks in the community about how to reduce crime rates.

11 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Gary says:

    Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences. Most of us are insulated from your world. Always great to gain some insight from the Thin Blue Line.

  2. Jay Heathman says:

    Well done. The cops n my area are good guys and will do whatever they can to help when needed. We can help them by using our common sense and just calling when there is a need.

  3. vxxc2014 says:

    The above is all correct, however Sir:

    “They” is in fact at least the Federal Government, the Media, the NYPD.

    >>>”If you see something say something.”

    I don’t have a perfect solution, there never are perfect solutions.

    The fact that so many communities are now groups of strangers doesn’t help, that of course is something far beyond Law Enforcement’s purview.

    Be Safe.

  4. Cotter Sayre says:

    Very similar to calling in a false alarm to a fire station: wasteful of our limited protection resources. And it can also get innocent people tragically killed by some fool with a cell phone lying to the 911 operator:

  5. Nik says:

    Back when i was still a newspaper photographer I came home one day to find a an FBI agent had left his business card wedged into the front door of my house with a “”Call me” message on the card. So I call and the conversation goes something like this:

    FBI: We’re working on a terrorism task force, received a report and need to speak with you.
    Me: Can you tell me what it’s about?
    FBI: We really need to do this in person. Can we come over? We can get there in about an hour?
    Me: Does this have anything to do with my work as a newspaper photographer? Or do I need to contact my attorney?
    FBI: You were seen in the vicinity of a power station, and someone called a tip line.
    Me: OK, let’s meet at the newspaper in an hour.
    FBI: You really want to be questioned at work?
    Me: Yep, because it has to do with work. And if you guys decide to arrest me, I’d much rather there be photos, an article or seven, and all the other publicity I’d probably need to get kicked loose in a hurry. Not to mention, the paper can afford a team of lawyer’s; mine is a solo practitioner.
    FBI: We’ll see you in an hour. Make sure you’re there.

    So I meet them with my editor — by this time I’ve figured out what I was doing “near the power plant” and have printed out a copy of a photo that appeared in the paper, complete with caption, and found a clipping from the page. Turns out that someone saw a tanned male with dark hair and a full beard taking photographs with a lens that was “four feet long” next to a power plant. I was shooting people riding jet skis on the river, as a weather feature — the power plant was roughly 60 degrees away from where I was pointing my camera.

    Once we laid all that out, they thanked us for our time and took off. Those guys spent four hours driving round-trip to and from their field office to chase this down. I still feel bad they needed to waste their time.

  6. Ryan S says:

    How about making non violent “offenses” not a crime and then people won’t think other people doing non violent things are criminals? Before calling the cops, ask yourself “Was I in danger?” “Was anyone else, other than the ‘perp’ in danger?” “Is what the other person is doing violating my rights or property?” If you answered no to any one of these, even if some dude is smoking a doobie on his front porch, promptly close the blinds, go back to your kitchen, make a sammich and MYOB.

  7. .weston.pecos. says:

    I think that much of what you write in your blog posts makes sense.
    And, I understand what you are saying here.

    Respectfully, I can tell you that many of your colleagues in municipal policing are telling the public something very different from what you just posted herein.

    I’ve been to about 6 community meetings in the past two years alone and at every one of them the police officers present have exhorted the citizens to call and report “anything that is even remotely suspicious.” And that has come from street-level cops and from officers including a Captain in charge of the Patrol Division at our local police department. We all can only guess the intent of what others tell us but “they” — our local cops — certainly left “us” with an impression that is very much at odds with what you just posted here, Greg. I sit there and listen and think to myself, “do they REALLY want a ton of phone calls coming in about suspicious people?” Yup. They sure do.

  8. Gary Hickox says:


    Let me start off by saying how much I enjoy your blog and website, and the valuable information and resources you make available to the rest of us. ART is one of the websites I check several times a week, particularly anticipating the free ebooks and “the dump” on Fridays. That said, let me also state that I have been in the field of law enforcement and criminal justice for over 34 years, serving a variety of agencies in a variety of positions ranging from patrol to investigations to training and education (yes, that means I’m still a little “old school” and no, that doesn’t mean I don’t keep up with current trends in tactics or technology). I am a firearms instructor and also teach a class on disguised and concealed weapons. I count people like Marc MacYoung and Rory Miller among my friends (not on Facebook, but in ‘real life.’); this is included not to brag but simply to establish my credentials.

    Unfortunately, regarding this post, I find myself in the position of having to agree to disagree. We have had too many incidents in recent years where mass killings and other crimes were averted by the intervention of someone who ‘saw something and said something’ (even before that was a thing) to discount this out of hand. I am one of those officers who will tell someone to call if something does not look right to them, because I would rather check out a dozen tips that prove to be nothing than have someone not call because they “didn’t want to bother the police” and have that be the incident that turns tragic. I remind them they are generally not trained to make the determination whether something is right or wrong, which is why they should call the professionals (“they” is us) to investigate. Unless you work in a major urban department that is so short-staffed you spend all your time going call-to-call, there is usually no significant drain on resources involved with looking into a report of something “suspicious.” The fact their motives may not always be as pure as we’d like (busybody, racist, lonely, etc.) does not automatically make the tip less credible. As I said, I was trained “old school,” which means the whole ‘protect and serve’ notion is kind of ingrained with me (and really, we spend so much time reacting to things that have already happened isn’t it nice when, once in awhile, we’re actually able to prevent a tragedy?). Sometimes putting someone’s worries to rest by asking a few questions is worth the goodwill it can generate, and Lord knows these days we need all the goodwill we can get.

    Be safe, and please keep up the great work you do.

  9. ferndale says:

    thank you for saying this, greg. i wish sentiments like yours were universal. unfortunately, it seems that there are enough viral stories of police abuse to push a guy to think that plenty of officers take full advantage of these types of “they say” calls, and their own biases, to harass people. again, i wish more officers thought like you. cops should clean up their own ranks. if it’s really a minuscule minority of bad cops, it shouldn’t be that tough.

  10. Paul S says:

    I agree with Gary Hickox, (including his praise of your website).

    As a pharmacist, I have occasion to observe a certain few individuals in society whom have cognitive &/or emotional issues. They often call, sometimes in panic, about something in the news or on the internet or such. They cannot apply basic analysis to every day issues and often are alone (at least at the time of contact). Many could use more, and maybe supervision or support. Such is not the case today and it seems family does not fill the gap as much as in decades past.

    Even more cognitively competent people have the occasional failure to think effectively.

  11. Mike says:

    I agree with some of the comments above, and as a non-LEO sheepdog, I will say that there are some situations that, while not constituting criminal behavior, still merit further scrutiny. To say that the only situation where police should be called is when there is actual criminal activity discounts probably a majority of the intelligence that could be used to foil serious threats. Of course, not everything “suspicious” is related to a criminal plot, but some of it is.

    As “watchers”, or in other words, as people who take it upon themselves to be more vigilant than most, I suppose the answer is, if you notice something that strikes you as odd, you might consider a bit of further observation, in order to confirm or discount your suspicions, prior to involving the authorities. (and I MEAN “observation”, not injecting yourself into the situation) But, if after observation you still feel you are witnessing something unusual, the only logical thing to do is to report it. Otherwise, you are falling into the rationalization trap.

    I’d rather see 1,000 people questioned and released, than have one Paris-style attack perpetrated, for example. My apologies in advance to the innocent.